Book Review: “How Not To be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg 

Bill Gates recommended this book to me. [Translation —I read it on Bill Gates’ Summer Reading List ]. Let’s start off the bat and say this is one of the more challenging books I have read over the course of the past year, but it was well worth the effort. The central thesis, written by University of Wisconsin-Madison mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg, is how mathematics (who would have guessed?) can explain a lot in life, but it’s about asking the right questions that helps elevate your thinking.

Ellenberg eloquently goes through a history of mathematics beginning with highlights like Isaac Newton and even getting digs into the Laffer Curve (broken down here, but basically the underlying theory behind lowering taxes during the Reagan era). This book is definitely challenging for the non-mathematically inclined, but Ellenberg does a good job of digging through the clutter and avoids complex theorems to talk about the meaning behind them. Some parts did become tedious, but the book opens up a new perspective on how mathematics is a set of tools that can be us

ed wisely or poorly.

One of the salient points is that breaking down things simply is a trademark of intelligence. If you can’t explain something to a younger child, it may be that you don’t fully understand it. Here are a few key takeaways that I got from the book here:

  • Don’t talk about percentages of numbers when thenumbers might be negative (like net job gains)
  • Improbable things happen a lot!
  • If you’re field testing a mathematical method, try several different approaches. If you get several different answers, something is wrong with your method.
  • Doubling a small number is still a small number (e.g. double your chances of getting a disease!)
  • Statistics can be misleading. An important question to ask is the conditional probability: “What’s the chance the null hypothesis is correct given that we observe a certain experiment result?” NOT, “What’s the chance observed experiment result could happen given null is correct.”
  • Big Data isn’t magic.

Overall: I would highly recommend this book for those who have an interest in expanding their horizons or a refresher on mathematics. Ellenberg brings in interesting examples from Wisconsin politics to scamming the lottery. The book can lag in certain parts, but overall it’s an exciting read and I would love to audit any class by Ellenberg.

Relationship with FIRE: It’s a little loose, but I think there are tremendous opportunities to grow and learn as you get older. Simply re-framing your question can be a powerful tool to do so. Also, there’s a chapter on lottery scamming that may help you find some devious way to become financially independant sooner than you think!

jordan ellenberg, math, book, book cover

Where can I find it? 

  • Check your local library first.
  • Otherwise purchase on Amazon