Mathematician John Allen Paulus seems to be the urban legend about the dangers to us all of widespread “numeracy,” as he called math illiteracy in the title of his best-selling book of 1998. New this September from Prometheus books, Who’s counting? is a collection of original essays and redesigned columns incorporating some impressive examples of enumeration in our 21St world of the century. My only favorite: A taxi driver threw $100 into a lottery ticket. Sure, he might lose, he explained to Paulo. He might as well win. That gave him a 50-50 chance, and it’s better than no chance.
Fundamental misunderstandings of probabilities such as this are of enormous concern to Paulos. Hillary Clinton, for example, had an 85% chance of winning her 2016 race against Donald Trump. “Sure thing,” Democrats seemed to think, which is perhaps why many of them didn’t bother to vote that year. The people leading her campaign were comforted by the figure of 85%. they decided there was no pressing need for Clinton to make an all-out effort in all 50 states. Unfortunately, an 85% chance of winning reflects a 15% chance of losing — and that’s about the same chance as a 7 coming up when a pair of dice is rolled.
The improbable and the impossible are not one and the same, Paul reminds his readers.
Who’s counting? it can be a fun read for people who are comfortable with — or at least interested in — numbers. With luck, the fallout from its impact as the book is cited in reviews and op-eds will be impressive to non-Paulos readers. Enumeration distorts the criminal justice system, the economy, investment habits, public health, politics and religion, and that’s just the beginning. Enumeration fueled COVID-19 vaccine resistance. It fueled the Pizza Gate hysteria. It keeps the prophecies of Nostradamus alive. And it’s everywhere. It is precious. Numbers don’t matter, at least not in the minds of many. Witness a passage in Who’s counting? from a Geometry course description listed on the website of a Baptist school in Texas.
“Students will consider the nature of God as they progress in understanding mathematics. Students will understand the absolute consistency of mathematical principles and know that God was the inventor of this consistency. They will see God’s nature revealed in order and precision [as] review fundamental concepts while being able to demonstrate geometric thinking and spatial reasoning. Studying the basics of geometry through making interesting guesses about math and real-world patterns will allow students to understand God’s absolute consistency as seen in the geometric principles He created.”
Mathematics as a life tool is not mentioned at all. Knowing mathematics for the sake and indeed the joy of knowing mathematics? Similar. By the way, word for word, the school website’s Calculus course description is almost identical to its Geometry description. Rose is a rose is a rose, and who cares?
Paulos presents this Baptist school’s disregard for the importance of mathematics as an amusing case in point, but he does not hide his outrage at how an almost willful, culture-wide blindness to the value of mathematics endangers us all. Who’s counting? it’s not just for math nerds. His humor, fun, stories and lighthearted explanations count for a lot. [Pun intended.] They offer a possible armor against the programmatic idiocy that Paulos identifies as ballooning in America today.
Who’s Counting: Connecting numbers and narratives with stories from pop culture, puzzles, politics and more
John Allen Paulus. Prometheus Books. 226 pages. September 2022.