How Not To Be Wrongabout


The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how wrong this view is: Math touches everything we do, allowing us to see the hidden structures beneath the messy and chaotic surface of our daily lives. It’s a science of not being wrong, worked out through centuries of hard work and argument.

How early should you get to the airport? What do measures of “public opinion” really represent? Why do tall parents have shorter children? Who really won Florida in 2000? What’s the best way to get rich playing the lottery? How Not to Be Wrong presents the surprising revelations behind these and many more questions, using the mathematician’s methods and hard-won insights, minus the jargon. Ellenberg guides general readers along the way with rigor, humor and lively irreverence. Drawing from history as well as the latest theoretical developments, Ellenberg demonstrates that profound mathematical ideas are present whenever we reason, from the commonplace to the cosmic. It’s a dizzying spin through three thousand years of mathematics, encountering – among other things – baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, packing 24-dimensional spheres, what Facebook can and can’t figure out about you, the invention of calculus, and the existence of God.

Math, as Ellenberg says, is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” Math helps every kind of thinker think better—it hones our intuition, sharpens our judgment, tames uncertainty, and lets us see the deeper structure and logic of our world. Armed with the tools of mathematics, we can see through the static to the true meaning of information we usually take for granted. How Not to Be Wrong shows us how.


“Brilliantly engaging…. Ellenberg’s talent for finding real-life situations that enshrine mathematical principles would be the envy of any math teacher. He presents these in fluid succession, like courses in a fine restaurant, taking care to make each insight shine through, unencumbered by jargon or notation. Part of the sheer intellectual joy of the book is watching the author leap nimbly from topic to topic, comparing slime molds to the Bush-Gore Florida vote, criminology to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The final effect is of one enormous mosaic unified by mathematics.”
-Manil Suri, Washington Post

“Easy-to-follow, humorously presented…. This book will help you to avoid the pitfalls that result from not having the right tools. It will help you realize that mathematical reasoning permeates our lives—that it can be, as Mr. Ellenberg writes, a kind of “X-ray specs that reveal hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of the world.”
-Mario Livio, Wall Street Journal

“Witty, compelling, and just plain fun to read…. How Not to Be Wrong can help you explore your mathematical superpowers.”
-Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American

“A poet-mathematician offers an empowering and entertaining primer for the age of Big Data…. A rewarding popular math book for just about anyone.”
-Laura Miller, Salon

“I am reminded of the great writer of recreational mathematics, Martin Gardner: Ellenberg shares Gardner’s remarkable ability to write clearly and entertainingly, bringing in deep mathematical ideas without the reader registering their difficulty.”
-Tony Mann, Times Higher Education.


“The title of this wonderful book explains what it adds to the honorable genre of popular writing on mathematics. Like Lewis Carroll, George Gamow, and Martin Gardner before him, Jordan Ellenberg shows how mathematics can delight and stimulate the mind. But he also shows that mathematical thinking should be in the toolkit of every thoughtful person–of everyone who wants to avoid fallacies, superstitions, and other ways of being wrong.”
-Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works.

“With math as with anything else, there’s smart, and then there’s street smart. This book will help you be both. Fans of Freakonomics and The Signal and the Noise will love Ellenberg’s surprising stories, snappy writing, and brilliant lessons in numerical savvy. How Not to Be Wrong is sharp, funny, and right.”
—Steven Strogatz, Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University; author of The Joy of x

“Through a powerful mathematical lens Jordan Ellenberg engagingly examines real-world issues ranging from the fetishizing of straight lines in the reporting of obesity to the game theory of missing flights, from the relevance to digestion of regression to the mean to the counter-intuitive Berkson’s paradox, which may explain why handsome men don’t seem to be as nice as not so handsome ones. The coverage is broad, but not shallow and the exposition is non-technical and sprightly.”
—John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

“Jordan Ellenberg is a top mathematician and a wonderful expositor, and the theme of his book is important and timely. How Not to Be Wrong is destined to be a classic.”
—Timothy Gowers

“Jordan Ellenberg promises to share ways of thinking that are both simple to grasp and profound in their implications, and he delivers in spades. These beautifully readable pages delight and enlighten in equal parts.  Those who already love math will eat it up, and those who don’t yet know how lovable math is are in for a most pleasurable surprise.”
—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato At The Googleplex

“Brilliant and fascinating! Ellenberg shows his readers how to magnify common sense using the tools usually only accessible to those who have studied higher mathematics. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their worldly savviness—and math IQ!”
–Danica McKellar, actress and bestselling author of Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math