Book Review: "Innumeracy" by John Allen Paulos

A Good Introduction and a Light Read

“Innumeracy” is at heart a book on the use, misuse, and abuse of statistics and probability that are made by a (unfortunately) large number of people (this reader included). Paulos has managed to make a quick read that is packed with facts and examples of numerical illiteracy.

It would be easy to call this book a sort of Malcolm Gladwell-lite (though it was written well before Gladwell’s entering into the spotlight). It doesn’t even come near 200 pages (even with the book’s large font) and the insights it describes are not original. However, Paulos does a great job bringing several concepts together in a format that is well suited for the general (and usually math-phobic) audience.

On the downside, if you are already familiar with the Gambler’s Fallacy, Bayesian Theory, and how to calculate the combinations of dice rolls or card hands, you might find the book a little too elementary. I’d recommend giving it a quick read anyway: the book is short enough and bound to have a couple things you didn’t know (Von Neumann’s coin flip trick was a favorite one for me).

The book desperately needs to have drawings and diagrams to illustrate the points it makes. Paulos doesn’t waste much ink with needless fluff. But the constant presentation of text-only descriptions of number and probability that make for a dry, even sometimes tedious, read. (His next book, “Beyond Innumeracy”, is reportedly better although I haven’t personally read it yet.) And it’s hard to remember in what chapter or on what page you read a particular factoid or anecdote. An index or a detailed table of contents with sections listed would have been helpful.

All in all, I would recommend John Allen Paulos’s “Innumeracy” as a fun and informative read to anyone, whether they count mathematics as one of their interests or not. Four out of five stars.

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