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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > March April 2016 > A Numerate Life

A Numerate Life

The man who brought us Innumeracy and touted the benefits of mathematical thinking begins his ‘anti-memoir’ by conveying concerns and questions we should have about biographies . . . or our own lives.

Excerpted by the author from A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours, published in November 2015 by Prometheus Books.

Whether because of my natural temperament, my training as a mathematician, or a late midlife reckoning and reconsideration, I look on the whole biographical endeavor, my own included, as a dubious one. Even George Washington’s signature line about cutting down the cherry tree, “I cannot tell a lie,” is probably flap-doodle. More likely he said, “No comment” or “I don’t recall the incident” or maybe “The tree was rotten anyway.” I tend to scoff when reading that a new biography has revealed that the great So-And-So always did X because (s)he secretly believed Y. I’m not particularly ornery, but I often react to such statements about the alleged actions or beliefs of well-known people with a silent That’s B.S. A more likely reaction if someone makes the claim directly to me is a polite, but pointed “How do you know that?” or even “How could anyone know that?” or, in the case of autobiographies, “How could anyone remember that?”

Memories are often inaccurate or fabricated, perspectives biased, “laws” and assumptions unfounded, contingencies unpredictable; even the very notion of a self is suspect. (But like the nutritionist who secretly enjoys candy and donuts, I’ve always enjoyed reading [auto]biographies, ranging from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson,LL.D. to Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club.)

Given my skepticism of the biographical enterprise, it might seem I’ve taken a bold and/or foolhardy step to write a quasi-memoir of my own, but quasi- here means “not so much.”

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