Summary of How Not to Be Wrong

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How Not to Be Wrong book summary

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • Eloquent


Even though Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he doesn’t write like an academic. He writes like a snappy, online commentator. His style works for and against him. He’s funny, not a quality you normally associate with mathematicians. He’s sincere in his love for – and desire to evangelize about – math and how it infiltrates daily life. Ellenberg wants you to apply mathematical thinking to your everyday experiences and your long-term decision making. The superficial claim for this book’s merits is that applying mathematical thinking will make you wrong less often. Perhaps so. But Ellenberg’s love of math at times leads him to confuse rather than illuminate. You may savor his stories, only to skip the math and formulas that he intends to explain in his tales. The more math you know, the more benefit and new knowledge you’re likely to gain. Those who are curious about math, those seeking to understand math better, those who already love math and want to delve deeper, and those who really hate math and would like to discover its importance all will enjoy this unlikely treatise.

About the Author

Jordan Ellenberg is a distinguished achievement professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His writing has appeared in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Believer.


Counterintuitive Thinking

All the brilliant mathematicians working at the top-secret Statistical Research Group (SRG) during World War II regarded Abraham Wald as their most brilliant colleague. Wald, a Jewish immigrant fleeing the Nazis, took a professorship at Columbia University. From there, the US government recruited him into the SRG, which was housed just blocks away from Columbia. As physics was to the Manhattan Project that built America’s atom bomb, so math was to the SRG. As for accumulated brainpower, the people there saw Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel in economics, as the “fourth-smartest” person in the group. Everyone knew Wald was the smartest.

The group’s mathematicians and their staff figured out formulas determining the best arc of flight for a fighter plane to follow as it sought to shoot down an enemy aircraft. One remarkable aspect of the SRG was that those who had to live with its conclusions adopted its suggestions immediately. When the SRG suggested the most effective combination of ammunition types for fighter planes, the planes’ mechanics loaded precisely that combination into the guns. This meant SRG mathematicians benefited...

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