How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Jordan Ellenberg

The mathematical concepts taught in schools often give the impression of an uninteresting collection of rules established long ago and are not to be questioned. Math isn’t confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life but rather touches everything we do; it’s shot through the whole world. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how horribly limiting this view is: Math isn’t confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life.

The muddy and chaotic surface of our world is masked by hidden structures that can only be seen via the lens of mathematics. It is a science that has been refined over centuries via hard work and argumentation. We can see through to the underlying meaning of information that we normally take for granted when we are armed with the tools of mathematics: How long before your flight should you plan to arrive at the airport? What exactly does it mean to represent “public opinion”? Why do tall parents have children that are shorter than they are? Who was the true winner of Florida in 2000? And what exactly is the likelihood that you may develop cancer?

How Not to Be Wrong presents the surprising revelations behind all of these questions and many more by employing the mathematician’s method of analyzing life and exposing the hard-won insights of the academic community to the layman in a jargon-free way. These revelations are presented using the mathematical method of analyzing life. Ellenberg follows mathematical threads through a vast range of time and space, from the everyday to the cosmic, encountering, among other things, baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the forthcoming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, and what Facebook can and can’t do.

To equip those not schooled in mathematics with the knowledge they require, Ellenberg draws not only from history but also from the most recent theoretical breakthroughs. Ellenberg describes mathematics as “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, dramatically extending its reach and strength.” [Citation needed] Mathematical reasoning allows for the expansion of one’s cognitive abilities. When you have the tools of mathematics at your disposal, you can understand the world in a deeper and more significant manner. You’ll find the answer in the book How Not to Be Wrong.