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A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

John Allen Paulos
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Barbara E. Reynolds
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The author’s dedication of this little book tells one a lot about the spirit in which it is meant to be approached: “To storytelling number-crunchers and number-crunching story tellers.” This book is a collection of essays reflecting on items (and composites of items) that have appeared in daily newspapers, mostly but not exclusively between 1993 and 1994. Most of these essays are 2–4 pages long; only one was as long as 8 pages. So this is a light book, easily read in situations where you might expect to be interrupted, such as when sitting in an airport or doctor’s office, or while proctoring an exam.

Paulos begins by letting us know that he has read the newspaper almost daily since the late 1940s. Somewhere along the way he picked up a Ph.D. in mathematics, and began reading with the critical eye of a mathematician. He turns his quirky observations into stories, and he is an engaging storyteller. He has arranged these book in sections evocative of the organization of the daily paper: Section 1: Politics, Economics, and the Nation; Section 2: Local, Business, and Social Issues; Section 3: Lifestyle, Spin, and Soft News; Section 4: Science, Medicine, and the Environment; Section 5: Food, Book Reviews, Sports, and Obituaries.

Let’s face it: Mathematicians think analytically and read rather critically; it’s just what we do. Naively perhaps, we expect news articles to provide context for scientific or medical breakthroughs, and when a news item, (e.g., “Ranking Health Risks,” beginning on page 133) reports on a study in which 36% of ethnic group A and 45% of ethnic group B benefit from a particular treatment, while a second study reports that 60% of group A and 65% of group B benefit from this treatment, Paulos points out that it is tempting (but incorrect) to conclude (without additional information) that a higher percentage of group B will benefit from this treatment. Paulos illustrates this by suggesting that the first study might have involved 100 subjects from ethnic group A and 1000 subjects from group B, while in the second study these numbers might have been reversed. A little arithmetic (provided in a footnote) shows that in these hypothetical studies involving 1100 subjects, a total of 636 members of A benefit, compared to a total of 515 members of B.

In the same article, Paulos considers a scenario for which the headline proclaimed that “Half of Sufferers are Long Term.” He develops a possible backstory in which Mr. X suffers from a chronic disease. In a medical study, X and A are both treated for this condition in January. By February, A is cured, but B contracts the disease and joins X in treatment; in March B is better, but C reports for treatment; and so on throughout the year. Poor Mr. X continues to suffer, but his companion in treatment recovers each month. In any given month, “half” of those being treated for this condition are chronic sufferers, but half are treated and released within the month. On the other hand, if we look at the data over the entire year, 12 persons were treated and released, while Mr. X continues to suffer. Thus only 1/13 of the people in the yearlong study are chronic sufferers, and the others are quickly released from treatment. The quirky analytical mind of a mathematician asks, which of these scenarios is the correct backstory behind this headline?

Paulos begins Section 5 (Food, Book Reviews, Sports, and Obituaries) by telling us that he seldom reads the food section. He finds the reviews of restaurants either pretentious or overly cute, and has little interest in the recipes. When a particular recipe (if prepared exactly as presented in the weekly food section) reports on the nutritional value and claims that one serving of this food item contains 761 calories, 428 milligrams of sodium, and 22.6 grams of fat per serving, he questions the precision of these numbers, and wonders just how the cook was able to calculate them so precisely. (To arrive at 428 milligrams of sodium, did she count the grains of salt?)

Any collection of essays on the news is necessarily dated. For example, in the essay titled “Bosnia: Is it Vietnam or World War II?” (beginning on page 14), Paulos refers to the way that news story of O. J. Simpson overshadowed reports of Jimmy Carter’s peace mission to North Korea, events which I certainly remember as will many of my colleagues; but I doubt that any of my current students, whose average birthdate is at the dawn of the 21st century will grasp the context.

If you are looking for light reading, this is an engaging book of stories. You might not learn any deep new truths, but you will probably enjoy chucking about some old news stories. You will almost certainly pick up tomorrow’s newspaper with renewed expectations about being entertained even as you read the more serious first sections of the paper.

Sr. Barbara Reynolds, Professor of Mathematics at Cardinal Stritch University, reads the print version of a local paper almost daily. During the academic year, she lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

The table of contents is not available.