Book: Innumeracy

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
Authors:John Allen Paulos Manufacturer:Hill and Wang Released:18 August, 2001 Rating: C

In this book, John Allen Paulos attempts to present the reasonings behind the Innumeracy problem, and some possible solutions. Unfortunately, this book falls flat on the solutions, and doesn’t examine the reasons as well as I would have liked. It seems riddled with useless information that is only connected to the subject by one thread or another, and doesn’t have a clear goal.

Dr. Paulos’s Innumeracy caught my eye in a book store a while back. Perhaps I expected too much from this book, I expected a sociological look at innumeracy and possibilities for fixing it, maybe a study or two to back up claims made. Unfortunately, I opened this book and received a warning in the preface about skipping over math which I deemed too easy or hard. If I would have followed this advice, I could have finished the book in an hour or so, mostly by flipping pages.

The book starts with introducing the problem: people in this country don’t know how to do math, and in the large part, they don’t care. Sure, most of them know how to add and subtract at least - they need to do that in order to figure out monthly bills and balance their checkbook. These things involve money, so of course the venerable citizen of the capitalist economy will know. Dr. Paulos seems to think that if many more people in the world knew more math, the world would be a better place. I happen to agree, but not for the same reasons.

The main parts of mathematics which people seem to be lacking are in probability, statistics, and estimation. I happen to think that there are some other fields such as geometry and logic that the public isn’t so hot in either, but Dr. Paulos tackles the first three. In his defense, he presents the material in a decently organized manner in each chapter, taking on Gambling and Paranormal activity, in a mannered way. However, I find he used too many examples, as if his book needed more pages and he just couldn’t find something else to work on.

With it’s extensive examples, the book doesn’t seem to be written for my audience - it seems to be written for the innumerate of this world. This worries me because I do not believe that people who are innumerate would be inclined to pick up this book and give it a try. Even given that someone has opened the book, I believe that they would be bored by the examples. No challenge is given to the reader in order to motivate them to improve their numeracy: all answers to examples are given right after they are explained, or left off completely. It is possible that this book would benefit with excercises which are answered in the back of the book.

There are short sections detailing the problem of innumeracy in our society and some suggestions to fix them. Teaching estimation and probability at a grade school seems a bit harsh, but it is something which could be started at a young age. Imagine a teacher with a spinner with three colors asking the class how many times we expect the spinner to land in each area. This is the kind of early probability that is missing from schooling. Of course, this brings up the problem that the teachers need to understand probability as well. So introduces the vicious cycle: teachers don’t know math because they are innumerate, and therefore produce more students who are innumerate. Dr. Paulos suggests roving math experts and professor/teacher swaps in order to stop it, but most of his ideas seem far-fetched, or hard to implement on a large scale.

To the book’s credit, the areas of math which are covered need to be, and all the examples explain the concepts behind math in a manner which any layperson off the street could understand. This book is not for me, though, as it was much too dry. For this reason I give it a C - still good, but not above the average level for interest.