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A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

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In this lively volume, mathematician John Allen Paulos employs his singular wit to guide us through an unlikely mathematical jungle--the pages of the daily newspaper. From the Senate and sex to celebrities and cults, Paulos takes stories that may not seem to involve math at all and demonstrates how mathematical naivete can put readers at a distinct disadvantage. Whether he's using chaos theory to puncture economic and environmental predictions, applying logic to clarify the hazards of spin doctoring and news compression, or employing arithmetic and common sense to give us a novel perspective on greed and relationships, Paulos never fails to entertain and enlighten.

212 pages, Paperback

First published April 6, 1995

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John Allen Paulos

25 books150 followers

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5 stars
180 (18%)
4 stars
346 (36%)
3 stars
307 (32%)
2 stars
104 (10%)
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19 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 97 reviews
Profile Image for Anna.
89 reviews4 followers
February 26, 2011
A biochemist couldn't quite make it through this book, but close enough...The kind of book that eats like a banana, 3/4 is really the perfect amount, then you get full of it.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,698 reviews1,228 followers
April 11, 2022

A disappointment; most of the chapterette headings were teasers that the associated text never truly followed through on. A book like this is necessary since many (most?) journalists have no training in math, statistics, or probability, and it shows in their articles. What Paulos should have done is focused each chapter on a specific newspaper article, using examples from it of misunderstood math, explaining the misunderstandings. He rarely does this.

However, I learned a few things.

1. If 100 lbs. of potatoes are 99% water, and you leave them outside for a couple days, they are now 98% water. How much do they weigh? 50 lbs.

2. If a 6-foot tall, 200 lb. man were scaled up to 30 feet, his weight would increase to 25,000 lbs. (Because his weight, like his volume, varies with the cube of his height.) But "the supporting cross-sectional area of his thighs would vary only with the square of his height, so the pressure on them would be crushing and the man would collapse. (This is why heavy land animals like elephants and rhinos have such thick legs.)"
Profile Image for Fee.
94 reviews2 followers
January 11, 2012
This book was written in 1996 and there were 5.8 billion people in the world. It is 2012 and now there are 7.8 billion people in the world. This book was cool, because the author went through all the sections of the newspaper starting with the politics which he claims does not really tell you shit about truth upon headlines to get you to buy the paper ending his explanations with sports and entertainment. People get fixated on words like Korupt, strikes, embezzlement, murder. When you divide these events to the amount of people in the world, it is almost impossible for these events to truly effect you. People are fixated on numbers like 10, is why people so often use a top 10 list. People want information and facts quick, a top 10 brings closure quickly. On the other hand of true rarity, he goes into the smushing statistic. Mr. Paulos estimates 12 million people are banging every hour. Well if the world has increased 25% since this quote, today it is 15 million people screwing/per hour. If there are 24 hours in a day, that is 360 million people humping in a day. Question is, how the fuck does he estimate the amount of Fuck? Bottom line, this author tells a little about every section, and how writers try to reel you in with popular words and numbers that magnetize your brain. In closure, he brings a good point of the inability to be 100% on anything you hear or read because of the infinite amount of outcomes occur among the billions in the world while 360 million people don't even have their pants on.
Profile Image for Jose Gaona.
202 reviews13 followers
January 7, 2019
"Un matemático lee el periódico" es una crítica al tratamiento de la información en los periódicos. Pero una crítica que se aleja de las convenciones de esta clase de obras, más centradas en inquirir acerca de las relaciones de poder insertas en los diarios que en abordar otros asuntos. La obra de Paulos, por el contrario, deja a un lado esas cuestiones y ubica la discusión en el campo de batalla matemático, psicológico-cognitivo y filosófico con el fin de disolver las groseras meteduras de pata en el tratamiento de la información que con cierta periodicidad cometen los periodistas en sus noticias. Este enfoque más amplio que el meramente matemático o calculador enriquece la obra. Además, el libro está escrito con un estilo desenfadado y proclive a la retranca. Por ello, "Un matemático lee el periódico" es un excelente ejercicio de divulgación que nos enseña a ser más inquisidores con la información que procesamos cotidianamente en los periódicos. Desgraciadamente, la mayoría de los conceptos presentados ya aparecen en otras de las obras más conocidas del autor. Y al ser un libro escrito hace casi veinticinco años, hay cierta sensación de falta de contexto —cuando no de desorientación— durante la lectura en lo concerniente a las referencias a la actualidad. Esa falta de originalidad y de contexto, con todo, no resultan fatales. El libro de Paulos se disfruta aunque no sepamos quién es ése congresista, aquella activista o en qué consistió aquella explosión de la que nos habla. Y lo hace porque los periodistas siguen cometiendo los mismos errores que entonces. Razón más que suficiente para darle una oportunidad a este libro.

Enlace al resto de la reseña.
197 reviews5 followers
March 20, 2014
When my children were young we would watch nature programs on the television together, and I would teach then to ask "How do they know that?" I taught them to expect that the answer would often be a vivid example of how much science can discover or discern or deduce, even from the scantest of clues and via the most devious paths. I also taught them to expect that sometimes the answer would be "They don't know", or "They're guessing", or even "That's what they want you to think, but it isn't actually true".

I should have liked "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper" more than I did, because it shares the same spirit of enlightened scepticism that I hoped to pass onto my children. Some passages, such as the discussion of voting systems and how they can produce very different election outcomes, were informative, insightful, and challenging. But most of the time I found myself reminded that enlightened scepticism is not the same as self-important curmudgeonly grumpiness.

Is it fair to discount the message of a book because you suspect that you don't like the author? Perhaps not. But if you set this book next to Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" you'll see what I mean.

One final thought: "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper" was published in 1996, so its examples - drawn from contemporary newspapers - are necessarily dated. Sometimes this introduces a fascinating extra dimension, as when the author muses on the extraordinary idea of creating a social graph with a billion people on it. Enter Facebook.
Profile Image for Justin.
701 reviews11 followers
July 27, 2010
This book, as I probably should have realized, is largely comprised of Paulos's vague musings. When he spends more than 2-3 pages on a topic, it gets insightful, but he does that far too seldom. There are plenty of good nuggets here, but the lazy format just doesn't hold up (too many sections of "Hey, here's an idea that I find moderately interesting, but I'm not going to bother digging into it."

I appreciate why it isn't especially math-y, but that limits some of his arguments. Had he dropped a few of the sections ("No one can forecast fashion!") and expanded some of the heavier ones, he could have had a Freakonomics before Freakonomics. It makes me wonder if his actual bestseller Innumeracy is more what I'd have in mind, or just more wandering...
Profile Image for Justin.
46 reviews
December 12, 2010
I enjoyed this book quite a bit, though not as much as I enjoyed Paulos' earlier Innumeracy. He turns phrases beautifully and explains not-so-obvious mathematical phenomena very clearly. (For example, if you go up against a tennis player with whom you win 40 percent of your points, your chances of winning a match are only a paltry .05 percent - yes, one-twentieth of one percent. Sound crazy? The proof is on page 176 of the paperback edition.) My only complaint is that some of Paulos' ideas just aren't fleshed out, and he sometimes notes this himself in the text, which leads me to wonder why he (or his editor) didn't just nix those segments. Overall, though, a very worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Sarah Delacueva.
220 reviews
February 13, 2012
Disappointing. I read a small exerpt from this book in a statistics class once and found it enjoyable. I thought it would be a fun and accessible look at how statistics are misused in the media. Unfortunately, the description fun and accessible does not apply to the book on the whole. Many sections of involved math well beyond my level of undestanding and others just seemed poorly organized to the point that I had no idea what point the author was making at any given time. Too bad.
Profile Image for Mohammad Noroozi.
70 reviews4 followers
January 21, 2022
News is an abusive relationship for me. Since Donald Trump got elected, I’ve stuck with news, hoping that things will get better between us, not willing to admit that news was stringing me along as things got worse. Even more distressing, I've found out by following some niche topics - nuclear negotiations with Iran, and climate change action worldwide - that sometimes News is misleading me. A skeptical feeling towards news has lingered in me. Thankfully, I got gifted a book about a mathemagician who also is in a relationship with news - News gets around that way.

You could really judge this book by the title. It literally is news articles the author has read and a unique take on them based on his background as a professional mathemagician. That said, the title suggests a very math heavy book. I actually found most of the chapters had a decidedly philosophical feel. The math used was light, and it was simple to grasp. Mostly, the book focuses on tools to help our thinking.

“That’s interesting” was what I found myself saying most often as I worked through the book. Take this example from the English language – did you know that ‘the’ is the most used word, followed by ‘of’,’and’, and ‘to’? Maybe you did but did you know ‘of’ is used almost half as often as ‘the’, ‘and’ is used a quarter as often, and ‘to’ is used an eighth as often? It’s true and pattern is described by a math model known as Zipf’s law. Zip’s law also applies to the news – articles about the US president occurs the most often, the economy appears half as often, and so on. Zip’s law is one of a handful of models that Paulos shares with real world examples that fit the theory.

As anyone who’s ever looked at a city from the window of an airplane will know, shifts in perspective can help us appreciate the world as it really is. Paulos’ book didn’t give me an airplane, but he taught me how to draw better maps. When I read the news, shouldn’t I be interested in who the source is? In that case, I should know that half the time, a journalist’s source is a member of government. When I’m concerned about a preservative in my food being a potential carcinogen, shouldn’t I be interested in how likely I am to get cancer anyways? In that case, everyday life is more carcinogenic than most things I could eat at the grocery store. These are bits of wisdom that I’ve picked out, but every chapter in Paulos’ book was an invitation to consider a given example differently.

Critical thinking has always been, well, critical. The pandemic has created a 1000% increase in its criticalness. I read a headline in the local news a while ago that COVID cases had double in Thunder Bay. But what was the number before? If it went from 20 people to 40 people, would I be concerned? If I’m concerned about side effects from the vaccine, what are the risks of the side effects versus the risks of getting COVID? If I am concerned about the number of cases of COVID in my city, should I be as concerned to go to my office job as I would be to go into the grocery store? Paulos’ dresses itself as a heady book about math but instead I found it an invitation to think better. Since finishing this book, I already am.
Profile Image for Drake30.
29 reviews2 followers
October 19, 2018
Este libro busca despertar la curiosidad en los consumidores de los medios de comunicación; muestra cómo la información (estadísticas, promedios, encuestas) aveces es presentada tendenciosamente con el fin de confundir o promocionar determinadas causas.

Es de interés general, aunque las personas más familiarizadas con las matemáticas pueden sacarle más provecho. Después de esta lectura se tiene más atención con la publicidad y sus métodos. Por ejemplo, en el empaque de la sal de Himalaya aparece '250 millones de años de antigüedad' y cuando se le da vuelta se lee: 'vencimiento agosto de 2021'. No creo que Paulos le encuentre sentido a que la sal tenga tanto tiempo en la naturaleza para vencer dos años después de comprada. De este tipo de situaciones es de las que el autor intenta advertirnos.

Profile Image for JP.
1,149 reviews37 followers
May 18, 2013
I really enjoyed this work. The author proves to the reader that math is not about numbers but about thinking and logic. Covering a wide range of general examples, he brings home the concepts of probability, game theory (voting, poltical territory), chaos (economic forecasting, epidemics, markets), non-linearity, logic, and the complexity horizon. He also brings out the finer points regarding interpretation and use of analytical tools: precision (re: recipes), anchoring, checking for reasonability, small sample size, etc. Few of the concepts were new to me, but the presentation is entertaining and some of those concepts are explained better than I have seen. For example, the Central Limit Theorem: "the average of a large bunch of measurements follows a normal bell-shaped curve even if the individual measurements themselves do not."
Profile Image for Boykie.
43 reviews16 followers
June 28, 2019
I struggled with this one.

I don't think it's a case of Mr. Paulos's authorship, but rather a case of my understanding of the concepts.

Regardless, I still did get the feeling this is a book to be read and will definitely be revisiting it at some point.

The one big takeaway I got was that everyday mathematics can be picked up from the daily news, something I shall be paying attention to in future.

One observation, I do believe that to better enjoy this book it would be worth getting up to speed with basic statistics and probability theory.

That's what I shall be doing before revisiting this one.
Profile Image for Pete.
134 reviews
December 25, 2016
A fabulous read - highly recommended

I have to say I really enjoy John Allen Paulo's style of writing. His wry observations and insights are wonderful to behold on paper.

The book is somehow timeless, it is as useful and observant now as it was when written.

An easy recommendation to make.
Profile Image for Nour Sharif.
292 reviews84 followers
March 25, 2020
Dragged a bit on the end but everyone should read this book, especially those who struggle with mathematics and basically anyone who is eligible to vote to put statistics into context. My only problem with it is that the tone of the writer seemed to be very condescending towards the lifestyle section of the newspaper that is often catered to women and entertainment of women.
Profile Image for RAD.
104 reviews10 followers
January 8, 2023
Timeless Truths

John Allen Paulos, a professor of Mathematics at Temple University, has a gift for mathematical storytelling aimed at the layman. The author of numerous award-winning books, he is also the author of dozens of academic papers in math, logic, and probability.

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper is ostensibly only one of the much-awarded books that Paulos has written; I do not know for certain, as this is the only one I’ve read (for the second time). My familiarity with his writings will change in short order.

As anachronistic as the title sounds, this is a book of great value, as the many kernels of (sometimes mathematical, but often more far-reaching) wisdom are not limited by the technology of the time (it was published in 1995). The book is divided into five sections, not dissimilar to a newspaper; each section is then devoted to brief newspaper-like “stories” that describe a critical-thinking truth founded upon varying mathematical foundations. This is necessary due to “the increasing mathematical complexity of our society in its many quantitative, probabilistic, and dynamic facets” (p.3). But Paulos is not dry; he brings a nonmathematical wit and humor to his subject. Consider the three statisticians that went duck hunting: “The first fired and his shot sailed six inches over the duck. Then the second fired and his shot flew six inches below the duck. At this, the third statistician excitedly exclaimed, ‘We got it!’” (p. 4).

Each of the five sections contain from eight to 13 stories. A sample from each section:

Section 1: “D’Amato Agrees Hillary Most Honest Person Clinton Knows: Ambiguity and Nonstandard Models” (p. 42)

Section 2: “Brief Fads Dominate Toy Industry: S-Curves and Novelty” (p. 90)

Section 3: "Special Investigator Says Full Story Not Told: Compressibility and he Complexity Horizon” (p. 120)

Section 4: “FDA Caught Between Opposing Protesters: Statistical Tests and Confidence Intervals” (p. 151)

Section 5: “Garden Club Gala: Incidence Matrices on the Society Pages” (p. 189)

The references to 1990s-era news stories and personalities—not to mention printed newspapers as an information dissemination medium (Paulos acknowledges the 1995 Internet, but hopes for the survival of the newspaper)—do not diminish the masterclass in the mathematical underpinnings of critical thinking and reading. A solid bibliography provides avenues for additional research.

Ultimately, Paulos admonishes the reader to be cognizant of the complexity of the world, and the stories, news and otherwise, that attempt to describe small slivers of it: “In short: Always be smart; seldom be certain” (p. 201). Classics transcend time; and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper is already a classic in the art of judgment and critical thinking.
Profile Image for Remo.
2,279 reviews128 followers
December 3, 2021
Un matemático que no escribe nada mal se sienta con un montón de periódicos y nos va contando dónde suelen estar los fallos más comunes que nos encontramos al leer la prensa.

En tierras patrias, Josu Mezo lleva muchos años haciendo lo mismo, aunque el autor de este libro se centra más en educar el sentido común a la hora de leer cifras. El libro lo desarrolla siguiendo las secciones habituales de un periódico (nacional, internacional, economía, deportes...) y en cada una aprovecha unos cuantos titulares truchos para introducir conceptos matemáticos.
La lectura es interesante y el autor nos da un paseo por muchos temas en muy pocas páginas, permaneciendo en cada tema lo justo para introducirlo y, tal vez, dar un par más de ideas interesantes. Ese sería el único punto de mejora: a mi me habría gustado algo más de detalle en algunos puntos.
Profile Image for Lucia.
24 reviews
June 19, 2019
This wasn't as great as I thought it would be. It's quite dated and is mostly the ramblings of a guy who is vaguely dissatisfied with his newspaper. A lot of it I already teach in my class, that correlation doesn't equal causation, etc.

I did think the following was useful though:
1. That most news stories emanate from other, already popular news stories. There's a bias toward things already reported.
2. Calculating the effectiveness of large armies, even if they aren't very effective.
3. Most people equate doing math to the actual process of solving a problem, which is as stupid as thinking that writing is the process of typing. You have to know what to write, just as you have to know what to type.
Profile Image for Paulo García.
77 reviews
April 11, 2022
Las matemáticas son de vital importancia en el desarrollo de cualquier sociedad pues como indica este autor

...tres ampliar clase de razones para estudiar matemáticas. Solo la primera y más básica es de
orden práctico. Se refiere a las habilidades laborales y a las necesidades de la ciencia y la
tecnología. La segunda afecta a los conocimientos esenciales para la práctica ciudadana
responsable y efectiva. La última clase abarca temas como la curiosidad, la belleza, el ocio y
quizá también la trascendencia y la sabiduría. (p216-217)

Así, el libro busca llamar la atención de las personas para que se cuestionen por el tipo de información que consumen y cómo la matemática puede ayudarles a entender y precisar mejor lo que se les plantea. A su vez, muestra cómo está presente la matemática en lo cotidiano.

El texto se divide en secciones con subapartados breves lo cual facilita su lectura y entendimiento de los planteamientos propuestos por el autor.
Profile Image for Joseph Carrabis.
Author 36 books87 followers
August 29, 2017
I have rarely enjoyed (or laughed out loud as much) a non-fiction book as much as I enjoyed A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. It was enjoyable both due to my background in mathematics and social psychology, and Paulos is a gifted storyteller. The best part is that you don't need any scientific training to appreciate it. A good read.
212 reviews11 followers
August 12, 2018
This book was interesting and fun to read. I was worried it would too dated (a book on current events written before I was born?!?), but Paulos writes more about general principles of things to notice in newspapers that remain relevant.
Some of his points are more insightful than others, but he does provide many cool examples of ways to apply mathematics to the way we read newspapers.
Profile Image for Sarah Rigg.
1,606 reviews17 followers
November 24, 2018
This was written in the mid-90s and the media landscape has changed SO much that some passages of this book read as rather quaint and obsolete. However, his analysis of what goes wrong with statistics, numbers, relative risks and so on in news stories still applies in the age of the internet. I'd love to see him release an updated version of this book for the age of online media.
398 reviews9 followers
July 29, 2020
The title is pre-internet click-bait, but the book delivers. This is an accessible guide to numeracy, a zooming camera view of what mathematics does, how it permeates the world and frames the way people fluent in math interact with the world.

I cherish this book, and recommend it to you, even if you don't think you're the audience for it. You might be surprised.
Profile Image for Milady133.
341 reviews8 followers
February 4, 2021
Interesante, en ocasiones me resultó demasiado ligero en el tema tratado, mientras que en otras necesité más tiempo para asimilar la idea (el álgebra utilizada en el ejemplo no era accesible simplemente con una operación mental, sino que necesitaba papel).
Los ejemplos han envejecido, pero los temas tratados siguen siendo de plena actualidad.
Profile Image for Alex Ashton.
1 review
July 21, 2019
Extremely relevant even today. Easy to read with something else or read a chapter a day because each section is so short. Helps shed light on many of the numbers and ideas we consume in the news daily.
32 reviews
October 11, 2019
DNF. It was probably interesting at some point, but it was written 25 years ago and so much has drastically changed that everything is very outdated. Journalism doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately, which has been replaced with “communications” ie, propaganda.
Profile Image for Anthony Faber.
1,579 reviews4 followers
May 31, 2017
Some of the content is covered in his other books, but he's amusing enough that it's worth reading.
Profile Image for Dave.
695 reviews7 followers
July 7, 2017
A nice collection of short musings by an expert on how not to be misled by popular news sources.
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