How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg
  • Title: How Not to Be Wrong
  • Subtitle: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
  • Author(s): Jordan Ellenberg
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Year: 2015-05-26
  • ISBN-10: 0143127535
  • ISBN-13: 9780143127536


How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg is a fascinating exploration of how mathematics can be utilized to make better decisions in our everyday lives. The author argues that mathematical thinking is not just limited to calculations and formulas, but rather a powerful tool for understanding and solving real-world problems. Throughout the book, Ellenberg presents numerous engaging and thought-provoking examples that illustrate how mathematical concepts can be applied to topics like politics, health, and sports.

One of the key takeaways from this book is the importance of embracing uncertainty and probability. Ellenberg shows that instead of succumbing to misconceptions and biases, we can use mathematical reasoning to make more informed choices. He dismantles common myths surrounding issues like lottery tickets, standardized testing, and correlation, proving that a deeper understanding of statistical thinking can lead to wiser decisions. “How Not to Be Wrong” combines vivid storytelling and accessible explanations, making it an enlightening read for both math enthusiasts and those who may be intimidated by the subject.

Book Review

A Mathematical Journey to Rational Thinking - A Review of "How Not to Be Wrong" by Jordan Ellenberg

How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg is a captivating exploration of the power of mathematical thinking in our everyday lives. Unlike typical math books, Ellenberg provides an engaging narrative that successfully bridges the gap between mathematical concepts and their application to real-world situations. Through a series of enlightening examples and anecdotes, he illustrates how mathematical reasoning can help us make better decisions and avoid common pitfalls.

The author starts by emphasizing the importance of probability and uncertainty in our decision-making process. Ellenberg argues that embracing these concepts allows us to navigate the complexities of life more effectively. He demolishes popular misconceptions, such as the belief that the bigger the lottery jackpot, the more rational it is to play. By analyzing the odds and expected outcomes, he shows that small changes in probability can have a significant impact on our choices.

Ellenberg expertly demonstrates how mathematical thinking can enlighten us about various domains. For instance, in the chapter “Epidemiology: How fast can a sneeze take over the world?” he delves into the mathematics behind disease outbreaks and vaccination strategies. The following chapter, “How to get the best of the NCAA Tournament,” unveils how probability theory can guide us in constructing winning brackets.

The book strives to debunk the idea that math is just about numbers. Ellenberg asserts that math is a tool for critical thinking, as it helps us identify misleading information and faulty arguments. In the chapter “Airplanes: who needs ’em?” he tackles the misinterpretation of data related to airline safety. He highlights that while plane crashes draw extensive media coverage, driving is statistically more dangerous. By analyzing the numbers, he exposes our tendency to fear the wrong things.

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of “How Not to Be Wrong” is how it highlights the role of correlation in causation. Ellenberg impressively emphasizes the perils of blindly assuming a cause-and-effect relationship based solely on observed patterns. Drawing on examples like the connection between ice cream consumption and crime rates, he reminds readers that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Ellenberg’s writing style is accessible and engaging, providing a balance between technical explanations and relatable stories. Even for those with limited mathematical background, the author breaks down complex concepts and presents them in digestible chunks. His humor and wit add a touch of charm to the book, making it an enjoyable and enlightening read.

How Not to Be Wrong” is a commendable and thought-provoking book that not only highlights the usefulness of mathematics in our daily lives but also encourages a more rational approach to decision-making. Jordan Ellenberg’s compelling writing style and comprehensive examples make this book accessible and valuable for a wide range of readers. It serves as a reminder that embracing mathematical thinking can lead to wiser choices and a deeper understanding of the world around us.

Word Count: 511

Key Ideas

How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg is a book that explores the intersection of mathematics and everyday decision-making. It offers a fresh perspective on how mathematical thinking can be applied to real-life situations. Here are the key ideas from the book:

  1. The Importance of Mathematical Thinking Ellenberg emphasizes that mathematical thinking is not just for mathematicians. It’s a valuable tool for making better decisions in various aspects of life, from personal finance to politics.

  2. The Role of Probability Probability is a central theme in the book. Ellenberg shows how understanding probabilities can help individuals make more informed choices. It’s not about certainty but about making choices that maximize expected value.

  3. Regression to the Mean The concept of regression to the mean is explained. Ellenberg shows that extreme events are often followed by more average outcomes. This understanding can help people avoid misinterpreting data and making flawed decisions.

  4. The Law of Large Numbers Ellenberg discusses how large samples tend to exhibit more predictable behavior. This principle is applied to areas like polling, where larger samples provide more accurate results.

  5. Bayesian Thinking Bayesian probability, a way of updating beliefs based on new evidence, is introduced. Ellenberg explains how this approach can lead to more rational decision-making by incorporating new information effectively.

  6. Misleading Statistics The book delves into the ways statistics can be misused or misunderstood. Ellenberg provides examples of how people can be misled by statistics and how to critically evaluate statistical claims.

  7. Game Theory Game theory is explored as a tool for understanding strategic decision-making. Ellenberg uses examples from sports, economics, and politics to illustrate how game theory can be applied to real-world scenarios.

  8. Math in Everyday Life Ellenberg connects mathematical concepts to everyday situations, such as dating, elections, and sports. He demonstrates how mathematical insights can provide a competitive advantage.

  9. Math as a Lens The book suggests that mathematical thinking offers a unique lens through which to view the world. It can uncover hidden patterns, clarify complex issues, and improve decision-making.

  10. The Art of Estimation Ellenberg promotes the skill of estimation, which involves making rough calculations to get a sense of the scale of a problem. It’s a practical way to make quick decisions without getting bogged down in precise numbers.

  11. Mathematics and Ethics Ellenberg touches on the ethical considerations of mathematical modeling and decision-making. He highlights the responsibility of using math to address societal issues.

  12. The Limitations of Mathematics While mathematics is a powerful tool, the book acknowledges its limitations. Not all problems can be solved mathematically, and not all uncertainties can be eliminated.

How Not to Be Wrong” encourages readers to embrace mathematical thinking as a means to enhance their decision-making abilities. By applying mathematical principles, individuals can navigate a world filled with data, statistics, and uncertainty more effectively. Ellenberg’s engaging storytelling and relatable examples make mathematical concepts accessible and applicable to a wide range of scenarios, making this book a valuable resource for anyone interested in improving their critical thinking and decision-making skills.

Target Audience

The book “How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg is targeted at a diverse audience interested in improving their decision-making skills and understanding the practical applications of mathematics. It is recommended reading for the following audiences:

  • General Readers The book is written in a manner that makes complex mathematical concepts accessible to a wide range of readers. Ellenberg uses relatable examples and engaging storytelling to captivate and educate readers who may not have a strong mathematical background.

  • Math Enthusiasts For individuals who have a passion for mathematics, “How Not to Be Wrong” offers a fresh perspective on how mathematical thinking can be applied to real-world scenarios. The book expands upon concepts like probability, statistics, and correlation, providing intriguing insights and practical applications.

  • Critical Thinkers The book emphasizes the importance of critical thinking and challenging assumptions. It appeals to readers who are interested in sharpening their analytical skills and want to approach decision-making with a more rational mindset. Ellenberg encourages readers to question popular beliefs and be aware of the pitfalls of faulty reasoning.

  • Professionals in Various Fields Professionals in fields such as finance, economics, healthcare, and policy-making can benefit from the book’s exploration of how mathematics can lead to better outcomes and more informed decision-making. It offers valuable insights into the practical applications of mathematical thinking across different sectors.

In conclusion, “How Not to Be Wrong” is recommended reading for anyone interested in enhancing their decision-making abilities, regardless of their mathematical background. It encompasses relatable examples, engaging storytelling, and practical applications, making it an enlightening and valuable resource for a diverse range of readers.