October 25, 2014
Staff Picks: How Not To Be Wrong
“When am I going to use this?” This is the quintessential complaint-cum-question from elementary school students the world over. It is also the introduction to Jordan Ellenberg’s new book dedicated to explaining exactly when and how we can and do use mathematics. In his new book, Ellenberg provides ample demonstration of Carl von Clausewitz’ assertion that mathematics is the extension of common sense. Covering statistics on the future of obesity, predicting terrorist behavior, and of course—the lottery, Ellenberg shows how significant mathematical constructs are when we want to increase the accuracy of our predictions.
How Not To Be Wrong’s five parts lead readers through case after case in which math explains either the success or failure of everyday predictions or operations that many of us come in contact with frequently. Topics such as lotteries, banking and investing are the low hanging fruit, and Ellenberg makes sure to cover plenty of that terrain. But he also gets into “bigger” issues such as tax policies, showing how Reaganomics perverted the Laffer curve for the benefit of an apparently overtaxed class of high earners. Ellenberg examines “regression toward the mean”, citing Sir Francis Galton’s failed Hereditary Genius and the risk of ignoring important external influences on the performance of any specific group.
There is a crucial part of Ellenberg's argument, though it doesn't come until the end of the book. Citing the statistician-turned-celebrity Nate Silver, Ellenberg begins to delineate the important difference between an honest statistical appraisal of a scenario and simple "hedging". In his own words:
Math gives us a way of being unsure in a principled way: not just throwing up our hands and saying "huh", but rather making a firm assertion: "I'm not sure, this is why I'm not sure, and this is roughly how not-sure I am." Or even more: "I'm unsure, and you should be too."Across eighteen chapters, readers are privy to case after case in which our subjects were either wrong or would have been wrong, if not for a careful confluence of both math and everyday smarts. While the cover of this book suggests we are about to be proven how powerful mathematics is in everyday life, we get more than that. We learn how important our existing common sense can be, as long as we temper that sense with the rigors of mathematics.
Michael Jantz oversees “special projects,” a task that corrals any number of imaginable alterations and re-imaginings of the umpteen books 800-CEO-READ so gracefully sells day after day. But never content with the appellations of the common workplace, Michael also now enjoys exploring other avenues of 800-CEO-READ’s enterprise, including reading, writing, design, and lively conversations with those writers whose books the company sells. It is a happy time for Michael, whose love of books and good company has found 800-CEO-READ's office and philosophy to be like nutrient-rich compost to his hungry, burrowing roots.