A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

I recently finished reading an interesting book titled A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos. Published in 1995, the book employs simplified mathematical and statistical techniques in order to ascertain the validity of many statements published in the press. There are also numerous examples from the arena of health care reporting. For instance:

“A related equivocation arises when one is discussing diseases, accidents, or other misfortunes and their consequences. If one wishes to emphasize the severity of a problem, one will usually talk about the number of people afflicted nationally. If one wants to downplay the problem, one will probably speak about the incidence rate. Hence, if 1 out of 100,000 people suffers from some malady, there will be 2,500 cases nationwide. The latter figure seems more alarming and will be stressed by maximizers. Dramatizing the situations of a few of these 2,500 people by publishing or televising interviews of their families and friends will further underscore the problem. Minimizers, on the other hand, might invoke the image of a crowded baseball stadium during a World Series game and then point out that only one person in two such stadiums suffers from the misfortune in question.” [p. 79-80].

In another chapter, the Mr. Paulos advises one to be skeptical of medical claims made in both the news and advertising sections of the paper.

“A survey shows that this medication works more quickly. Than what does it work more quickly? Why is quick action important? Is it quick, but relatively ineffective? This nutrient is essential to good health. Are we suffering from a lack of it? Are there other sources of it? Can we have too much of it?”

The book is structured as a series of newspaper article length chapters. While most professional economists, mathematicians, or statisticians will not find this book a revelation, it still is an interesting read–making a case for the importance of the newspaper despite its many flaws. For those without a serious mathematical background, this book will hone your analytical senses and hopefully demonstrate how mathematicians is interesting and relevant to current events.