Innumeracy and the problems it causes

John Allen Paulos’ book Innumeracy tackles the fact that much of what is talked about in the public sphere shows an alarming lack of mathematical fluency. I had to agree with many of his points. (Though it might need a new edition; some of the writing seemed a bit dated, there were a frightening number of topical references to what Ronald Reagan was up to.)

I had to agree with his start. He notes how people often get super excited that speakers get ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ correct but then seem massively clueless about mathematical ideas. Despite the fact that math makes a lot more sense than the English language. (Which often seems to hark back to what some weird Roman thought filtered via some Normans and pompous Victorians.)

Sometimes people even seem pleased with themselves for not understanding math. “Part of the reason for this perverse pride in mathematical ignorance is that its consequences are not usually as obvious as are those of other weaknesses”. (Paulos, 2001, page 4). Particularly frustrating are the romantic notions about being poor at math. Namely that somehow being bad at math makes you better with people.

I do have my own example of innumeracy. Back when I was running the finances of the Labour Party in Britain we got a series of large donations that came to about £6 million. We were keen to emphasis that while this was a lot of money it was still a fraction of what we needed. (This was for political reasons, not to be seen as beholden to rich donors, and fundraising reasons, we really did still need a lot more money). The national political reporter for the BBC announced that this would pay for an election campaign — exactly the wrong message. He apparently thought a large number, £6 million, was the same as an even larger number,  ~£30 million. Someone whose job was to understand UK politics seem painfully clueless about the cost of politics in the UK. (I’m sure he had a lot of good gossip about the characters involved). If you don’t understand the numbers you simply don’t know what you are doing.

Paulos links innumeracy to general poor thinking skills and acceptance of the claims of pseudoscience.

Paulos suggests a safety index (on a log scale no less) to help us get a better idea of the risk of activities. It could be useful but it seems like we might have a way to explain log scales.

Innumeracy seems like a serious problem. Everyone can do math — there is no excuse for not trying.

Read: John Allen Paulos (2001) Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, Hill and Wang. original edition 1988.