Q&A: UW prof Jordan Ellenberg says you can think better using math

Q&A: UW prof Jordan Ellenberg says you can think better using math

JORDAN ELLENBERG 2-07232014145317

Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at UW-Madison. Photo by Mike DeVries — The Capital Times

“How Not to Be Wrong” is a pretty heady title for a book, especially for one whose author admits that it cannot be correct. 

But it will help you get closer to being right more often than not.

Jordan Ellenberg is a former math child prodigy who has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard and is a current mathematics professor at UW-Madison. His book spends nearly 450 pages telling readers how to increase the likelihood of being correct in many given situations, and why math is the key to it. This doesn’t mean that Ellenberg thinks one needs to understand differential calculus to determine the best outcome or response, but rather how to use mathematical concepts to think better.

“Math is like an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength,” Ellenberg writes in the book’s introduction.

From “missing” bullet holes on warplanes to professors seemingly never changing their shirts to playing the lottery, Ellenberg touches on dozens of concepts that can be resolved to a much higher degree of accuracy by using mathematics, and by extension, logic. Why do tall parents have shorter children? Is there such a thing as a “hot hand” in sports? Why does South Dakota have such a high rate of brain cancer deaths? These questions and dozens more can be (and are) answered by using mathematical concepts, such as statistics.

Ellenberg’s book has been on the New York Times best sellers list for hardcover non-fiction since it came out in June.

The Capital Times: How did the book come about?

Ellenberg: I’ve been writing math for general audiences for almost 15 years now. I learned two things: One, there’s a real appetite for it. When you teach math at a university, you are teaching it to people who have not chosen to be there. You spend a lot of time talking to people who have been forced to listen to you talk about math. But what you realize when you do journalism is that there’s a real appetite for it. Editors want it, people read it, they want more of it. And two, there’s certain kinds of things you can’t do in a thousand words. You can make one case and explain one thing. What you can’t do is show the interconnectedness of math. You can’t show the unity of math. You can’t follow an idea down all of its branches. You really need the space of a book to do that.

What would you say is the overarching theme of the book?

The theme, if there is one, is simply that you can find math everywhere you look. It’s like one of the basic tools we use to understand the world around us. Throughout the whole history of ideas, people have been using mathematical ideas.

Because your book is so math-based, was your writing initially over the editors’ heads, or were you able to bring it down to an average reader’s level?

Because I had the experience writing for magazines and newspapers, I think I learned what the right level is to pitch it. The book has parts that are harder and parts that are easier, and that’s by design. I wanted it to be that for people who know a lot of math (and) will find stuff to really think about, which is not trivial. At the same time, I want 14-year-olds to read this book, and if there’s a part that’s too hard, well, it always comes back to something else a few pages later. It’s not the kind of book where I demand that every reader read every single page. It’s meant to operate on a lot of different levels.

What were your hopes for the popularity of the book? Did you think it would make The New York Times best seller list?

No. Obviously they (Penguin Press) thought it was a possibility, but I thought they were kidding themselves. But they are the professional booksellers. To me it’s just an extension of what I do in the classroom. In a classroom, I teach 100, 200 kids at a time. In principle, this is a way to get some of this stuff out to a bigger audience.

In general, is your book trying to make people think differently about the way they think?

On some level, I’m just trying to build confidence. Math carries an enormous amount of cultural prestige, which in many ways I think is good and deserved. It’s been an extremely successful cultural product over the last few thousand years. But prestige can easily turn into intimidation. So I think often what happens is you’ll see something that has a number on it, and then your mind shuts off. I think one thing I wanted to do with the book is to let people know that the number is the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

Why is it so hard for people to think logically or mathematically in real world situations? Such as 9/11 truthers who think there was a huge conspiracy.

That’s interesting because I talk about that in my book about conspiracy theories and how they survive. And of course, I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not writing from the point of view of why the brain does what it does, even though it’s a very interesting subject. But I don’t think it is hard for the brain to think logically or mathematically. That’s what our brains are made to do and in large measures that is what we do. But it’s not the only thing we do. We have moral commitments, emotional commitments, hedonic commitments. We are operating multiple systems at the same time, they may not always give the same answer. They may come into conflict with each other. I tend to feel that people are pretty smart.

What’s going on when people believe weird things is not that they are unable to reason statistically or mathematically, I think it’s just that there are different parts of their reasoning that are saying different things and you happen to be listening to one over the other.

I certainly think skepticism is a virtue in mathematics. One thing I say in the book a lot is that people have this conception that mathematics is about answers, where somebody comes to us with a question and we have the magic 8-ball of math and say the answer is 37.2. And mathematics is very good at finding answers. But the real guts of the matter is asking the right questions. Giving an answer is something any computer can do. But figuring out the right question, that’s really mathematics.

Sign up for Cap Times newsletters:


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular