Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg: How Not to Be Wrong

In the summer of 2011, a political talking point made the rounds claiming that the state of Wisconsin under governor Scott Walker had produced more than half of the country’s new jobs for the month of June. Sure enough, America’s Dairyland had added 9,500 private sector jobs, while only 18,000 had been created nationwide. But there’s a catch: that 18,000 figure measured net new jobs, factoring in the many jobs lost across the country along with the tens of thousands created. In fact, job growth in a number of states actually outpaced Wisconsin’s. Texas alone added 32,000 jobs, so you could say, nonsensically, that it contributed 180% of the national total.

That load of hooey is far from the most egregious example of the muddled math that gets promulgated these days, not just by fact-spinning political hacks but also well-meaning journalists and public explainers. And our current infatuation with numerical evidence and data-driven everything isn’t going to help if we’re unequipped to interpret the numbers intelligently.

"The point of math isn’t solving problems," mathematician Jordan Ellenberg told me, "it’s understanding stuff." Jordan and I discussed some of the many ways we misunderstand stuff – "we’ meaning just about everyone, including the media, would-be experts and even some scientists – and how we can do better. Jordan is the author of the acclaimed new book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mathemagician Persi Diaconis

When he was 14, Persi Diaconis ran away from home to become one of the world’s great magicians. Now he’s a world-class mathematician, and his two professions have more in common than you might think.

Persi and I had a very entertaining conversation about his careers in show biz and academe, covering topics such as:

  • His friendships with other magicians, including Ricky Jay, Randi and Dai Vernon
  • Some surprisingly profound mathematical card tricks
  • Why science needs statisticians
  • Duping others and being duped himself
  • Why he’s so secretive

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Persi’s well-known as an inventor of original tricks and sometimes helps other performers come up with new routines. For instance, he had a hand in this classic bit from Steve Martin:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Show for Nov. 11, 2012: How to Predict an Election—Polling Aggregators Sam Wang and Drew Linzer

Nate Silver isn’t the only forecaster to project the results of last Tuesday’s presidential election with preternatural accuracy. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium and Drew Linzer of Votamatic both hit the bullseye, too, and they explained to me why it’s not really so preternatural after all (hint: statistics works). We talked about their methods, why so many pundits and political partisans missed the boat, and whether it’s bedtime for bloviators.

Fearless forecasters: Neuroscientist Sam Wang and Political Scientist Drew Linzer

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)