Mathematician John Allen Paulos seems to be the nation’s town crier about the dangers to us all of widespread “innumeracy,” as he called math illiteracy in the title of his best-selling 1998 book. New this September from Prometheus Books, Who’s Counting is a collection of original essays and repurposed columns that incorporate some jaw-dropping examples of innumeracy in our 21st century world. My single favorite: A taxi driver blew $100 on a lottery ticket. Sure, he might lose, he explained to Paulos. He also might win. That gave him a 50-50 chance, and it’s better than no chance at all.
Fundamental misunderstandings of probability like that one are of enormous concern to Paulos. Hillary Clinton, for example, was given an 85% probability of winning her 2016 race against Donald Trump. “A sure thing,” Democrats seemed to think, which may be why not terribly many of them bothered to vote that year. The people leading her campaign took comfort in the 85% figure, too; they decided that there was no pressing need for Clinton to put forth full effort in all 50 states. Unfortunately, an 85% probability of winning reflects a 15% chance of losing — and that’s about the same probability as a 7 turning up when a pair of dice are rolled.
Improbable and impossible are not one and the same, Paulos reminds his readers.
Who’s Counting can be a riotously fun read for people who feel comfortable with — or at least interested in — numbers. With luck, fall-out from its impact as the book gets mentioned in reviews and op-eds will be eye-opening for those who aren’t Paulos’ readers. Innumeracy distorts the criminal justice system, economics, investment habits, public health, politics, and religion, and that’s just for starters. Innumeracy fed COVID-19 vaccine resistance. It abetted Pizza Gate hysteria. It keeps the prophecies of Nostradamus alive. And it’s everywhere. It’s treasured. Numbers matter not at all, at least not in the minds of many. Witness a quote in Who’s Counting from a Geometry course description listed on the website of a Baptist school in Texas.
“Students will examine the nature of God as they progress in their understanding of mathematics. Students will understand the absolute consistency of mathematical principles and know that God was the inventor of that consistency. They will see God’s nature revealed in the order and precision. [as] they review foundational concepts while being able to demonstrate geometric thinking and spatial reasoning. The study of the basics of geometry through making interesting conjectures regarding mathematical and real-world patterns will allow the students to understand the absolute consistency of God as seen in the geometric principles he created.“
Math as a tool for life is not mentioned at all. Math knowledge for the sake and even joy of math knowledge? Ditto. By the way, word for word, the school website’s course description for Calculus is nearly identical to that of its description for Geometry. Rose is a rose is a rose, and who cares?
Paulos presents this Baptist school’s disregard for the importance of math as an amusing case, but he doesn’t hide his rage at how a nearly intentional, civilization-wide blindness to the value of math imperils us all. Who’s Counting is not just for math nerds. Its humor, fun, stories, and unwearied explanations count for plenty. [Pun intended.] They offer a potential suit of armor against the programmatic idiocy that Paulos identifies as ballooning in America today.
Who’s Counting: Uniting Numbers and Narratives with Stories from Pop Culture, Puzzles, Politics, and More
John Allen Paulos. Prometheus Books. 226 pages. September 2022.