Saturday, November 15, 2008

Math and Your Life

In the deluge of catalogs in the mail that comes with each Christmas season, I received a catalog today from Signals, the marketing side of National Public Televison. One of the products in this catalog has prompted me to move to the top of my priority list writing an essay about the socially acceptable practice, even among the well educated, to joke about being math averse. This openly voiced opinion, exhibiting no shame, greatly angers me. In fact, I find it to be unpatriotic! The inability of the people of this country to do math, even basic arithmetic, is an enormous drag on the economy and productivity of the country.

Let's look at the variety of t-shirts and sweatshirts offered in this catalog to evaluate the attitudes that are found acceptable to the viewing audience of PBS. There is one shirt that simply states, all in caps, DANGEROUSLY OVEREDUCATED. Others clearly show a preference for those who studied the "Liberal Arts," reading "I am the Grammarian about whom your mother warned you." and "ENGLISH MAJOR, YOU DO THE MATH." Clearly it is desirable to speak English very well, including the use of "big words," as in "I AM DISINCLINED TO ACQUIESCE TO YOUR REQUEST." The products are also aimed directly at teachers, featuring shirts that state: "The dog ate my lesson plan," and "Those who can do. Those who can do more teach."

One of the curious aspects of the appeal to the math averse is that the aversion does not extend to professional disciplines for which an in depth working knowledge of mathematics is a requirement, such as chemistry: "If you're not part of the solution, You're part of the precipitate;" astronomy: "when I was your age, pluto was a planet;" computers: "There are only 10 kinds of people. Those who understand binary and those who don't;" finance: "I 'heart' spreadsheets;" and art: featuring ties with Escher tiling patterns. This even extended to cooking with a pi(e) plate that features an large Greek letter pi in the bottom and the first few dozen digits of the value of pi running around the rim.

But the shirt that really ticked me off was the first one shown near the front of the catalog that stated: "I was promised there would be no math involved." It is not as if this attitude was confined to only the marketing people at PBS. I have even heard a similar attitude spoken on the Nightly New Hour! I cannot understand why this is acceptable, first to believe it as a an "educated" person, but also to express such an attitude expecting it to be understood as common to the educated television audience! The very fact of making the statement shows the speaker to be uneducated!

Why is math aversion such a serious matter? Because our corporations have been telling us that the students graduating from our schools are not prepared to go to work for them, even at lower levels. They must train them themselves. For many years now students attending our colleges have not been choosing to major in the sciences and engineering, in large measure because they have not been prepared to succeed in those professions. It is clear to anyone who has made any retail purchase that it is very unusual to encounter a clerk who can make change. In fast food restaurants workers need not even know the cost of each item; they merely hit the properly labeled key for each item, enter the amount proffered and the correct change is calculated for them. Even so, if the cash register does not return the change automatically, they may have trouble getting it right. These things used to be taught in elementary school. Perhaps if people understood simple mathematics, they would not have blithely accepted credit cards with interest rates of 25 - 36%. They should have known what the implications of those interest rates were. If our education system produced people who understood math, perhaps they would have better understood the mortgage contracts that they signed. Most Americans have no basis for making a risk/benefit analysis, necessary for both the mortgage and the credit card analysis.

During the recent election the news became obsessed with polls, daily polls, aggregated polls, rolling polls, local polls, national polls, etc. However, you could easily see that the reporters and anchors were completely unable to understand and interpret these polls. It appeared that this was also true of one of the candidates campaigns. To understand the polls one must understand statistics and sampling. That is, you must know how the data that goes into the polls was taken and then how to understand what the data means after it has been processed. To do this you need to understand the basics of statistics and a little about statistical error and sampling error. This year, as individual polls fluctuated, the news organizations learned that they could rely upon web site authors like Nate Silver of and Mark Blumenthal of to help them understand what the polls meant. These men became fixtures on the news programs and their websites provide valuable information and education to their readers. The math geeks won one.

This country is in dire need of a new generation of technically educated people to reinvigorate our economy. This situation is not helped by having comments laughing about one's inability to do simple mathematics made on the PBS Nightly New Hour! In fact, the only on air personality I have heard dismayed by his loss of some ability of do math quickly is Keith Olberman, who stated that, when he was a full time sportscaster, he used math every day and was capable of making rapid calculations.

Perhaps it is time for a sweatshirt that says "Those who can do. Those who can do more teach math."

1 comment:

  1. "Dangerously overeducated" makes a more ironic statement than complaints about math. I used to have a t-shirt printed with encryption code that was deemed a munition for purposes of export.

    The craven nature of (most of) our media is unnecessary to emphasize. I cringe every time I see a "non-scientific" poll on the local news or a web site. What possible purpose can be served from collecting data designed to be meaningless?

    The general question of the place of education in society, in particular, of how we place a relative value on an educated citizen versus the multitude of other parameters such as a rich citizen or famous citizen - this question clearly suffers from a strong selection effect. An "over" educated cohort will preferentially care - or even be aware - of such a question much more than the undereducated multitudes.

    That said, there are many books and journals (many incredibly dismal, I'm sure) attending to the question. Start with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and move on from there.

    Regarding the false tension between mathematicians and grammarians, I might recommend Steven Pinker's book, "The Stuff of Thought". He demonstrates how physics and geometry and math are built directly into the language (all languages) that we use. Someone analyzing a grammar is performing operations very similar to mathematics. That they themselves may not recognize this is unfortunate, that they might choose to make insipid comments denigrating the lovely grammars of math itself might even be tragic - with a little "T".

    Whatever actions that are required to save the world from its own folly, requiring proper education - or even attitude - regarding mathematics can't be one of them. The population is too large and growing too fast, the time too short, and the math teachers too few. - Rob


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