Archive for June 2nd, 2012
Yesterday afternoon, a friend mentioned that in his experience people are usually embarrassed to be exposed as illiterate, but they don’t seem to care whether they are exposed as mathematically incompetent. That observation resonated with me. In fact, not only aren’t people embarrassed about being mathematically incompetent, but many people seem proud of being mathematically illiterate. They use their mathematical incompetence to socially bond with other people who are mathematically incompetent. More than a few times, someone in the room has mentioned that they’re not very good with numbers and several other people in the room immediately come to their rescue indicating that it’s okay to be mathematically incompetent because they too struggled with mathematics.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that American students are so deficient at mathematics compared to the students in many other countries while, at the same time, Americans have such bizarre public policy priorities (e.g., a zero tolerance policy toward terrorism at the same time that thousands of Americans are dying needlessly of treatable medical conditions and while millions of American children are subjected to terribly underfunded schools that will ruin their lives).
After yesterday’s conversation, I pulled out an 1988 book by John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. here’s what Paulos has to say right in his introduction:
Innumeracy, an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance, plagues far too many otherwise knowledgeable citizens. The same people who cringe when words such as “imply” and “infer” are confused react without a trace of embarrassment to even the most egregious of numerical solecisms. I remember once listening to someone at a party drone on about the difference between “continually” and “continuously.” Later that evening we were watching the news, and the TV weather forecaster announced that there was a 50% chance of rain for Saturday and a 50% chance for Sunday, and concluded that there was therefore a 100% chance of rain that weekend. The remark went right by the self-styled grammarian, and even after I explained the mistake to him, he wasn’t nearly as indignant as he would’ve been had the weathercaster left a dangling participle. In fact, unlike other failings which are hidden, mathematical illiteracy is often flaunted: “I can’t even balance my checkbook.” “I’m a people person, not a numbers person.” Or “I always hated math.”
Paulos suggests that part of the reason for this ignorance of mathematics is that the consequences are often not as obvious as those of other weaknesses. On the other hand, the problems caused by innumeracy are serious, often times matters of life and death. Paulos lists the following examples:
Stock scams, choice of a spouse, newspaper psychics, diet and medical claims, the risk of terrorism, astrology, sports records, elections, sex discrimination, UFOs, insurance and law, psychoanalysis, parapsychology, lotteries, and drug testing…
Why do people struggle so much with mathematics? Paulos points to natural psychological responses to uncertainty, to coincidence, and how problems are framed, as well as anxiety, romantic misconceptions about nature and the importance of mathematics. One of the biggest consequences of innumeracy are “unfounded and crippling anxieties” and “impossible and economically paralyzing demands for risk-free guarantees.” Paulos mentions that politicians are rarely helpful, because they are often “loathe to clarify the likely hazards and trade-offs associated with almost any policy.”
It’s been a while since I read Innumeracy, but I highly recommend it. It is a timeless book filled with examples to remind us of the importance of a precise understanding of mathematics. Paulos indicates, “The book will have been well worth the effort if it can begin to clarify just how much innumeracy pervades both our private and/or public lives.”
By the way, if you know someone who is struggling with mathematics, Paulos book is a good place to start. He is an excellent teacher of math as well as a clear writer. If you know someone who wants to understand basic math, refer them to the many free video lessons at Khan Academy.
Once we master math, I would suggest that we turn to biology. It is my firm belief that all of us would be much better off with an understand of human beings based on the understanding that humans are human animals.
Here is a thoughtful mass email I received today from Alan Grayson:
Yesterday, the 10-year Treasury note hit its lowest interest rate in history. For the third day in a row.
I didn’t hear that reported. Did you?
Treasury notes started trading in substantial amounts during World War I, almost 100 years ago. Until Wednesday of this week, the lowest interest rate in history on 10-year notes was 1.672%. That was in February 1946, twelve years before I was born. (That rate re-appeared, for a few brief moments, last September.)
On Tuesday, the rate for 10-year notes closed at 1.73%. On Wednesday, the rate dropped past the all-time low, and kept going, finishing at 1.62%. Thursday set a new all-time low, finishing at 1.58%. On Friday, the rate for 10-year notes finished at 1.47%.
That’s a 15% drop. In three days.
The yield on 10-year Treasury notes actually plunged all the way down to 1.44% during Friday trading. That’s the new all-time low. Until Monday, at least.
Here are some questions that come to mind:
Why is this happening?
Is this good news or bad news? (Hint to Obama Administration: you can take credit for it.)
Will the trend continue?
What does it mean for the middle class? For mortgages and car loans? For corporate profits? For fiscal policy?
Who gains and who loses?
Unfortunately, there are no answers to any of these questions today, because reaching a 100-year low in interest rates is not considered news.
Here are the headlines yesterday from the Associated Press:
The unemployment rate rose from 8.1% to 8.2%.
The UN Human Rights Council voted to condemn Syria.
There was a large fire in New Mexico (video!).
A black bear wondered into a schoolyard (more video!).
Here are the headlines yesterday from ABC News:
A teacher slapped a student.
A roommate issued a humorous apology for taking someone else’s milk from the fridge.
“Why Idiot Humans Are Best Cyber Weapon”
A new record was set for world’s longest Ferris Wheel ride.
A mother choked a bully.
I hate to be a scold. I really do. But important things are happening. Can someone in the media, or among our so-called leaders, please pay some attention? Please?
You can’t lead people anywhere if your eyes are closed.
Ralph Nader asks why we aren’t hearing an outcry by lawyers, whose duty it is to be the first responders when a politician shreds the Constitution.
The drones have killed civilians, families with small children, and even allied soldiers in this undeclared war based on secret “facts” and local grudges (getting even). These attacks are justified by secret legal memos claiming that the president, without any Congressional authorization, can without any limitations other than his say-so, target far and wide assassinations of any “suspected terrorist,” including American citizens.
The bombings by Mr. Obama, as secret prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, trample proper constitutional authority, separation of powers, and checks and balances and constitute repeated impeachable offenses. That is, if a pathetic Congress ever decided to uphold its constitutional responsibility, including and beyond Article I, section 8’s war-declaring powers. …
Sadly, the bulk of our profession, as individuals and through their bar associations, has remained quietly on the sidelines. They have turned away from their role as “first-responders” to protect the Constitution from its official violators.
[The New York Times recently] reported that a weekly role of the president is to personally select and order a “kill list” of suspected terrorists or militants via drone strikes or other means. The reporters wrote that this personal role of Obama’s is “without precedent in presidential history.” Adversaries are pulling him into more and more countries – Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other territories.