by John Allen Paulos, Basic Books, 1995
This book seeks to help readers of newspapers (and consumers of news in general) to have a better understanding of the ways that numbers are used and misused in the news media. Most of the actual math presented is simple arithmetic, though naturally higher-level topics such as statistics, probability, differentials and matrix operations are touched upon. The purpose here is not to teach new concepts but rather to remind people to use the math they already know in order to understand better. The structure of the book (see below) does not really lend itself to reading straight through, but is more suited to being browsed idly, say when one has to sit somewhere for a few minutes attending to some basic task. This would be a good gift for a bright high school Senior or college Freshman who is discovering the value of paying attention to the news beyond sports and celebrity scandals. There is much for the news junkie as well, and having a short attention span won't be a barrier. There is a bit of humor here and there, often a mildly amusing joke near the beginning of an article, in a style familiar to anyone who has ever sat in a math class. Most articles also have a point where a concrete example of a concept is given and the reader is asked to think of an extension or variation, with the answer in a footnote on the same page. These features and the book's structure serve to keep it light and well paced.
The book is fairly short, 200 pages in the Anchor Books paperback edition, and is arranged in a way meant to reflect a standard newspaper - first are articles covering numbers and math in national and international news about politics, economics, etc. The second section covers the types of stories that are closer to home - business, local government, and so on. Lifestyle, Science & Medicine, and finally Food & Culture follow in their respective sections. As might be expected the topics in the first sections are 'meatier' than those later in the book, and a few of the articles are a bit forced, since the format requires them, rather than Paulos having anything urgent to communicate about the specific topic covered. A few of the articles intimate Paulos' sociopolitical leanings, but it would be hard to say more than he's somewhat socially liberal with a Libertarian bent (maybe). The focus is kept squarely on the numbers and what they mean and don't mean, the underlying issues are left to themselves for the most part.
There are a couple of good pieces about how different ways of counting votes can lead to different results and how various ways of distributing votes to blocs can easily concentrate power while seeming to give all a say. The article about how context, association, and ordering of news stories affect perception is eye-opening. Attention is given to how economic forecasts either say essentially nothing - "Things will stay the same, until they change" - or they are purely speculative, since slight changes in initial conditions lead to huge differences in outcome. The usual crew of fallacies is covered (A flipped coin has come up heads 6 times in a row, what are the odds that the next throw will be heads?). Particularly satisfying is a quick piece about finding coincidences and linkage between news items, including a gentle debunking of the old Lincoln-Kennedy Connection list via pointing out links between Presidents McKinley and Garfield. Other topics covered include how comparing different populations tends to accentuate the differences at the extremes and downplay the large area of similarity, the S-curve of fads, our desire to see patterns even in the truly random, and the problem of aggregating averages.
Paulos concludes by emphasizing two main points. First, that "besides Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How we need to ask How many? How likely? What fraction?", assess statistical data qualitatively (not just quantitatively), and consider sources and motives. Second, we have to accept that we have 'complexity horizons' (defined in the text) beyond which more than superficial understanding is hopeless, There's an ever-growing flood of information washing over us, and at some point we have to decide and act despite imperfect knowledge. By seeking more than basic education and striving to understand concepts rather than simply latching onto figures floating by we can stand on firmer ground and see to horizons a bit further off.