A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos (1988)

Our innate desire for meaning and pattern can lead us astray… (p.81)

Giving due weight to the fortuitous nature of the world is, I think, a mark of maturity and balance. (p.133)

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who won fame beyond his academic milieu with the publication of this short (134-page) but devastating book thirty years ago, the first of a series of books popularising mathematics in a range of spheres from playing the stock market to humour.

As Paulos explains in the introduction, the world is full of humanities graduates who blow a fuse if you misuse ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, or end a sentence with a dangling participle, but are quite happy to believe and repeat the most hair-raising errors in maths, statistics and probability.

The aim of this book was:

  • to lay out examples of classic maths howlers and correct them
  • to teach readers to be more alert when maths, stats and data need to be used
  • and to provide basic rules in order to understand when innumerate journalists, politicians, tax advisors and other crooks are trying to pull the wool over your eyes, or are just plain wrong

There are five chapters:

  1. Examples and principles
  2. Probability and coincidence
  3. Pseudoscience
  4. Whence innumeracy
  5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

Many common themes emerge:

Don’t personalise, numeratise

One contention of this book is that innumerate people characteristically have a strong tendency to personalise – to be misled by their own experiences, or by the media’s focus on individuals and drama… (p.1)

Powers

The first chapter uses lots of staggering statistics to get the reader used to very big and very small numbers, and how to compute them.

1 million seconds is 11 and a half days. 1 billion seconds is 32 years.

He suggests you come up with personal examples of numbers for each power up to 12 or 13 i.e. meaningful embodiments of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and so on to help you remember and contextualise them in a hurry.

A snail moves at 0.005 miles an hour, Concorde at 2,000 miles per hour. Escape velocity from earth is about 7 miles per second, or 25,000 miles per hour. The mass of the Earth is 5.98 x 1024 kg

Early on he tells us to get used to the nomenclature of ‘powers’ – using 10 to the power 3 or 10³ instead of 1,000, or 10 to negative powers to express numbers below 1. (In fact, right at this early stage I found myself stumbling because one thousand means more to me that 10³ and a thousandth means more than more 10-3 but if you keep at it, it is a trick you can acquire quite quickly.)

The additive principle

He introduces us to basic ideas like the additive principle (aka the rule of sum), which states that if some choice can be made in M different ways and some subsequent choice can be made in N different ways, then there are M x N different ways these choices can be made in succession – which can be applied to combinations of multiple items of clothes, combinations of dishes on a menu, and so on.

Thus the number of results you get from rolling a die is 6. If you roll two dice, you can now get 6 x 6 = 36 possible numbers. Three numbers = 216. If you want to exclude the number you get on the first dice from the second one, the chances of rolling two different numbers on two dice is 6 x 5, of rolling different numbers on three dice is 6 x 5 x 4, and so on.

Thus: Baskin Robbins advertises 31 different flavours of ice cream. Say you want a triple scoop cone. If you’re happy to have any combination of flavours, including where any 2 or 3 flavours are the same – that’s 31 x 31 x 31 = 29,791. But if you ask how many combinations of flavours there are, without a repetition of the same flavour in any of the cones – that is 31 x 30 x 29 = 26,970 ways of combining.

Probability

I struggled with even the basics of probability. I understand a 1 in five chance of something happening, reasonably understand a 20% chance of something happening, but struggled when probability was expressed as a decimal number e.g. 0.2 as a way of writing a 20 percent or 1 in 5 chance.

With the result that he lost me on page 16 on or about the place where he explained the following example.

Apparently a noted 17th century gambler asked the famous mathematician Pascal which is more likely to occur: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice. Here’s the solution:

Since 5/6 is the probability of not rolling a 6 on a single roll of a die, (5/6)is the probability of not rolling a 6 in four rolls of the die. Subtracting this number from 1 gives us the probability that this latter event (no 6s) doesn’t occur; in other words, of there being at least one 6 rolled in four tries: 1 – (5/6)= .52. Likewise, the probability of rolling at least one 12 in twenty-four rolls of a pair of dice is seen to be 1 – (35/36)24 = .49.

a) He loses me in the second sentence which I’ve read half a dozen times and still don’t understand – it’s where he says the chances that this latter event doesn’t occur: something about the phrasing there, about the double negative, loses me completely, with the result that b) I have no idea whether .52 is more likely or less likely than .49.

He goes on to give another example: if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?

The probability that the first three drinks overflow and the next seven do not is (.2)x (.8)7. But there are many different ways for exactly three of the ten cups to overflow, each way having probability (.2)x (.8)7. It may be that only the last three cups overflow, or only the fourth, fifth and ninth cups, and so on. Thus, since there are altogether (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) = 120 ways for us to pick three out of the ten cups, the probability of some collection of exactly three cups overflowing is 120 x (.2)x (.8)7.

I didn’t understand the need for the (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) equation – I didn’t understand what it was doing, and so didn’t understand what it was measuring, and so didn’t understand the final equation. I didn’t really have a clue what was going on.

In fact, by page 20, he’d done such a good job of bamboozling me with examples like this that I sadly concluded that I must be innumerate.

More than that, I appear to have ‘maths anxiety’ because I began to feel physically unwell as I read that problem paragraph again and again and again and didn’t understand it. I began to feel a tightening of my chest and a choking sensation in my throat. Rereading it now is making it feel like someone is trying to strangle me.

Maybe people don’t like maths because being forced to confront something you don’t understand, but which everyone around you is saying is easy-peasy, makes you feel ill.

2. Probability and coincidence

Having more or less given up on trying to understand Paulos’s maths demonstrations in the first twenty pages, I can at least latch on to his verbal explanations of what he’s driving at, in sentences like these:

A tendency to drastically underestimate the frequency of coincidences is a prime characteristic of innumerates, who generally accord great significance to correspondences of all sorts while attributing too little significance to quite conclusive but less flashy statistical evidence. (p.22)

It would be very unlikely for unlikely events not to occur. (p.24)

There is a strong general tendency to filter out the bad and the failed and to focus on the good and the successful. (p.29)

Belief in the… significance of coincidences is a psychological remnant of our past. It constitutes a kind of psychological illusion to which innumerate people are particularly prone. (p.82)

Slot machines light up and make a racket when people win, there is unnoticed silence for all the failures. Big winners on the lottery are widely publicised, whereas every one of the tens of millions of failures is not.

One result is ‘Golden Age’ thinking when people denigrate today’s sports or arts or political figures, by comparison with one or two super-notable figures from the vast past, Churchill or Shakespeare or Michelangelo, obviously neglecting the fact that there were millions of also-rans and losers in their time as well as ours.

The Expected value of a quality is the average of its values weighted according to their probabilities. I understood these words but I didn’t understand any of the five examples he gave.

The likelihood of probability In many situations, improbability is to be expected. The probability of being dealt a particular hand of 13 cards in bridge is less than 1 in 600 billion. And yet it happens every time someone is dealt a hand in bridge. The improbable can happen. In fact it happens all the time.

The gambler’s fallacy The belief that, because a tossed coin has come up tails for a number of tosses in a row, it becomes steadily more likely that the next toss will be a head.

3. Pseudoscience

Paulos rips into Freudianism and Marxism for the way they can explain away any result counter to their ‘theories’. The patient gets better due to therapy: therapy works. The patient doesn’t get better during therapy, well the patient was resisting, projecting their neuroses on the therapist, any of hundreds of excuses.

But this is just warming up before he rips into a real bugbear of  his, the wrong-headedness of Parapsychology, the Paranormal, Predictive dreams, Astrology, UFOs, Pseudoscience and so on.

As with predictive dreams, winning the lottery or miracle cures, many of these practices continue to flourish because it’s the handful of successes which stand out and grab our attention and not the thousands of negatives.

Probability

As Paulos steams on with examples from tossing coins, rolling dice, playing roulette, or poker, or blackjack, I realise all of them are to do with probability or conditional probability, none of which I understand.

This is why I have never gambled on anything, and can’t play poker. When he explains precisely how accumulating probabilities can help you win at blackjack in a casino, I switch off. I’ve never been to a casino. I don’t play blackjack. I have no intention of ever playing blackjack.

When he says that probability theory began with gambling problems in the seventeenth century, I think, well since I don’t gamble at all, on anything, maybe that’s why so much of this book is gibberish to me.

Medical testing and screening

Apart from gambling the two most ‘real world’ areas where probability is important appear to be medicine and risk and safety assessment. Here’s an extended example he gives of how even doctors make mistakes in the odds.

Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be? The surprising answer is that you should be cautiously optimistic. To find out why, let’s look at the conditional probability of your having cancer, given that you’ve tested positive.

Imagine that 10,000 tests for cancer are administered. Of these, how many are positive? On the average, 50 of these 10,000 people (.5 percent of 10,000) will have cancer, and, so, since 98 percent of them will test positive, we will have 49 positive tests. Of the 9,950 cancerless people, 2 percent of them will test positive, for a total of 199 positive tests (.02 x 9,950 = 199). Thus, of the total of 248 positive tests (199 + 49 = 248), most (199) are false positives, and so the conditional probability of having cancer given that one tests positive is only 49/248, or about 20 percent! (p.64)

I struggled to understand this explanation. I read it four or five times, controlling my sense of panic and did, eventually, I think, follow the argumen.

However, worse in a way, when I think I did finally understand it, I realised I just didn’t care. It’s not just that the examples he gives are hard to follow. It’s that they’re hard to care about.

Whereas his descriptions of human psychology and cognitive errors in human thinking are crystal clear and easy to assimilate:

If we have no direct evidence of theoretical support for a story, we find that detail and vividness vary inversely with likelihood; the more vivid details there are to a story, the less likely the story is to be true. (p.84)

4. Whence innumeracy?

It came as a vast relief when Paulos stopped trying to explain probability and switched to a long chapter puzzling over why innumeracy is so widespread in society, which kicks off by criticising the poor level of teaching of maths in school and university.

This was like the kind of hand-wringing newspaper article you can read any day of the week in a newspaper or online, and so felt reassuringly familiar and easy to assimilate. I stopped feeling so panic-stricken.

This puzzling over the disappointing level of innumeracy goes on for quite a while. Eventually it ends with a digression about what appears to be a pet idea of his: the notion of introducing a safety index for activities and illnesses.

Paulos’s suggestion is that his safety index would be on a logarithmic scale, like the Richter Scale – so straightaway he has to explain what a logarithm is: The logarithm for 100 is 2 because 100 is 102, the logarithm for 1,000 is 3 because 1,000 is 103. I’m with him so far, as he goes on to explain that the logarithm of 700 i.e. between 2 (100) and 3 (1,000) is 2.8. Since 1 in 5,300 Americans die in a car crash each year, the safety index for driving would be 3.7, the logarithm of 5,300. And so on with numerous more examples, whose relative risks or dangers he reduces to figures like 4.3 and 7.1.

I did understand his aim and the maths of this. I just thought it was bonkers:

1. What is the point of introducing a universal index which you would have to explain every time anyone wanted to use it? Either it is designed to be usable by the widest possible number of citizens; or it is a neat exercise on maths to please other mathematicians and statisticians.

2. And here’s the bigger objection – What Paulos, like most of the university-educated, white, liberal intellectuals I read in papers, magazines and books, fails to take into account is that a large proportion of the population is thick.

Up to a fifth of the adult population of the UK is functionally innumerate, that means they don’t know what a ‘25% off’ sign means on a shop window. For me an actual social catastrophe being brought about by this attitude is the introduction of Universal Credit by the Conservative government which, from top to bottom, is designed by middle-class, highly educated people who’ve all got internet accounts and countless apps on their smartphones, and who have shown a breath-taking ignorance about what life is like for the poor, sick, disabled, illiterate and innumerate people who are precisely the people the system is targeted at.

Same with Paulos’s scheme. Smoking is one of the most dangerous and stupid things which any human can do. Packs of cigarettes have for years, now, carried pictures of disgusting cancerous growths and the words SMOKING KILLS. And yet despite this, about a fifth of adults, getting on for 10 million people, still smoke. 🙂

Do you really think that introducing a system using ornate logarithms will get people to make rational assessments of the risks of common activities and habits?

Paulos then goes on to complicate the idea by suggesting that, since the media is always more interested in danger than safety, maybe it would be more effective, instead of creating a safety index, to create a danger index.

You would do this by

  1. working out the risk of an activity (i.e. number of deaths or accidents per person doing the activity)
  2. converting that into a logarithmic value (just to make sure than nobody understands it) and then
  3. subtracting the logarithmic value of the safety index from 10, in order to create a danger index

He goes on to say that driving a car and smoking would have ‘danger indices’ of 3.7 and 2.9, respectively. The trouble was that by this point I had completely ceased to understand what he’s saying. I felt like I’ve stepped off the edge of a tall building into thin air. I began to have that familiar choking sensation, as if someone was squeezing my chest. Maths anxiety.

Under this system being kidnapped would have a safety index of 6.7. Playing Russian roulette once a year would have a safety index of 0.8.

It is symptomatic of the uselessness of the whole idea that Paulos has to remind you what the values mean (‘Remember that the bigger the number, the smaller the risk.’ Really? You expect people to run with this idea?)

Having completed the danger index idea, Paulos returns to his extended lament on why people don’t like maths. He gives a long list of reasons why he thinks people are so innumerate a condition which is, for him, a puzzling mystery.

For me this lament is a classic example of what you could call intellectual out-of-touchness. He is genuinely puzzled why so many of his fellow citizens are innumerate, can’t calculate simple odds and fall for all sorts of paranormal, astrology, snake-oil blether.

He proposes typically academic, university-level explanations for this phenomenon – such as that people find maths too cold and analytical and worry that it prevents them thinking about the big philosophical questions in life. He worries that maths has an image problem.

In other words, he fails to consider the much more obvious explanation that maths, probability and numeracy in general might be a combination of fanciful, irrelevant and deeply, deeply boring.

I use the word ‘fanciful’ deliberately. When he writes that the probability of drawing two aces in succession from a pack of cards is not (4/52 x 4/52) but (4/52 x 3/51) I do actually understand the distinction he’s making (having drawn one ace there are only 3 left and only 52 cards left) – I just couldn’t care less. I really couldn’t care less.

Or take this paragraph:

Several years ago Pete Rose set a National League record by hitting safely in forty-four consecutive games. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that he batted .300 (30 percent of the time he got a hit, 70 percent of the time he didn’t) and that he came to bat four times a game, the chances of his not getting a hit in any given game were, assuming independence, (.7)4 – .24… [at this point Paulos has to explain what ‘independence’ means in a baseball context: I couldn’t care less]… So the probability he would get at least one hit in any game was 1-.24 = .76. Thus, the chances of him getting a hit in any given sequence of forty-four consecutive games were (.76)44 = .0000057, a tiny probability indeed. (p.44)

I did, in fact, understand the maths and the working out in this example. I just don’t care about the problem or the result.

For me this is a – maybe the – major flaw of this book. This is that in the blurbs on the front and back, in the introduction and all the way through the text, Paulos goes on and on about how we as a society need to be mathematically numerate because maths (and particularly probability) impinges on so many areas of our life.

But when he tries to show this – when he gets the opportunity to show us what all these areas of our lives actually are – he completely fails.

Almost all of the examples in the book are not taken from everyday life, they are remote and abstruse problems of gambling or sports statistics.

  • which is more likely: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice?
  • if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?
  • Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be?
  • What are the odds on Pete Rose getting a hit in a sequence of forty-four games?

Are these the kinds of problems you are going to encounter today? Or tomorrow? Or ever?

No. The longer the book went on, the more I realised just how little a role maths plays in my everyday life. In fact more or less the only role maths plays in my life is looking at the prices in supermarkets, where I am attracted to goods which have a temporary reduction on them. But I do that because they’re labels are coloured red, not because I calculate the savings. Being aware of the time, so I know when to do household chores or be somewhere punctually. Those are the only times I used numbers today.

5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

This feeling that the abstruseness of the examples utterly contradicts the bold claims that reading the book will help us with everyday experiences was confirmed in the final chapter, which begins with the following example.

Imagine four dice, A, B, C and D, strangely numbered as follows: A has 4 on four faces and 0 on two faces; B has 3s on all six faces; C has four faces with 2 and two faces with 6; and D has 5 on three faces and 1 on three faces…

I struggled to the end of this sentence and just thought: ‘No, no more, I don’t have to make myself feel sick and unhappy any more’ – and skipped the couple of pages detailing the fascinating and unexpected results you can get from rolling such a collection of dice.

This chapter goes on to a passage about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a well-known problem in logic, which I have read about and instantly forgotten scores of times over the years.

Paulos gives us three or four variations on the idea, including:

  • Imagine you are locked up in prison by a philanthropist with 20 other people.

Or:

  • Imagine you are locked in a dungeon by a sadist with 20 other people.

Or:

  • Imagine you are one of two drug traffickers making a quick transaction on a street corner and forced to make a quick decision.

Or:

  • Imagine you are locked in a prison cell, and another prisoner is locked in an identical cell down the corridor.

Well, I’m not any of these things, I’m never likely to be, and I am not really interested in these fanciful speculations.

Moreover, I am well into middle age, have travelled round the world, had all sorts of jobs in companies small, large and enormous – and I am not aware of having ever been in any situation which remotely resembled any variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma I’ve ever heard of.

In other words, to me, it is another one of the endless pile of games and puzzles which logicians and mathematicians love to spend all day playing but which have absolutely no impact whatsoever on any aspect of my life.

Pretty much all of his examples conclusively prove how remote mathematical problems and probabilistic calculation is from the everyday lives you and I lead. When he asks:

How many people would there have to be in a group in order for the probability to be half that at least two people in it have the same birthday? (p.23)

Imagine a factory which produces small batteries for toys, and assume the factory is run by a sadistic engineer… (p.117)

It dawns on me that my problem might not be that I’m innumerate, so much as I’m just uninterested in trivial or frivolous mental exercises.

Someone offers you a choice of two envelopes and tells you one has twice as much money in it as the other. (p.127)

Flip a coin continuously until a tail appears for the first time. If this doesn’t happen until the twentieth (or later) flip, you win $1 billion. If the first tail occurs before the twentieth flip, you pay $100. Would you play? (p.128)

No. I’d go and read an interesting book.

Thoughts

If Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences is meant to make its readers more numerate, it failed with me.

This is for a number of reasons:

  1. crucially – because he doesn’t explain maths very well; or, the way he explained probability had lost me by about page 16 – in other words, if this is meant to be a primer for innumerate people it’s a fail
  2. because the longer it goes on, the more convinced I became that I rarely use maths, arithmetic and probability in my day today life: whole days go by when I don’t do a single sum, and so lost all motivation to submit myself to the brain-hurting ordeal of trying to understand his examples

3. Also because the structure and presentation of the book is a mess. The book meanders through a fog of jokes, anecdotes and maths trivia, baseball stories and gossip about American politicians – before suddenly unleashing a fundamental aspect of probability theory on the unwary reader.

I’d have preferred the book to have had a clear, didactic structure, with an introduction and chapter headings explaining just what he was going to do, an explanation, say, of how he was going to take us through some basic concepts of probability one step at a time.

And then for the concepts to have been laid out very clearly and explained very clearly, from a number of angles, giving a variety of different examples until he and we were absolutely confident we’d got it – before we moved on to the next level of complexity.

The book is nothing like this. Instead it sacrifices any attempt at logical sequencing or clarity for anecdotes about Elvis Presley or UFOs, for digressions about Biblical numerology, the silliness of astrology, the long and bewildering digression about introducing a safety index for activities (summarised above), or prolonged analyses of baseball or basketball statistics. Oh, and a steady drizzle of terrible jokes.

Which two sports have face-offs?
Ice hockey and leper boxing.

Half way through the book, Paulos tells us that he struggles to write long texts (‘I have a difficult time writing at extended length about anything’, p.88), and I think it really shows.

It certainly explains why:

  • the blizzard of problems in coin tossing and dice rolling stopped without any warning, as he switched tone copletely, giving us first a long chapter about all the crazy irrational beliefs people hold, and then another chapter listing all the reasons why society is innumerate
  • the last ten pages of the book give up the attempt of trying to be a coherent narrative and disintegrate into a bunch of miscellaneous odds and ends he couldn’t find a place for in the main body of the text

Also, I found that the book was not about numeracy in the broadest sense, but mostly about probability. Again and again he reverted to examples of tossing coins and rolling dice. One enduring effect of reading this book is going to be that, the next time I read a description of someone tossing a coin or rolling a die, I’m just going to skip right over the passage, knowing that if I read it I’ll either be bored to death (if I understand it) or have an unpleasant panic attack (if I don’t).

In fact in the coda at the end of the book Paulos explicitly says it has mostly been about probability – God, I wish he’d explained that at the beginning.

Right at the very, very end he briefly lists key aspects of probability theory which he claims to have explained in the book – but he hasn’t, some of them are only briefly referred to with no explanation at all, including: statistical tests and confidence intervals, cause and correlation, conditional probability, independence, the multiplication principle, the notion of expected value and of probability distribution.

These are now names I have at least read about, but they are all concepts I am nowhere near understanding, and light years away from being able to use in practical life.

Innumeracy – or illogicality?

Also there was an odd disconnect between the broadly psychological and philosophical prose explanations of what makes people so irrational, and the incredibly narrow scope of the coin-tossing, baseball-scoring examples.

What I’m driving at is that, in the long central chapter on Pseudoscience, when he stopped to explain what makes people so credulous, so gullible, he didn’t really use any mathematical examples to disprove Freudianism or astrology or so on: he had to appeal to broad principles of psychology, such as:

  • people are drawn to notable exceptions, instead of considering the entire field of entities i.e.
  • people filter out the bad and the failed and focus on the good and the successful
  • people seize hold of the first available explanation, instead of considering every single possible permutation
  • people humanise and personalise events (‘bloody weather, bloody buses’)
  • people over-value coincidences

My point is that there is a fundamental conceptual confusion in the book which is revealed in the long chapter about pseudoscience which is that his complaint is not, deep down, right at bottom, that people are innumerate; it is that people are hopelessly irrational and illogical.

Now this subject – the fundamental ways in which people are irrational and illogical – is dealt with much better, at much greater length, in a much more thorough, structured and comprehensible way in Stuart Sutherland’s great book, Irrationality, which I’ll be reviewing and summarising later this week.

Innumeracy amounts to random scratches on the surface of the vast iceberg which is the deep human inability to think logically.

Conclusion

In summary, for me at any rate, this was not a good book – badly structured, meandering in direction, unable to explain even basic concepts but packed with digressions, hobby horses and cul-de-sacs, unsure of its real purpose, stopping for a long rant against pseudosciences and an even longer lament on why maths is taught so badly  – it’s a weird curate’s egg of a text.

Its one positive effect was to make me want to track down and read a good book about probability.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)
%d bloggers like this: