Book Review: How Not To Be Wrong

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The cover blurb describes this as “the freakonomics of math”. No, not really. Freakonomics was the freakonomics of math. It just happened to be written by an economist. This book is really more about the author’s desire to answer the question “when am I ever going to use this?”

The short answer, never exactly stated outright, but talked around quite a bit, and in a longwinded way in the opening pages, is that if you’re talking about how to solve a quadratic equation or prove two triangles are the same triangle, you’re probably not going to. And that’s not the point, anyway. The point is to open up your brain to ways of thinking that will help you solve real world problems and question things when it’s important to question them.

There are definitely fun bits, demonstrations of how numbers can be manipulated (and actually, he comes back to this point with a lot of different examples, some esoteric, and some very entertaining), how a first past the post voting system doesn’t work with more than two candidates (surprise!), and how people in the relatively recent past have taken advantage of poorly designed lotteries.

But in amongst the fun bits, I’m confused about how and why god keeps coming into things. He doesn’t appear to be taking sides on a mathematical proof for or against god, but the author keeps bringing it up. And suddenly, somewhere past the half way mark, he brings up original sin. Original sin? Seriously? He compares just generally being wrong to the concept of original sin as if it’s a real, concrete thing. At this point, I actually came very close to putting the book down as I’m really not interested in someone mixing religion in with the science I thought I was reading.

The writing itself is a bit variable, sometimes very engaging and readable and sometimes very dry and long-winded with examples that stretch out a little too far.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I come down on the side of liking this book, though I don’t know if the subtitle, “The Power of Mathematical Thinking” is ever realized in the book outside of demonstrated moments when people have taken advantage of that power.

Be well, everyone.

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