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Archive for June 6th, 2020

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy And Its Consequences” (1988©)  —  book review
Today’s book review is for: “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy And Its Consequences“, written by John Allen Paulos.  The book is an overview of what the author believes are some of the symptoms (and solutions) of “innumeracy” (the math equivalent of illiteracy) in America.  Paulos is a Professor of maths at Temple University (or was at the time of the publication).  He is a bit of a math prodigy (at the very least precocious) and is kind of a cross between Richard Feynman, Malcolm Gladwell and Levitt & Dubner.  Feynman – as a teacher – in converting technical (math) concepts into relatable images, Gladwell in writing for “the general public” consumption, and Levitt & Dubner (of “Freakonomics” fame) in both of the above plus quirky examples to illustrate his point.
This book is a quick (fast read) and short (135 pages) overview of some main concepts in math and how they are poorly taught / translated / communicated to the general public and, hence, the general distaste for maths during school and its avoidance post-formal education whenever possible.
Paulos’ proposition is that because maths are poorly taught, the general public grows up with a fear (and avoidance) of math for the rest of lives.  One of his proposals is to take retired advanced math users (mathematicians, engineers, scientists) and have them teach in schools because the current maths teachers aren’t very good (for a number of reasons) – pun intended.
The author also reviews math concepts: scale (big and little), fractions, ratios, statistics, probabilities and pseudo-sciences.  This overview / review is the strength of the book as it reminded me of many of the areas of math I’ve long since forgotten (for lack of use).
So, is this book any good?  Does it make you feel numerate or innumerate?  Does it help with the issue raised (innumeracy)?  Yes.  Both.  And, no, or at least I don’t think so.  Once I could get past the author’s ego / superiority complex, I actually quite enjoyed the book.  It is a fast read and he does use his examples in a clear and sometimes humorous fashion.  The text made me feel numerate.  The work through examples innumerate.  A few of the paragraphs had to be re-read to make sure I followed the explanations for why he was doing a particular calculation.  For example, how many days is a million seconds?  The author says eleven-ish.  So, then how long is a billion seconds?  Again, thirty something years.  Now, the author actually worked out the numbers and provided the answers.  The problem?  Well, for me, the answer is 11(-ish) thousand days.  I would never arbitrarily convert days to years.  Not that I couldn’t; just that I wouldn’t.  Why would I, unless specifically asked?  And, for most purposes, I would have ball-parked it (1,000 days is almost 3 years, times 11 is “about” 33 years).  It would not be entirely accurate, but even then, the author didn’t state he was accounting for leap years in his own calculations.  His point was we “all” know how much a second is.  What we don’t know (have a feeling for) is how big a number is a billion (or a million).  My point is I’m not sure if my reaction means I’m personally numerate or innumerate.  And, finally, simply pointing out a problem isn’t the same as offering a viable solution.  I don’t think placing retired math users in schools is a workable solution.  Teaching (across all of the non-adult years) is an art as much as it is a skill.  Yes, you must be grounded in the material, but you must also be enthusiastic (about the subject and teaching) and relatable.  I’m not convinced there is a vast pool of retired engineers and scientists just dying to teach grammar, middle and high school students (and each group has different requirements).
Final recommendation:  Strong to highly recommended.  As an overview of maths topics for the general public, I think this is a very valuable book.  It is brief and has interesting examples.  It is probably too simple for folks with college level math skills.  It is probably too difficult for the truly innumerate.  But, I think there is a wide, flat(ish) bell shaped curve of folks out there (probably 2 standard deviations on either side of the mean) who would gain from reading this book.  Those below the mean because the writing and examples are clear and can be followed along with.  Those above the curve, because the book will remind you how much you’ve forgotten since leaving school.  I just wish the author had been a bit less patronizing of us non-math prodigies.
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On This Day In:
2019 Don’t Forget: Fire Burns
2018 Especially In The Middle East
2017 A Good Local
2016 Life Unlimited
2015 Still Trying
2014 Destiny, n.
2013 No Apologies
2012 Utterly Convinced
2011 A Key To Effectiveness

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You can be a follower of Muhammad or Jesus or Buddha or whomever.  Always, they said that the most essential factor is to love your neighbor.  And to love you.
    —    Leo Buscaglia
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On This Day In:
2019 Don’t Forget: Fire Burns
2018 Especially In The Middle East
2017 A Good Local
2016 Life Unlimited
2015 Still Trying
2014 Destiny, n.
2013 No Apologies
2012 Utterly Convinced
2011 A Key To Effectiveness

Read Full Post »

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