Saturday, March 3, 2012

Math Illiteracy is Killing us: Sometimes Figures do Lie

English: UNESCO International Literacy DayImage via Wikipedia
We often hear about the world’s problem with illiteracy; according to UNESCO, there are about one billion non-literate adults in the world; and in the United States, we often bemoan the fact that we have high school graduates who can’t complete a simple driver’s license application.  The numbers are, in fact, staggering. Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write for understanding, and those one billion illiterate adults account for nearly 30 percent of the world’s population.  Worse, two-thirds of them are women, who are the transmitters of culture, and 98 percent live in developing countries where there is a pressing need for people who can contribute to pulling these countries out of poverty.

The world has, though, another literacy problem that is just as devastating, and few pay it any attention; mathematical illiteracy.  The sad fact is that throughout the world, in advanced countries as well as poorer countries, people lack the ability to read and use numbers with any real sense of meaning.  Mispronounce or use a word incorrectly, and it’s instantly noticed, and often commented upon.  But, when otherwise educated people mangle numbers, no one seems to notice.

In his book, Damned Lies and Statistics, for instance, Joel Best tells of a dissertation prospectus by a PhD candidate that began with the following carefully footnoted quotation: “Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled.”  This dubious statement went unchallenged by the professors, and was from an otherwise reliable source.  Its problem is, it is absolutely ridiculous.  Even assuming only one child gunned down in 1950, by 1987, the number of murdered children would have been in the neighborhood of 137 billion; higher than the best estimates of the entire world population.

How this inaccurate quote came to be is less relevant than what it demonstrates.  Math is hard for people to grasp, and most people don’t consider this deficiency important.  But, math illiteracy is important.  Understanding numbers is as important in our daily lives as being able to read.  Math literacy is important to such things as deciding on which cell phone calling plan is the best offer to deciding on a mortgage.  Whether we know it or not, math plays a critical role in everything from picking foods and counting calories when we’re on a diet, to understanding policy decisions implemented by our government; decisions that are often supported by statistics and other numerical data.

In a test of the theory of math illiteracy, I recently conducted a little experiment.  The results are by no means scientific, but nevertheless instructive.  On my Facebook page I posted the following quiz:  “If I offered you one thousand dollars or one penny, promising to double the penny every day, which would you take?”  I was shocked at the number of people who opted for the thousand dollars.  When I later explained compounding, and even included a table to illustrate, someone shot back with “You didn’t say you’d double the sum of the penny.”  I was frankly perplexed, because this not only revealed a lack of math literacy, but a lack of basic verbal understanding as well.  I later tried the same experiment with my wife, who is the custodian of the family finances.  Her first reaction was the same; there’s no way a penny doubled daily could be more than one thousand dollars in a mere thirty days.  To her credit, she then retired to a corner with a pencil and notepad.  An hour later, she came to my study with a stupefied look on her face.  The fact that a mere penny had multiplied to over a million dollars in a short thirty days was something that the image of one cent versus one thousand dollars had blinded her to.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many people who will do what my significant other did.  Most people simply accept the numbers they’re given and assess them based on surface appearance, take them at face value, or make a judgment based on cultural or social bias.  Our schools aren’t helping either.  As far as I know, understanding the true meaning of numbers and statistics is not part of the secondary education curriculum – and, more’s the pity.  While we’re spending to reverse the declining trend in literacy, let’s not forget math literacy to help people make better, more informed decisions in their lives. 

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