People can use incorrect mathematics to lie

Right now I’m reading the book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. I know what you’re thinking, I’m a writer, why am I reading a book about math? Actually, there’s a weird thing about me. I suck at mental math, up until now I don’t memorize the multiplication table, but I always had high grades in math. In fact, my math grades were higher than my English grades, and yet I never pursued a career in math. Huh.

Anyway, so I picked up this book because it promised to answer a perennial question that students ask, which is “When am I going to use this?” The book’s answer: math improves our way of thinking and helps us understand the world around us.

I’m only a few pages in and yet I already learned a few valuable things:

  1. Graphs help us understand the limits of linear thinking 

When someone makes an argument about the correlation of two things, the relationship of those two items is not necessarily linear, but it can be a bell curve. The book’s example is a graph on prosperity and Sweedishness (extent of being a social welfare state). For some people, the more Sweedish the USA government tries to be the less prosperous the US will be, but the relationship is more like a curve, wherein too much Sweedishness and too little Sweedishness can both lead to less prosperity. So the US has to hit the sweet spot in the middle and not necessarily completely reject Sweedishness.

2. Doubt a study says 100% will become obese

There are some studies that claim alarming percentages like “In 2048, all Americans will be obese.” This method is using linear regression where one is plotting data across a graph, and if one sees a straight line, one assumes that the line will just keep on rising in a straight path. If that is true, then at some point in the graph, it will predict that 109% of Americans will be obese in 2060. That’s like Putin’s election logic. More likely, the trends are parabolic in nature where it goes closer and closer to 100% but it never really gets there. Remember your derivatives from calculus? If not, remember the scene where Cady Heron from Mean Girls tried to solve the limit of something? That will do.

Whew! That was kinda tough to explain. Anyway, I’ll continue reading the book and write about the interesting things that I learn from it.

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