How Not to Be Wrong

[Amazon Link]

You know how Amazon throws purchase suggestions at you based on your browsing history? This book showed up in one of my visits a few months back; I can't remember what triggered it. The title was memorable, certainly: How Not to be Wrong. What a magnet for someone who finds himself wrong much more often than he'd like! While hanging out in the University Near Here's Engineering, Math & Computer Science Library, I noticed it on the New Books shelf, and…

The author, Jordan Ellenberg, is a math prof at the University of Wisconsin. To a first approximation, the book is a reply to the perpetual whine of math students everywhere: When am I going to use this? (That's actually the title of the book's introduction.) It is an entertaining hodgepodge, showing how mathematical analysis (has been|can be) applied to real-world problems, but occasionally veering into more abstract realms as well. Along the way, Ellenberg also likes to tell anecdotes about historical and present-day mathematicians. (UNH's Tom Zhang is mentioned for proving the bounded gaps conjecture about the distribution of prime numbers.)

Did I say hodgepodge? Examples: how smart people at MIT gamed the Massachusetts Cash WinFall lottery; how "statistical significance" can be abused/misinterpreted in research; how "regression to the mean" works, and how it's been misunderstood; the strange mathematics of democratic voting when there's more than two choices; the fallacy of assumed linearity; digging causality out of correlation. And more.

Ellenberg has an easy style, and he's unafraid to crack wise.

"If you care at all about math, this is the kind of thing that makes you want to stab yourself in the hand with a fork."

"The extent to which you care about this distinction is a good measure of whether you would enjoy going to graduate school in analytic philosophy."

"Mathematics is a way not to be wrong, but it isn't a way not to be wrong about anything. (Sorry, no refunds!)"

"Are you there, God? It's me, Bayesian inference."

Not quite a chuckle per page, but almost. Ellenberg could be the Dave Barry of mathematicians.