How Not To Be Wrong

Jordan Ellenberg promises to share ways of thinking that are both simple to grasp and profound in their implications, and he delivers in spades. These beautifully readable pages delight and enlighten in equal parts.  Those who already love math will eat it up, and those who don’t yet know how lovable math is are in for a most pleasurable surprise.

(Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex)

How Not To Be Wrong comes out on June 3, 2014 from The Penguin Press.

Preorder it:

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Shiny new webpage about the book coming soon!

12 thoughts on “How Not To Be Wrong

  1. Tom McCarty says:

    Dr. Ellenberg,

    Just gave up waiting for the ebook version of “How Not To Be Wrong” through the Montgomery County Public Library system (Davis Library next to Walter Johnson HS). I was number 56 and not getting any closer. I went and bought it at Barnes and Noble in Bethesda. After reading it for a couple of chapters, especially the Baltimore Trader, I called my dad to see if he still maintained an interest in math (as he used to talk about when I was a kid). He is an retired accountant. He was interested and actually had read about it through NY Times. Nevertheless he was not sure he wanted to buy it and instead thought he would wait for it in his library in Virginia. Anyway his birthday is August 28th and I would love to buy him a copy but would like to ask if there was a way I could ship it to you to sign and possibly get it back to me near that date? I see how busy you are, but this would certainly be the more interesting birthday presents he’s gotten. Look forward to hearing from you and thanks.

    Tom McCarty

    ps. I read about the book in my last issue of On Wisconsin. I got my BS in Bacteriology in 1986. Go Badgers!

  2. John Baez says:

    Why is it called “How Not To Be Wrong” instead of “How To Be Right”?

  3. JSE says:

    Because the title was a big enough oversell as it was?

  4. Henry Bliley says:

    Well, I have the book and in the first few pages I was frustrated to the max over the geometry of the circles and squares, and never got beyond that portion, and am still unsatisfied ……..eventually lost interest and now can’t find the book. :-(

  5. delicateear says:

    I am really enjoying the book… but it sometimes leads to really misguided places (which is part of the theme, I think). For example, how can you demonstrate an expected value of >$2 for a powerball ticket and encourage people to participate when ‘the payout is high enough’? The fact is that ANY winning on the scale of millions blows the doors off of any reasonable investment, even a daily ticket. The payout does not matter. The greater fact is that you are almost certainly not going to win, and obfuscating this by applying the given analysis is pure folly! The $2 you have is very different from the millions you almost certainly will not have. The analysis does not take this into account, and it serves only as another example of how misguided math and statistics can be, confronted with human psychology. This should have been flagged harder in the text; it is dangerous for people who on the blunt end of the lottery tax. Yeesh.

  6. Nadia says:

    Your writing about “math” and “madness” was colorful in HNTBW, but not especially well informed. It was also very inconsiderate of people dealing with mental health problems. Several of my family members and friends deal with mental health conditions, and I volunteer with organizations that help mentally ill kids and teens.
    You present no evidence from medicine or behavioral science to support any of your assertions about Pythagoreans or mathematicians and mental health. You talk about being mad as it’s one of the worst things ever, and as though the people who stumble into it have just been indulging in bad thinking habits. Meditation and math are things that keep one from going crazy, as though it’s all a matter of making the right choices like those.
    Actually, people who have these conditions often have a strong innate predisposition towards their afflictions, and they commonly face hard social/family circumstances. A couple of areas where decent empirical work has been done reveal that physicians suffer from depression and commit suicide at rates higher than others. Soldiers also suffer from certain mental health conditions at higher rates than the population. These two groups definitely make mistakes, but they have advanced the well-being of people all around the world.
    Many individuals with mental health problems have a lot to offer as colleagues, citizens, parents, and friends—those are the things that should matter most. These people should be judged on their character, actions, and contributions, rather than denigrated because of their encounters with madness. The world is a worse place when the latter happens instead of the former. Personally, one of my friends with anxiety and depression, lost her dad to cancer when she was a child and she wants to be a nuclear engineer to help develop safe technologies.
    You say you might go crazy without math. But, are all mathematicians like that? Consider Birth of a Theorem. Stephen Muirhead noted the joy and fervor that the author got out of math, but also “frustration, pain and even depression that Villani suggests is the inevitable result of such passion.” Villani is not lesser than you or other mathematicians for that. He advances his field, reaches out to the public, and lovingly fulfills his responsibility as a dad. Recall that DFW suffered from depression and killed himself. The adolescents and kids I talk to who have struggled with suicidal thoughts actually do not experience them the way DFW did. They contemplate killing themselves, but they think about their parents, just as Villani described thinking about his kids when he wished to die.

  7. Artie Prendergast-Smth says:

    Just ordered 8 copies. I don’t know exactly how royalties work, but I assume you can now retire and live in unimaginable luxury!

  8. Gerard Weatherby says:

    p 34. “No one knew whether the area of a circle could be expressed using whole numbers alone.” (footnote: It can’t …) Not sure what that’s trying to say … a circle with diameter 1/sqrt(Pi) has area 1, does it not?

  9. David Scott says:

    It seemed pretty obvious (to me) that the chapter on lotteries was telling us that lottery players lose. It says expected value is not the value you should expect. (or something close to that).

  10. David Scott says:

    I think the footnote about whole numbers was referring to they wanted to find some whole number (or at least a rational) that could be multiplied by some measurement to get the area.

  11. Gerard Weatherby says:

    The thing to take away from highly improbable events applied to very large populations, in the context of lotteries, is 1) someone will win, and 2) it won’t be you!

  12. delicateear says:

    Yes, I agree with you guys that the message of the book is ultimately against lotteries. But there is this sentence, “So it sounds like the lottery might be a good idea after all – if you’re careful to play only when the jackpot gets high enough.” This chapter is all about the expected value on return from the lottery ticket price. However, for the average person buying a normal amount of tickets, the size of the jackpot does not matter. It could be a paltry $1 million, it could be $100 billion. For most people that play the lottery, the money they use to buy tickets has real value in their life. The chance to win ‘something big” – no matter how big – is astronomically small. They throw away real value and receive nothing at all in exchange. As GW says, 1) someone will win, and 2) it won’t be you! It does not matter how big the jackpot is.

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