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Math Science

Is Poor Numeracy Ruining Lives? 489

Hugh Pickens writes "The BBC reports on how millions of people struggle to understand a payslip or a train timetable, or pay a household bill. Government figures show that almost half the working population of England have only primary school math skills, and research suggests that weak math skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness. 'We are paying for this in our science, technology and engineering industries but also in people's own ability to earn funds and manage their lives,' says Chris Humphries. He is the chairman of National Numeracy, an organization seeking to emulate the success of the National Literacy Trust, which has helped improve reading and writing standards since it was set up nearly 20 years ago. The Department for Education wants the vast majority of young people to study math up to 18 within a decade to meet the growing demand for employees with high level and intermediate math skills. 'It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say "I can't do maths,"' adds Humphries. "
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Is Poor Numeracy Ruining Lives?

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  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:26PM (#39223419)
    Often either a customer or the cashier makes an arithmetic mistake and neither catches it. If the errors didnt average out over time, then I might have said something. Dont want to slow down the line.
    • by Rary ( 566291 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:37PM (#39223613)

      Cashiers used to be expected to be capable of some basic arithmetic, but not so anymore.

      It used to be that they would confirm the change amount by adding it up from the owed amount to the paid amount. Now, they just pile the change on top of the bills and silently try to slide it onto your hand, which invariably results in some of the precariously piled change falling onto the counter.

      And if, after they've rung it in and had the cash register tell them how much change to give, you try to give them a little extra change so that they'll give you back a nice round bill instead, then they'll just stare at you like you're trying to pay with live snails.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:43PM (#39223711)
        Some of that isn't the cashiers fault. It's amazing how many people get confused if you try to count back change like that now.

        On the other hand, I've seen some registers that instead of showing change due as $14.68 will show
        Except with pictures of the coins and bills.
        • by EdIII ( 1114411 )

          That might actually be required.

          CompUSA, before it went bankrupt, had some of the worst cashiers and managers of all time.

          I have tried to purchase a $30-$40 dollar item before, handed the girl a $100 bill, and she handed me back ~$160 dollars in change. I just looked at her for a moment and then nicely asked if she wanted to double check that. She acted like I was trying to rip her off and failed the double check. Gave her a quick math lesson and walked off.

          She needed the visual indications for what chan

      • ? Whenever I pay by cash the change amount is worked out on the register from the amount tendered. Seems like there is actually no need for any basic mathematical skills these days apart from just counting up the change to match the read out on the register. Not saying it is right, just that the modern cash register has made all but the most fundamental mathematical skills redundant at the cash point.
        • Sometimes, when I buy just three or four items, I add up the bill in my head while I am in the line. The following scene already happened to me two times: the cashier tells me the total, I realize it doesn't match, I make a strange face and say something, I double-check the bill, I realize that they have scanned an item twice. The saving was trivial, but the impression you make on the cashier is priceless.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Trapick ( 1163389 )
          This is terrible thinking. You're right, the cashier doesn't have to know anything about arithmetic to give out change - unless they accidentally hit the wrong button the register. Which they do. Because fingers are fat and slow, and registers are dumb machines. So when the cashier hits $10.00 instead of $20.00 for the bill I gave him, I want him to know enough math to give me an extra $10 in change - since that's what he owes me. If you think this is a trivial example, manage some cashiers sometime. A qua
          • .. cashier does no math ...

            Or offer the cashier something other than a couple of big bills to avoid getting a pocketful of change, and watch the light turn on when your change is a twoonie instead of 13 coins.

          • by w_dragon ( 1802458 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:30PM (#39228543)
            I worked at Wendy's through high school, so I have some experience with cash registers and handling those small amounts of cash. I also have a degree in math - simple arithmetic has never been an issue for me. That quarter of people who adjust quickly were either paying extra attention to you for some reason, or were new at their jobs. Handling a cash register is a simple, repetitive task so your brain quickly makes a habit out of the normal transaction and you do it unconsciously. When someone tells you you've made a mistake your brain turns off autopilot and dumps you into a situation you haven't really been aware of. They shouldn't need to call for help, but it does give you a moment of panic, like walking in the front door of your house and not remembering the trip home because you weren't really paying attention. That moment makes it look like you don't know what you're doing, but that isn't always the case.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        And if, after they've rung it in and had the cash register tell them how much change to give, you try to give them a little extra change so that they'll give you back a nice round bill instead, then they'll just stare at you like you're trying to pay with live snails.

        This is also the case, for different reasons, in Japan. If you give someone extra money to make the change a round number, they give it back to you first, and then give you change. And the most hilarious thing is that vending machines there have the exact same behavior.

        Disclairmer: I am no expert on japan, but this was the experience I had on a short trip there several years ago.

      • You wanna know what is sad? I ended up getting $25 worth of groceries free last year because the local grocery was gonna have to shut down because their cash registers went on the fritz. i told them "If you need them so bad why don't you just send someone down the street to pick up some cheapo calcs?' but since they were short handed the manager offered to pay me for the calcs AND give me my groceries for free if I'd go do it. They were late teens/early twenties and not a single one could count change witho

    • ex wife goes to a store armed with a 25% off coupon. buys a few items and goes to register. the cashier can't figure out 25% off, even with a calculator. so she calls the manager. they slap some buttons for a while and eventually decide on an amount that's 25% of the price... ex wife wishes she'd bought a cart load.
  • If you can't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:28PM (#39223447) Homepage
    If you can't add, you can't buy things.

    If you can't multiply / divide , you can't run a business.

    If you don't know anything about combinatorix (odds), you get suckered by any form of gambling, including insurance, warranties and the stock market.

    If you don't understand exponential math, you can't become wealthy.

    • Re:If you can't (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:36PM (#39223595)

      Insurance is not quite the same as gambling... while it is true that *if* you can afford it, self insurance (i.e. none) is generally more economical in the long run, most people are not able to absorb the high impact, low frequency damages that insurance protects against. If you can't absorb losing your house @ $250k, then you get fire insurance. If you can't absorb the cost of a new car in the event you crash your own, you get car insurance.

      The warranties thing is definitely true, though, as most people can afford a new computer ($1k) if their current one breaks. Given the price of extended warranties, if you buy it three or four times you have spent enough to buy a new machine anyway.

      • Re:If you can't (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Sique ( 173459 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:04PM (#39224071) Homepage

        Car insurance covers much more than just the new car. Car insurance mainly covers the damage you could inflict upon others if you make a mistake while driving. I don't know if you are able to pay the care for someone who is quadriplegic for the rest of his life because you hit his motocycle in an accident.

        • Re:If you can't (Score:4, Insightful)

          by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:50PM (#39224835)

          Car insurance has limits, and the legally mandated minimums are silly in some places. In many, if not all, U.S. states, the minimums are at or under $20k per person in bodily injury liability coverage. If I'd be seriously injured by someone in a car accident, then say $20k pretty much pays to get me in the door of a hospital and may cover a relatively simple trauma case like a simple fracture of a leg, say. It won't cover any rehabilitation, loss of wages, nor any complex procedures that include external circulation and such, nor will it cover more than a couple of days of stay in the hospital. IOW: it's a joke. I personally carry injury coverage for more than 25x that, and I seriously consider doubling or tripling that.

          • Re:If you can't (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:29PM (#39226187) Journal

            Of course, if most people were required to bear complete financial responsibility for an accident, they'd be unable to drive. That would grind the economy to a halt. The real solution to this problem is universal health care. If you get into an accident, it shouldn't matter how wealthy the person at fault is.

        • Where I live only the car insurance that covers your damage and liabilities to others is mandatory. I expect that is common. Collision (what we call own damage) and fire/theft/etc... is optional.

    • Oh well, if you do not understand exponential maths, you can become an economist preaching that the status quo is sustainable. Good money to be made there.
    • > If you don't understand exponential math, you can't become wealthy.

      I know a guy who married into wealth. I'm pretty sure there wasn't a test...

    • you get suckered by any form of gambling, including insurance, warranties and the stock market.

      Ever wonder why the State Gambling Commissions revenues go back to schools? Probably to buy equipment for the sports programs.

  • by Oswald McWeany ( 2428506 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:28PM (#39223457)

    Don't know about Numeracy - but numerology ruined my life. Fortune cookie told me 05 14 46 52 56 were my lucky numbers. I ran up huge credit card debt expecting to win the lottery with these numbers... then I found out fortune cookie didn't give me the powerball number.

  • by sconeu ( 64226 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:28PM (#39223459) Homepage Journal

    That many people are proud of their innumeracy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I agree with you. Sad thing is that the three of us can't change the world.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:30PM (#39223483)

    The generally poor understanding of numbers on the part of others adversely affects my life as well. Not only to the extent that they make poor decisions for themselves, but from the way they make poor decisions on my behalf. Damn politicians.

    • Citizenship math (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:36PM (#39223597) Homepage Journal

      A large part of the problem is that if they got math at all then it was part of the track to the physical sciences (algebra -> algebra 2 -> calculus -> differential equations).

      Voters who aren't in a physics-based career need math, but not the same branch of it. Statistics is critical. Understanding what correlation means and what it doesn't, what a control group is for, recognizing sample bias, and definitely the base rate fallacy are all vital for resisting propaganda.

      • by SomeKDEUser ( 1243392 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:25PM (#39226133)

        Actually, people need to understand what are models. And yes, this includes understandings statistics, and errors.

        It is essentially the same skill that makes you understand that "this move will cut x$ from the budget" contains no information and what order of magnitude your change is supposed to be. You create models all the time: a car approaches: should you cross the road? It depends on the speed of the cars and yours. You could calculate the results, but the important thing is that you can identify which are the factors, why they matter and that you could bash them together to get a numerical answer. Then, you can decide whether you really want to do that.

        The point is that people bemoan innumeracy in terms of "people can't add numbers in their heads very well". Well duh. This is why before calculators, we had abacuses, and why computers used to be people. But it is irrelevant: the basic skill is making models of reality, realising that you can get numbers out of them if needed, and that what matters is the _model_ of the guy selling you this insurance/car/political programme. His numbers may be crap, but you may fix that. If his model is based on the interpretation of the multiply mistranslated myths of bronze-aged shepherds, then beware.

      • Trivial subjects (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Pfhorrest ( 545131 ) on Saturday March 03, 2012 @01:19AM (#39229329) Homepage Journal

        This. Basic statistics education for the win.

        There used to be a thing in classical education called the "trivium". It's the origin of our modern English word "trivial", and the latter got its meaning because the trivium was considered the basic groundwork that every educated adult was expected to know already. It consisted of three subjects: grammar, (propositional) logic, and rhetoric. We only bother trying to teach the first of these to people today, and generally let them reach adulthood without having really mastered even it.

        I think that these three "trivial" subjects should not only be reinstated, but they should be paired with comparable mathematical subjects which should be considered equally trivial requirements for any adult: arithmetic, (elementary) algebra, and statistics.

        In primary school, kids should learn their grammar and arithmetic, and be capable of accomplishing basic tasks with words and numbers, writing and understanding qualitative and quantitative statements.

        In middle school, kids should learn their elementary algebra and propositional logic, and be capable of meaningfully converting qualitative and quantitative statements between each other, seeing how words and numbers relate to each other in a more abstract way.

        In high school, kids should learn statistics and rhetoric, to be able to persuade people with both words and numbers and, even more importantly, to avoid being mislead by others attempting to do the same.

        Trigonometry, calculus, and all the more advanced mathematics are awesome and may be necessary depending on what you want to do, but are not necessary just to function in the world. Likewise predicate and modal logics and all the more complex variations on those; anyone who argues for a living (i.e. most politicians, lawyers, etc) should be required to understand them as much as a physicist needs to know calculus, but normal people can get by well enough without them.

        But grammar, arithmetic, elementary algebra, propositional logic, rhetoric, and statistics... those are just... trivial.

        Or, I guess, "sexial". Which might help sell it? Support sexium education today! It's the other "sex ed"!

  • by RichMan ( 8097 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:33PM (#39223533)

    The education system needs to require results not just apply time and expect education to happen due to exposure.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:33PM (#39223535)
    Life is hard; it's harder when you're stupid.
  • Must be said (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Innumeracy is what keeps the mythology of supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve alive.

    • Re:Must be said (Score:5, Informative)

      by Mindcontrolled ( 1388007 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:48PM (#39223791)

      Innumeracy is what keeps the mythology of supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve alive.

      The usual Laffer curve argument doesn't even rely on innumeracy, it relies on the inability of those to be indoctrinated to do basic logic. Has anyone actually *seen* this fabled curve? All you get is the trivial cases of no revenue at 0 and 100% tax rate, and, ergo *jedi hand wave*, we must lower taxes. If you do actually plot revenue against rate for different countries, you get a complete mess which you cannot fit against any meaningful function. That is not the purpose anyway, the whole Laffer curve argument relies on that Jedi hand wave.

      • Re:Must be said (Score:5, Informative)

        by khallow ( 566160 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:39PM (#39224659)

        All you get is the trivial cases of no revenue at 0 and 100% tax rate, and, ergo *jedi hand wave*, we must lower taxes

        It is a consequence of three things, the assumption that revenue as a function of tax rate is continuous (loosely, that small changes in tax rate mean small changes in revenue), the above assumption that there is zero revenue at 0 and 100% tax rate, and Rolle's Theorem [wikipedia.org]. The combination of those three things yields the Laffer curve. The theorem is unassailable. That means one of the two assumptions have to be wrong before the Laffer curve model is wrong.

        You aren't really complaining about the Laffer curve, but rather about a rhetorical and unwarranted jump from existence of the curve to deciding that tax rates must be lowered. That only would be true, if a) the current tax rate is above the optimal rate, and b) maximizing or increasing tax revenue is a primary goal, neither which was established in your example.

        It doesn't help that figuring out what the Laffer curve looks like is extraordinarily hard. For example, there's no reason to expect that the Laffer curve for the US and Sweden would be the same. The primary reason just being the relevant effectiveness of public spending in each country. The US is remarkably less effective at spending public funds (at all levels of government) than Sweden is.

        So one would expect that a lower tax rate would be more effective in the US for increasing overall revenue (that is, private sources are more effective at increasing value and future revenue relative to public means in the US than the same in Sweden). And actual tax rates (including state and local levels) in the US are usually lower than those in Sweden.

  • Just ask anyone relying on Social Security's solvency in 20 years.

  • by manonthemoon ( 537690 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:38PM (#39223617) Homepage

    My eldest son is a whiz- he's a couple years ahead and should get through AP Calculus and Stats by the time he gets through HS.

    On the other hand we adopted 5 girls from foster care and it is a STRUGGLE. I don't know how much of it is organic (all of them were exposed to drugs/alcohol in utero) and how much of it is early formative, but they all have incredible difficulty making the most basic inference or deduction or story problem. I'm really concerned for them because I forsee them potentially running into the roadblocks referenced by the article summary. But there are in fact SOME excuses for saying "I can't do maths." Some people may never be able to master the basics no matter how hard they try.

    Not to say we are in any manner giving up. They get extra tutoring at school and spend hours doing homework, despite being in elementary school, but different people have different top levels of achievement and sometimes that level is below what any of us would like.

    • You strike upon an important point.

      In my own experience, the hardest part about math is mastering the basics (simple arithmetic). But after that point, learning most things mathematical is like jumping between baby steps.

      If it's possible, I would advise working with your girls for as long as possible with the basic math skills until they get if, even if takes years. It would be nice if all schools could be configured to let some students work at their own pace (whether behind or ahead), but since they don

    • by willworkforbeer ( 924558 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:13PM (#39224197)
      Am I the only one who feels the urge to raise a toast to someone who adopted not 1, but 5, children from foster care? Well done.
    • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:35PM (#39226257)

      Have you considered that they aren't necessarily "mathematically challenged" but instead need to approach it from a different angle? For example, I've worked with a handful of physical trainers (as a client) and universally all of them thought they were bad at math - not even able to understand compound interest bad.

      But all of them that were good at their job also had a natural intuition for things like geometry and even calculus because those maths were all part of their jobs. For example, the body is a bunch of interconnected levers with ranges of motion described by arcs and different rates of change in motion can be safe or dangerous. They work with math all day long but they don't recognize it as math - they even had a hard time understanding that it was math when I tried to explain it to them - their schooling had so completely failed them that they couldn't recognize the math right in front of them.

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      Not to say we are in any manner giving up.

      Well, while I wouldn't want to adopt the Japanese philosophy of education wholesale, one of things I think that's worth copying from their culture is the way people don't automatically make this kind of inference: "I'm not good at X THEREFORE I shouldn't have to do X."

      If you can put that behind you, then you can think this way: "I may not be naturally talented at X, but if I work hard enough I can learn to do it well enough."

      Not to minimize the difficulties you're experiencing with your adopted children. I

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:40PM (#39223661)

    "...'It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say "I can't do maths,"

    It is also simply inexcusable for people to live well beyond their means riddled with massive amounts of pointless debt, but let's go ahead and blame calculus for the reason most people are flat-ass broke, living paycheck to paycheck. Lord knows we wouldn't want to offend anyone by telling them they SUCK at saying "no".

  • by MacGyver2210 ( 1053110 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:47PM (#39223775)

    I think it's more of a matter of people being exceptionally lazy recently versus in the past than it is a matter of poor numerical comprehension. Everyone's attitude seems to be "I don't need to understand it, there's an app for that." ...then again, I'm a computer programmer who deals with charts and numbers thoroughly on an hourly basis, and I don't think I've ever had to read the "How to use this guide" section on the 40-some page bus schedule in my town to figure it out.

    Sometimes I wonder if a global-scale EMP or solar flare would be the best thing to ever happen to humanity.

    • by Fjandr ( 66656 )

      I don't think the general amount of laziness has changed. What's changed is that the landing for those who crash due to their own laziness is much softer these days. Prior to the modern era there were strong disincentives to not "figuring it out." Even as hard as times are now economically, the disincentives are far easier to deal with for those who choose not to look beyond their narrow worldview of what is and is not "possible."

  • Big Deal. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by korgitser ( 1809018 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:47PM (#39223781)

    Millions of people struggle to understand. Whatever. We do remember that we come from a times when there was no math around at all, right? So how much time do we spend being happy abouth the fact that millions of people do understand a payslip or a train timetable? Making fuss about these millions without context shows poor skills in philosophy and can ruin lives.

    Some important questions to ask around these skills and the millions are here:
    How many and much total skills do people have?
    Is the total going up or down?
    Is the relative amount of math skills in this total going up or down?
    What are the other skills that might be replacing or being replaced by math skills?
    Which skills should be priorities? For which professions?

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:49PM (#39223811) Homepage Journal

    weak math skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, getting a knighthood for services to the banking industry and then having it revoked.


  • by Kozar_The_Malignant ( 738483 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:50PM (#39223827)
    My college career was greatly aided by the fact that many of these people will play poker for money.
  • by drooling-dog ( 189103 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:28PM (#39224467)

    The other day - in a discussion of quantum computing, of all things - I was downvoted into oblivion and called a "stupid fuck" twice for pointing out that a quantity that grows at a constant rate follows an exponential growth curve. Now I don't think the people behind that were necessarily innumerate, because one of them managed to misapply some first-semester calculus in his argument. What does often happen is that people who learn some math in a rote way are unable to apply it to real-world problems, or even to interpret them correctly. Taking a math course or two - unless focused on creative problem-solving - isn't necessarily going to help much.

    • Re:Even Here (Score:5, Informative)

      by WastedMeat ( 1103369 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:19PM (#39225263)
      A quantity that grows at a constant rate grows linearly. A quantity that grows at a rate proportional to its value (which is necessarily not constant, unless it is zero) grows exponentially. What you describe is something like x-dot = c, which is linear growth. Something like x-dot= c x is exponential. (if you are familiar with the symbols from calculus). I wouldn't go as a far as calling you a "stupid fuck", but what you are saying about constant rates is incorrect.
      • Re:Even Here (Score:5, Insightful)

        by _0xd0ad ( 1974778 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:50PM (#39225665) Journal

        I'll nip this in the bud and post something similar here to what I posted in the thread which drooling-dog referred to.

        "Rate" is ambiguous. You can have a fixed rate of acceleration, which means linear growth; you can also have a fixed interest rate, which means exponential growth. Neither is really any more correct than the other, and the meaning of the phrase "constant rate" is very hard to interpret without any context to indicate what is meant by it.

  • by ZedNaught ( 533388 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:09PM (#39225139)
    I was behind a woman at the gas station who was buying PowerBall tickets @ $2 apiece. She was clutching two $20 bills in her hand.

    Woman: Give me 8 QuickPick tickets .. Cashier: That'll be $16
    Woman: OH! give me three more.
    Cashier: That'll be $22
    Woman: Hmm give me three more..
    Cashier: $28
    Woman: Try 3 more. Cashier: (exasperated) How much do you want to spend???
    Woman: $40
    Cashier: so you want 20 tickets ....
    Woman: If I have enough money yes, give me 20..

  • by iliketrash ( 624051 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:13PM (#39225185)

    "weak math skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness"

    How about this for an example of bad math? Researchers post an article making the age-old mistake of equating correlation to causation.

    • Linked with means related to. There's no causation implied, sorry. Xkcd's comic [xkcd.com] had a lot of success and since then it's a knee jerk reaction to accuse people of confusing the two terms, but it often pays off to count to three.

Time to take stock. Go home with some office supplies.