John Allen Paulos

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John Allen Paulos (born July 4, 1945) is an American professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has gained fame as a writer and speaker on mathematics and the importance of mathematical literacy. Paulos writes about many subjects, especially of the dangers of mathematical innumeracy; that is, the layperson's misconceptions about numbers, probability, and logic.


Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences (1988)[edit]

All page numbers from the 1990 trade paperback edition published by Vintage Books ISBN 0-679-72601-2
  • Innumerate people characteristically have a strong tendency to personalize—to be misled by their own experiences, or by the media’s focus on individuals and drama.
    • Introduction (p. 6)
  • A tendency to drastically underestimate the frequency of coincidences is a prime characteristic of innumerates, who generally accord great significance to correspondences of all sorts while attributing too little significance to quite conclusive but less flashy statistical evidence.
    • Chapter 2, “Probability and Coincidence” (p. 35)
  • The moral, again, is that some unlikely event is likely to occur, whereas it’s much less likely that a particular one will...The paradoxical conclusion is that it would be very unlikely for unlikely events not to occur. If you don’t specify a predicted event precisely, there are an indeterminate number of ways for an event of that general kind to take place.
    • Chapter 2, “Probability and Coincidence” (pp. 37-38; ellipsis represents elision of examples)
  • There’s always enough random success to justify almost anything to someone who wants to believe.
    • Chapter 2, “Probability and Coincidence” (p. 44)
  • There surely is something to these terms, but too often they’re the result of minds intent on discovering meaning where there is only probability.
    • Chapter 2, “Probability and Coincidence” (p. 62)
  • To follow foolish precedents, and wink with both eyes, is easier than to think.
  • Any bit of nonsense can be computerized—astrology, biorhythms, the I Ching—but that doesn’t make the nonsense any more valid.
    • Chapter 3, “Pseudoscience” (p. 68)
  • Disproving a claim that something exists is often quite difficult, and this difficulty is often mistaken for evidence that the claim is true...Presented as I am periodically with these and other fantastical claims, I sometimes feel a little like a formally dressed teetotaler at a drunken orgy for reiterating that not being able to conclusively refute the claims does not constitute evidence for them.
    • Chapter 3, “Pseudoscience” (pp. 95-96; ellipsis represents elision of new age examples)
  • I remember thinking of mathematics as a kind of omnipotent protector. You could prove things to people and they would have to believe you whether they liked you or not.
    • Chapter 4, “Whence Innumeracy?” (p. 99)
  • Bad things happen periodically, and they’re going to happen to somebody. Why not you?
    • Chapter 4, “Whence Innumeracy?” (p. 110)
  • Too often, this concern for the big picture is simply obscurantist and is put forward by people who prefer vagueness and mystery to (partial) answers. Vagueness is at times necessary and mystery is never in short supply, but I don’t think they’re anything to worship. Genuine science and mathematical precision are more intriguing than are the “facts” published in supermarket tabloids or a romantic innumeracy which fosters credulity, stunts skepticism, and dulls one to real imponderables.
    • Chapter 4, “Whence Innumeracy?” (pp. 126-127)
  • There is no such thing as free lunch, and even if there were, there’d be no guarantee against indigestion.
    • Chapter 5, “Statistics, Trade-Offs, and Society” (p. 147)
  • Correlation and causation are two quite different words, and the innumerate are more prone to mistake them than most.
    • Chapter 5, “Statistics, Trade-Offs, and Society” (p. 159)
  • If we’re not keenly aware of the choices we’re making, we’re not likely to work for better ones.
    • Chapter 5, “Statistics, Trade-Offs, and Society” (p. 176)

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