Thursday, January 11, 2007

Once upon a number: John Allen Paulos

At his faint chuckle she turned and faced her once-beloved uncle. Unceremoniously she ripped the papers from the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt as he nervously backed away toward the hotel room door, and with unmitigated disgust at both his blubber and his duplicity she hissed, “Twenty-two point eight percent of all bankruptcies filed between July 1995 and June 1997 were attributed to bad legal advice, up nine point two percent over the last biennial period.”

“I did the best I could,” the 273-pound man answered faintly. He was desperate to avoid further rousing his enraged niece, who despite her lithe figure, 113 pounds, and angelic face was capable of inflicting severe damage. Once safely in the hallway, however, he took heart and offered, “A meta-analysis of several studies suggests that fewer than forty percent of legal malpractice cases are due to malicious intent, the balance to simple incompetence.” At this she lunged at him, tearing into his thick neck with strong, sharp fingers and ripping the shirt from his bloodied back.

Thus begins Once upon a number. Suggesting that words and numbers don’t quite sit together well.

Once upon a number is a series of small pieces, loosely joined. On mathematical theorems, logical aphorisms, natural laws, and objective probabilities. And the odd comparison between stories and math. One comparison is revealing.

In listening to stories, we are inclined to suspend disbelief so as to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we are inclined to suspend belief so as not to be beguiled.

The explanations of concepts like Bayes’ Theorem and aphorisms like Murphy’s Law are interesting and easy to understand. And the examples that support these explanations substantiate things quite effectively. The misuse of statistics in the defense of O J Simpson is an interesting story. The almost-inevitable nod to Occam’s Razor and references to computer-generated branching stories (considering this book was written in 1998, that can almost be termed prescient) and the post-modern “death of the author” argument gives the book dimension. The piece on John J. McCarthy’s The Doctor’s Dilemma is compelling reading. And the digression into humor through an appendix (Humor in Computation) in chapter 3 ( I wonder why it needed to be called an appendix) is probably the best part of the book.

At an aggregate level, Once… does come across a bit like a curate’s egg. And that could be on account of two factors. The first is that John Allen Paulos is a mathematician, not a storyteller. Therefore, the language and the weaving in of the stories and the math are not as tight as you would like. The second factor is perhaps the way the book has been structured – there are five broad chapters, each ostensibly covering one key basis for comparison between stories and math. Considering that ultimately the book is full of vignettes, the structure could have been different – smaller chapters with defined parameters for each chapter perhaps.

And the last paragraph in the book.

How we can maintain a place for the individual, protected from the overweening claims of religion, society, and even science, is an increasingly important unsolved problem. It’s solution, I have no doubt, will require simply and pragmatically accepting the indispensability of both stories and statistics and of their nexus, the individual who uses and is shaped by both. The gap between stories and statistics must be filled somehow by us.

A bit of a tall claim?

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