The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, August 28, 2009

You Do Know That You Are Not Actually Bad at Math, Right?

Most people who think they are bad at math are in fact probably not bad at it. However, because they have decided that they are, they have given up one of the most powerful tools they have for examining the world around them.

Let me use myself as a case study. I am, and have always been, lousy at algebra. I can do the basics, but when it gets down to even moderately difficult quadratic equations, I am in over my head.

But I am not bad at math.

To most people, these seem like two contradictory statements. After all doesn't bad at algebra=bad at math?

Well, no.

I always like listening to the BBC announcers talk about math education. They will speak not of math instructors, but of maths instructors - yeah, math with an "s", as in plural.

I have friends who are mathematicians and physicists, and one of the things that they often comment on is the tendency of the general public to equate arithmetic with math, when arithmetic is only one of many different types of math (and algebra is only one form of arithmetic).

Geometry, statistics, calculus, symbolic logic, trigonometry - all different forms of math. They all use arithmetic, true, but to equate arithmetic with math is a bit like equating a wrench with automobile repair: the wrench is only one of many tools used by a mechanic, and arithmetic is only one of many tools used by mathematicians.

While in high school, I always was in danger of flunking my algebra classes. However, I had no problem in geometry, performed well (and even actually enjoyed) trigonometry, and blew my teacher's mind when I proved that I understood calculus perfectly but was simply having trouble doing the algebraic equations (mind you, this was fifteen years ago and I haven't used calculus since, so I doubt I could do this any longer). Hell, at the age of ten I had even taught myself to write fairly complex computer programs, which is really nothing but an exercise in applied mathematics.

I am quite good with logic - and I have the GRE scores, piles of books and photocopied articles with notes in the margins, and myriad of executed research designs to prove it.

In college and graduate school, I discovered that I had a very strong intuitive grasp of statistics. My talent with this form of math would explain why I had began to become frustrated with most political debate over empirical issues while a teenager - I knew that people were mis-applying data even if I lacked the vocabulary to explain it.

The point to all of this is simple - many people decide that they are bad at math because they have difficulty with arithmetic while in elementary school or high school. As a result, they become either disinterested or intimidated by mathematics when used in an argument. Alternatively, some folks will simply decide that mathematical arguments are themselves "mumbo jumbo" and dismiss them, which is equally problematic. Even worse, many people simply conclude that math has no relevance to their lives.

This wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't for the fact that people in all of these categories vote.

Consider a basic example:

Charlton Heston wants to maintain the gun rights of US citizens. Rosie O'Donnell wants to eliminate them. Charlton provides data showing a correlation between gun ownership and lower crime rates. Rosie provides data showing a correlation between gun ownership and higher rates of accidental deaths.

Now, assuming that both if you don't bother to look at the data that is provided, you would likely do one of three things: 1) go with your "gut feeling" and accept the data that supports your conclusion, 2) decide that the matter is too complicated and confusing and not reach a conclusion, or 3) decide that one or both proponents are lying.

If you follow any of these three routes, and politicians are aware that you likely will, then you can be easily manipulated by people who want you to vote a particular way.

If, on the other hand, you are not intimidated by or apathetic to math, you can take another route.

If you know enough about statistics, you can look at the data and ask a few important questions: Are the correlations shown in the data sets statistically significant, or are they the sort of variation that one would expect from random chance? If the correlations are statistically significant, are they strong enough to justify policy change? Are the correlations evidence of causation, or is there another factor or set of factors causing gun ownership, higher death rates, and/or lower crime rates? Was the data collected in such a way that the studies are, in fact, comparable to each other?

This applies to many other alleged controversies. Understanding statistics will help you to see through the bullshit with the anti-vaccination lobby, help you determine which medications (and which alternative therapies) actually work and which are snake oil, it will help you to understand crime statistics and see through nonsensical political arguments about them, economic arguments, and even some basic political theory.

And it doesn't stop there. Having a knowledge of geometry, calculus, and basic physics will help you to avoid the 9-11 "truth" hoaxers (by which I mean that people who claim that it was actually controlled explosions, or whatever the nutty belief of the week is), understand the meaning of the Kennedy assassination film, and follow discussions about engineering when they show up in front of Congress.

The point is, once you understand a bit about math, you are less gullible and more informed when you are in the ballot box. Math is, quite literally, power, and it is likely that those in power would prefer that you not be aware of that - then they might actually start having to do their jobs.

On the other hand, it will help you to better understand science, and contrary to what many a self-proclaimed poet I know has claimed, knowing science doesn't spoil the beauty of the world or make it duller, it reveals all new levels of beauty and wonder from which those who deny science have eternally shut themselves away.

But first we have to understand that being bad at arithmetic doesn't mean that you are bad at math. And from there, you have to get educated - but the good news is, once you accept that you may be good at math, learning about it can be alot of fun.


Rachel said...

Wait, isn't Charlton Heston dead? Or is that just what Rosie O'Donnell wants me to believe? I bet if I was better at maths, I could puzzle this out.

mr zig said...

great post! (I found myself in a math teaching position this year, so I found it particularly interesting!)

Anthroslug said...

Do not allow yourself to be confused by Rosie O'Donnell's propoganda, Rachel. Charlton Heston is just a character played by Moses, and Moses can not die.

Mr Zig: Thanks! I am often frustrated by the people I meet who dismiss math as useless or irrelevant when it is in fact both useful and important for our daily lives. Even the abstract concepts derived from math are valuable. So, here's wishing you luck in your teaching position!

Evan Davis said...

Lisa describes herself as bad at math and she outdoes many of her relatives mathmatically all the time. These same people refer to her as bad at math. Funny.