# How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

### Summary

**The Freakonomics of math**-

**a math-world superstar unveils the hidden beauty and logic of the world and puts its power in our hands**

The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In

*How Not to Be Wrong*, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how terribly limiting this view is: Math isn't confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life, but rather touches everything we do-the whole world is shot through with it.

Math allows us to see the hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of our world. It's a science of not being wrong, hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. Armed with the tools of mathematics, we can see through to the true meaning of information we take for granted: How early should you get to the airport? What does "public opinion" really represent? Why do tall parents have shorter children? Who really won Florida in 2000? And how likely are you, really, to develop cancer?

*How Not to Be Wrong* presents the surprising revelations behind all of these questions and many more, using the mathematician's method of analyzing life and exposing the hard-won insights of the academic community to the layman-minus the jargon. Ellenberg chases mathematical threads through a vast range of time and space, from the everyday to the cosmic, encountering, among other things, baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia's views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, what Facebook can and can't figure out about you, and the existence of God.

Ellenberg pulls from history as well as from the latest theoretical developments to provide those not trained in math with the knowledge they need. Math, as Ellenberg says, is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength." With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. How Not to Be Wrong will show you how.

## Reviews

You can safely ignore this. You don't have to be a math nerd to enjoy and get a great deal out of this book. In fact, it's written for people who are not math fans in any way. You can follow along easily without having to know much more than basic arithmetic.

To say that Ellenberg can teach you what calculus is on a single page is a bit much. But it's kind of true. More importantly, he will show you why calculus is important to know and understand, just to evaluate the world around you. The book addresses statistical analysis more than other areas of math, with many specific examples of how using a proper understanding of stats and probabilities can make your political and health news reading more informative.

This book helps people understand why math isn't for mathematicians. It also answers the age-old question of math class, "When am I ever going to use this stuff?".

Ellenberg also has a nice, breezy style of writing. He makes the subject reachable via his words, not just their content.

Great book. This is probably closer to a 4.5 than 4 stars.

*How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking*starts out by giving a reason why mathematical thinking can be a helpful skill in everyone's life and what math can reveal about improving your chances to win the lottery, understanding different systems to elect a president, and many more. The titles of chapters such as "Everyone is obese", "How much is that in dead Americans?" or "Miss more planes!" show first, that math can be fun, and second, that the intended audience of the book are not math professors but rather everyone.Anticipating readers' feeling towards mathematics, Jordan Ellenberg attempts to answer the most-asked question in math classes first: "So, when am I going to use this?" Ellenberg encourages people to look deeper into things and discover the math in our everyday lives. However, he is very straightforward and also admits that there are aspects of your mathematical education that you might not specifically need anymore. But why should you still learn maths? Ellenberg argues that there is so much more to maths than just adding and subtracting numbers or doing fractions. Math classes improve your way of thinking about many aspects in your life - or at least, math classes should do that. This issue is still debated among math teachers. There are still the ones who prefer the traditional approach of having students practice doing fractions and solving yet another sometimes often slightly math-related problem until they finally discover an algorithm that they can use for a very limited range of problems 'normal' people don't have, anyway. And then there is the more modern approach to teach students the meaning behind what they are doing and to promote critical thinking before mindlessly applying algorithms to problems. This is not to say that students should not learn algorithms anymore. They still should, to my (and Ellenberg's) mind. However, this is just the foundation of what maths is all about. The following quotation sums up Ellenberg's view quite nicely and I couldn't agree more.

*"Working an integral or performing linear regression is something that a computer can do quite effectively. Understanding whether the result makes sense - or deciding whether the method is the right one to use in the first place - requires a guiding human hand. When we teach mathematics we are supposed to be explaning how to be that guide. A math course that fails to do so is essentially training the student to be a very slow, buggy version of Microsoft Excel. And let's be frank: that really is what many of our math courses are doing."*At the same time, Ellenberg admits that not everything can be solved with one hundred percent certainty, even though this is often expected of mathematicians. Sometimes, for example when asked to predict which presidential candidate is going to win a certain state, mathematicians can provide a probability, but not rule out uncertainty entirely. However:

*"Math gives us a way of being unsure in a principled way: not just throwing up our hands and saying 'huh,' but rather making a firm assertion: 'I'm not sure, and this is roughly how not-sure I am.' Or even more: 'I'm unsure, and you should be too.'"*The book also touches upon a topic many of us discuss around here. Are pop fiction and classic literature - literature with a capital 'L', if you may - mutually exclusive? Or framed differently: Is reading pop fiction a waste of time, and is classic literature always worth the time and effort you put in reading? Ellenberg compares this to the phenomenon of how the guys (or women, for that matter) you meet are either handsome and mean or nice and ugly, but never nice and handsome. He says that we do not even look at the mean and ugly ones so they are ruled out anyway. The triangle of acceptable men, then, which he defines as either nice or handsome is naturally only a small portion of all the men you can meet. And the nice and handsome men are an even smaller part of all the men available. Therefore, the chance of meeting a nice and handsome man has to be quite small logically. If you substitute the two axes from 'ugly' to 'handsome' and 'mean' to 'nice' with 'bad' to 'good' and 'classic' to 'popular', you end up with a similar situation for literary works. If you want to look up the whole reasoning, either read the book or look up Berkson's fallacy. Here goes Ellenberg and his answer seems quite intelligent to me:

*"Literary snobbery works the same way. You know how popular novels are terrible? It's because the masses don't appreciate quality. It's because the Great Sphere of Novels, and the only novels you ever hear about are the ones in the Acceptable Triangle, which are either popular or good."*To sum up, I enjoyed reading

*How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking*a lot, not only because I agree with what Ellenberg writes to a large extent. No matter if you are interested in mathematics or not, you will probably find this book quite interesting and will probably (not certainly, of course!) not be sorry about picking it up. 4 stars.

My favorite part was the discussion about genius and hard work. Towards the end of the book. Look for it and regain your inspiration for growing more in the field of mathematics.

**Evaluation:**If you enjoyed

*Freakonomics*or

*The Signal and the Noise*, you should read this book as well. (JAB)