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Publisher's Summary

The Freakonomics of math - a math-world superstar unveils the hidden beauty and logic of the world and puts its power in our hands.

The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how terribly limiting this view is: Math isn’t confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life, but rather touches everything we do—the whole world is shot through with it.

Math allows us to see the hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of our world. It’s a science of not being wrong, hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. Armed with the tools of mathematics, we can see through to the true meaning of information we take for granted: How early should you get to the airport? What does “public opinion” really represent? Why do tall parents have shorter children? Who really won Florida in 2000? And how likely are you, really, to develop cancer?

How Not to Be Wrong presents the surprising revelations behind all of these questions and many more, using the mathematician’s method of analyzing life and exposing the hard-won insights of the academic community to the layman—minus the jargon. Ellenberg chases 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 coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, what Facebook can and can’t figure out about you, and the existence of God.

Ellenberg pulls from history as well as from the latest theoretical developments to provide those not trained in math with the knowledge they need. Math, as Ellenberg says, is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. How Not to Be Wrong will show you how.

©2014 Jordan Ellenberg (P)2014 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"Brilliantly engaging...Ellenberg’s talent for finding real-life situations that enshrine mathematical principles would be the envy of any math teacher. He presents these in fluid succession, like courses in a fine restaurant, taking care to make each insight shine through, unencumbered by jargon or notation. Part of the sheer intellectual joy of the book is watching the author leap nimbly from topic to topic, comparing slime molds to the Bush-Gore Florida vote, criminology to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The final effect is of one enormous mosaic unified by mathematics." (Manil Suri, The Washington Post)

"Easy-to-follow, humorously presented.... This book will help you to avoid the pitfalls that result from not having the right tools. It will help you realize that mathematical reasoning permeates our lives - that it can be, as Mr. Ellenberg writes, a kind of 'X-ray specs that reveal hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of the world'." (Mario Livio, The Wall Street Journal)

"Witty, compelling, and just plain fun to read.... How Not to Be Wrong can help you explore your mathematical superpowers." (Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American)

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What listeners say about How Not to Be Wrong

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Great book but better in writing

The title of this book is somewhat misleading (which the author admits). Instead it should have been "how to use math to not feel stupid when you are wrong". The author freely admits the dark truth, most people are not going to use the math they learn. Amazingly this is true even of scientists. Most of the math stuff I learned I don't need, as now I use Excel and Mathematica. Yet this book explains the part of math I do use, and many people don't realize is the important part of math, that is, to extend common sense by other means. This book includes primers of the very basics of calculus and statistics that everyone should know. The stories are humorous, interesting, and make the point that a little math can really help make good decisions.

Unfortunately, there are some parts of this book that don't translate well to audio. A table of numbers can be compared at a glance, but a bunch of spoken numbers are not easy to compare. If you wonder what good is learning math, this is a great book, but I would recommend the written version. The author's narration is quite good, with a very positive attitude that comes through.

81 people found this helpful

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Mathematics is the extension of common sense...

I run across a lot of books that I add to my to-be-read list and then forget about until after their publication dates or I stumble upon the book in the library or bookstore. How Not to Be Wrong was initially one of those books, but it sounded so good that I found myself obsessively thinking about it and started a search for a pre-publication copy. Since I'm not a librarian, didn't win a copy via First Reads, and don't have friends at Penguin Press, it took some time and effort, but having procured a copy and read it, I can say that it was well worth my time and $6.00. How Not to Be Wrong is a catchy title, but for me, this book is really about the subtitle, The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

Ellenberg deftly explains why mathematics is important, gives the reader myriad examples applicable to our own lives, and also tells us what math can't do. He writes, “Mathematics is the extension of common sense by other means”, and proceeds to expound upon an incredible number of interesting subjects and how mathematics can help us better understand these topics, such as obesity, economics, reproducibility, the lottery, error-correcting codes, and the existence (or not) of God. He writes in a compelling, explanatory way that I think anyone with an interest in mathematics and/or simply understanding things more completely will be able to grasp. Ellenberg writes “Do the Math” for Slate, and it's evident in his column and this book that he knows how to explain mathematical ideas to non-mathematicians, and even more so, seems to enjoy doing so with great enthusiasm. I won't pretend that I understood everything discussed in this book, but it's such an excellent book that I also bought the audio version and am listening to it (read by the author himself!) so I have a much more thorough understanding. I've wished for a book like this for a long time, and I'd like to thank Jordan Ellenberg for writing it for me!

32 people found this helpful

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Very hard to follow - not suitable for audiobook

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

Nothing - this book is simply not suitable for audiobook. It is very hard to follow the various arguments without seeing the figures and I am a mathematician.

25 people found this helpful

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Good conversation fodder

I listened to this audiobook while getting my doctorate, specifically while taking a quantitative methodology and statistics class. This book had so many applications to social science research, but also to just life in general. I spoke about different topics from the book with friends on hikes, at work, on car rides, and virtually any chance I had.

10/10 recommend.

12 people found this helpful

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Much Good Information

You must have some background with math to appreciate this book. You don't need to be a mathematician, but you need to have some concept of statistics -- not details -- just a basic idea of how statistics work.

The last half of the book was more interesting to me than the first half. Don't start there, start at the first so you will understand the last half.

I found his comments on multi-candidate elections where no candidate gets a majority to be particularly interesting.

There are parts to this book that drag. Some may drag because you might not be interested in the subject he uses to illustrate a mathematical process or principal. When he talks about sports statistics keep in mind that he is illustrating mathematical principles and not focusing on sports.

You can and will learn a lot from this book and will enjoy most of the book. You might learn more than you want to know about some mathematical subjects, but math is a tool and each addition to our toolkit strengthens us whether we know it at the time or not.

Jim Fuqua

15 people found this helpful

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Unnecessary focus on religion

The author seems obsessed with trying to position his atheism are more mathematically consistent than thesis. My issue, these examples where not necessary! The content would have been better, every single chapter he talks about religion! Might as well be called 'why theistic argument for God can't be trusted'.

YOU WILL REMEMBER MORE THAT HE SPOKE ABOUT RELIGION THAN THE GOOD STORIES, about WW1, MIT, etc.

10 people found this helpful

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Not meant to be an audiobook.

This book sounds like it has an equation or list of fractions or whatever else on nearly every page. I love math, so I normally wouldn't mind it. However, it's difficult to follow when he's verbally spouting out long equations or sequences of arithmetic. I think the content of the book is good, but not delivered in audio format, despite the great voice work. I bought this after listening to Algorithms for Life and that book did what this one couldn't--explain the concepts without lengthy equations. So if you enjoy math and don't mind equations, perhaps buy the book itself instead of the audiobook.

4 people found this helpful

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Very enlightening

Interesting and enlightening. It is a little bit difficult to follow the equation and numbers in the audible version though. But one can still get a general idea.

4 people found this helpful

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Great story, but too many numbers for an audiobook

Very good narration! Very interesting to learn how apparently unconnected ideas are in fact connected. It would have been nice if the book had focused more on the concepts, ideas and story and had moved most of the supporting numerical data to an appendix.

4 people found this helpful

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At times interesting, but...

The title does not fit the book; the subtitle perhaps more but still not quite a good match. At times, this book is interesting, however, it does jump around multiple topics and ideas in a short period of time. This book is more like a magazine with variable articles on math and statistics.

2 people found this helpful