May 10, 1998|By KNIGHT-RIDDER TRIBUNE

Being a mathematician out to improve mathematical literacy in the United States sounds like serious business. John Allen Paulos insists it isn't.

Paulos' crusade has landed him on "Late Show with David Letterman" and Larry King's radio show, not to mention "Nightline" and C-SPAN. Critics describe his most recent book, "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as "witty," "fun and spunky" and "subversive." Fun and spunky? Math?

"You don't have to be so deathly earnest about such matters," Paulos says.

Paulos is not a math teacher who uses games to make algebra fun for kids. When he isn't writing books or appearing on TV and radio, he teaches calculus, probability and logic at Temple University in Philadelphia.

His target audience is adults, and his topic is the mathematics of everyday issues, such as politics or the O.J. Simpson trial - the sorts of things you find in the newspaper.

The problem is not that adults can't add or multiply, he says. It's that we don't know what numbers really mean, a far more serious failing. We read about cancer statistics or standardized test scores, but we often don't - or can't - evaluate what the numbers really say.

What does it mean that a medical test is "99 percent accurate," for example? Which poses the greater cancer risk - using a cellular phone or drinking tainted apple juice?

Our inability to grasp the finer points of math begins with the way we are taught it, Paulos says - all mechanics and rote recitation.

"If an analogous thing were done in English class - all you ever did was diagram sentences and worry about punctuation - you wouldn't be surprised if people didn't have an appreciation for literature," he says.

Paulos considered studying English and philosophy in college before being won over by the elegance of mathematics. But he also took a crack at stand-up comedy shortly after receiving his Ph.D.

The first of his five books, "Mathematics and Humor," is a study of the "operations and structures common to humor and the formal sciences (logic, mathematics and linguistics)." It was not a best seller.

But Paulos began to reach out to a wider audience after realizing that most people are oblivious to their mathematical deficiencies.

We may know we don't like math, he says, but we don't recognize when someone has made a mathematical gaffe or is using math to confuse us.

He recalls standing around at a party with several people, listening to a TV weatherman forecast a 50 percent chance of rain for both Saturday and Sunday. That meant, the weatherman concluded, that there would be a 100 percent chance of rain for the weekend.

Paulos was taken aback; the chance, of course, was still just 50 percent.

If the weatherman had made a grammatical error, everyone at the party would have caught it, Paulos says, but the mathematical mistake passed unnoticed.

Paulos says his fellow academic mathematicians are mostly indifferent to his high-profile campaign to improve math literacy; they tend to be focused on advanced mathematical research and aren't concerned about the masses. Which is part of the problem, he says.

"Ideally, this connecting mathematics to other subjects and everyday life should take place in classrooms," he says.

Sometimes in his writing, Paulos warns the reader that he's about to explain some serious math and that they may want to skip the next paragraph or two.

Some readers want the math explained to them, but Paulos doesn't want to scare off others.

"Many people are wary of numbers and formulas, and I don't bTC think that's the heart of mathematics anyway," he said. "Common sense or logic - that is the essence of mathematics."

Pub Date: 5/10/98