200% of Nothing



What if you are already a mathematician and don't know it? Near the end of this book you will learn that we all use logic (of a largely unconscious kind) to take us through everything from business meetings to family dinners. If only we could be good conscious mathematicians!

At the conscious level, too many of us are still innumerate. We cannot deal with fractions, large numbers, percentages, and other relatively simple mathematical concepts. Meanwhile, we are beset more than ever by the abuses that stem from this innumeracy. And those who abuse mathematics also abuse us. We become prey to commercial chicanery, financial foolery, medical quackery, and numerical terrorism from pressure groups, all because we are unable. (or unwilling) to think clearly for a few moments. In almost every case, the mathematics involved is something we learned, or should have learned, in elementary school or high school.

The first part of this book illustrates the most typical abuses of mathematics with examples drawn from the real world. Little gems of misunderstanding-stark, blatant, and grimly enjoyable-they amount to a primitive typology of mathematical crime. Each one illustrates how a particular branch of mathematics is warped by personal beliefs, public agendas, or corporate goals.

The second part of the book looks through the other end of the telescope, so to speak. It examines the areas of everyday life where abuse is especially rampant: the media, gambling, politics, finance, commerce, and, of course, advertising. Each area suffers its own pattern of abuse: horror stories of mangled percentages, tales from the crypt of compound growth, and so on. Readers who become alert to the underlying patterns will be well on their way to, functional numeracy. Some, I hope, will go even further. There are unexpected treasures in the nearest university, community college, or night school.

Almost all the examples that appear in this book were sent in by readers of my columns in Scientific American and other publications. Mostly recent, they amount to a cross-section of what is actually going on out there. in a world of declining educational standards, opportunities for innumeracy and abuse proliferate.

No single book can stem the tide of abuse. But, in the third and final section, this one examines both the broad, long-term issues and the ones immediately at hand. Our educational system has entered a profound crisis. A faltering education system is colliding head-on with the worldwide emergence of a competitive technological economy in which mathematics, more than any single science, will be the main determinant of excellence. The immediate issues focus on the reader: Are you innumerate, even a little? If so, you might start by considering the strange proposition advanced in Chapter 11 that you are already a mathematician. If so, what better way to combat math anxiety? The last chapter offers immediate remedies in the form of light armor against the most common numerical slings and arrows. It analyzes many of the examples and explains certain basic ideas and procedures that must sooner or later inhabit every numerate mind.

Hundreds of people have sent me examples of abuse. I call them math abuse detectives or just abuse detectives. In the examples that appear in the following pages, I have used the names, dates, and places supplied by the detectives themselves. This policy has the advantage of giving the examples immediacy, serving notice on abusers that their practices will be coming under increasing public scrutiny. The policy has one disadvantage. It may lead readers to assume that the names represent isolated cases of abuse when, in fact, the opposite is true. The abusers mentioned in this book are not extraordinary, but typical. They stand in proxy for themselves and their colleagues. As every abuse detective knows, you can look at almost any newspaper or magazine, any ad, any political debate, any corporate or government campaign of public persuasion to find math abuse.

As Shakespeare says, "…’tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petar." There are those who notice mistakes in passing and those who buy books for the sole purpose of finding them. I hope we have eliminated all the errors. Ironically, some deliberate oversimplifications will remain. In writing about mathematics for a large audience, you must maintain the precarious balance between simplicity and truth, almost to the point of becoming an abuser yourself!

A.K. Dewdney


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