Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences

Innumeracy: An inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance. – John Allen Paulos

‘Innumeracy’ is your mathematical analogy of an adrenalin-filled, high-falutin’ self-help, motivational book. This book is a critical-faculty-sharpener of sorts. Paulos’ decision to write this book was largely a result of the anger and provocation he felt as he witnessed the widespread apathy toward numbers and probability. As a society that is so dependent on mathematics, Paulos feels that we disregard the importance that should be accorded to the subject. A part of his angst stems from his observations that mathematics often gets to be looked down upon as an esoteric science with minor or no relevance to the daily routines. Worse still, innumerates (shorthand for mathematical laggards) tend to flaunt their lack of mathematical prowess and this further irks the author.

Innumeracy is a significant malaise in its own but what compounds this inadequacy further is our ungrounded and often unshakable belief in dubious domains such as astrology, tarot cards, newspaper psychics, sports and medical claims etc. A more debilitating situation arises when many educated individuals fall for the spurious appeals of these pseudosciences (Pseudosciences are called so because of their abject inability to withstand the tests of empirical scrutiny, thus, failing to match up to Science). According to author, innumeracy is the most potent reason behind the evolution and rampant flourish of pseudosciences such as Astrology and Numerology. And, the blame for innumeracy turning into a sort-of-pandemic lies squarely with our educational systems. When a child needs to be taught how to calculate estimates to 3 decimal places, he’s guided to take a short-cut and round off numbers instead.

John Allen Paulos like an expert ghostbuster blows to bits many widely-cherished pseudo-scientific theories in the book. However, his galvanizing efforts won’t bear fruition unless society at large decides to turn into a mass of informed skeptics. It’s simple – the business of baseless doctrines and theories thrives off people’s ignorance. Only a progressive enlightenment could mitigate the blind beliefs people have in the pseudosciences and in people who propagate them. Paulos’ book is a small step in that direction but largely, the step is for the society to take.

Paulos also takes a cue from Daryll Huff and exposes the widespread statistical chicanery. Unlike Huff, Paulos doesn’t zero in on a particular industry or domain, however, he does enlighten the readers to various statistical pitfalls. In a stinging recapitulation of what is wrong with Statistics, author avers,” When Statistics are presented so nakedly, without any information on sample size and composition, methodological protocols, confidence intervals, significance levels, etc., about all we can do is shrug or, if sufficiently intrigued, try to determine the context on our own.”

Paulos deserves acclaim for writing a book on the importance of numbers in our irreducibly probabilistic lives rather than a book comprising of mere numerical problems. His use of witty anecdotes in conjunction with his hand-picked mathematical problems works to great effect in imparting the message. The idea is to motivate not to inhibit. Finally, if you also happen to share an invariable apathy toward mathematics, then, Innumeracy is highly recommended for you. This little book would spur you on and reinvigorate your romance for Maths.

Should you feel the need to rack your brains a little, click here to grapple with three of my favorite Paulos maths problems from Innumeracy.