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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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  • 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.

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

    That many people are proud of their innumeracy.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <> 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.

  • by cptdondo ( 59460 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:31PM (#39223497) Journal

    uneducated != stupid

  • Must be said (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:34PM (#39223555)

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

  • Re:Maths?? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dzimas ( 547818 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:35PM (#39223577)
    Don't be a pedant. Arithmetic is a branch of mathematics. Therefore, the statement "I can't do maths" is akin to stating, "I can't read" when you don't know the letters of the alphabet.
  • Re:Maths?? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bigstrat2003 ( 1058574 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:35PM (#39223583)
    That distinction doesn't exist in the broader use of the English language, and it doesn't freaking matter. It was clear to everyone what was meant.
  • 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.

  • 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 beelsebob ( 529313 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:47PM (#39223785)

    No, and while the GP was a troll, there is a point to be made here –the problem in the UK is that people don't want to be educated in maths. There's a large segment of society that thinks that it's good to be numerically illiterate. They wear "I don't know maths" as if it's a badge of honour. That is stupid.

  • Re:Inexcuseable (Score:4, Insightful)

    by smagruder ( 207953 ) <> on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:50PM (#39223829) Homepage

    Why not a combination of factors? This isn't really a black-and-white thing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:02PM (#39224039)

    instead of worrying about diversity, inclusion, and social justice this wouldn't be as much of a problem. In addition, if they actually taught arithmetic instead of trying to have kids reconstruct it from first principles, it might be less confusing.

  • 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.

  • by mc6809e ( 214243 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:10PM (#39224153)

    You don't understand how natural selection or evolution work, do you? The innumerate are winning at the natural selection game because they can't figure out how bad having another kid is going to be for them financially.

    Having another kid ISN'T bad for them financially. The welfare state is there to make sure of that.

    Schooling and education were once considered important because they provided a way out of poverty. Now the government provides. Why bother with pointless chores like learning arithmetic?

  • by iamhassi ( 659463 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:20PM (#39224323) Journal

    That's arithmetic not math!

    That's akin to saying "That's physics not science!"

    "Mathematics can, broadly speaking, be subdivided into the study of quantity, structure, space, and change (i.e. arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and analysis)." []

    So yes, arithmetic is math

  • by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:25PM (#39224421)

    Don't feel bad. Doing math in your head has been replaced by calculators. Application of math is where it's at.

    I know plenty of people who can do math in their head, but can't actually use it for anything outside of homework.

    But you don't always have a calculator when you need one (or don't want to take the time to pull out your phone and start up the calculator app). Being able to do simple math in your head can be a huge advantage in life to do a quick sanity check on lots of things.

    I recently spotted an error in some home purchase paperwork A number that was supposed to be 3% of the purchase price was actually 7%. The listing agent didn't believe me that it was wrong until she pulled out her calculator to run the numbers. It's trivial to estimate 3% of a number in your head - finding 3% of $325,000 means rounding down to $3K for 1% and multiplying by 3 to get $9K. It's not exact, but often a rough estimate is enough. I later ran all the numbers through a calculator to be sure they were exact, but I saved myself another day of waiting for corrected paperwork by having her correct it in her office instead of waiting until I got home to discover the error.

    While it's true that most people have a calculator close at hand these days, how many people take the time to actually use it, especially when they think that someone else already used their calculator to calculate the numbers, so they assume it's already correct?

    And I really can't believe how many people have to get a calculator to evenly add a tip and divide a lunch bill 4 ways! And then proceed to say "Ok, everyone owes $8.79" instead of just saying "$9".

  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:32PM (#39224529)

    It's worse than that. Today's society requires, IMHO, as part of the basic literacy, to not only know how to read and write, but to have good numeracy skills, and to have decent understanding of basic science and of issues related to applied computing -- at least as far as security, social engineering, etc. is concerned.

    I think that the real issue is that things are taught in a way that separates them in the heads of the pupils. Instead of having a coherent image of science and technology, overlapping and applying to everyday experiences, the knowledge is built in an abstract way and seems to be decoupled from real life. People seem to be horribly unable to apply basic principles from grade level maths, physics, chemistry and biology to everyday life. That's why you see so many people go "dumb" when they see computers: no one taught them in a way that links computing to other knowledge they have. It's black magic to them because it was never shown to them to be otherwise; they don't understand that computers fundamentally process numbers according to fixed recipes, etc. That's why there's so much bad legislation around: the lawmakers don't have a clue how their laws relate to reality, they only see political buzzwords.

  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:35PM (#39224585)

    I agree. To me, not being able to do math in your head is akin to being unable to spell properly without a dictionary/spellchecker. If you can't write properly, you'll be called illiterate, the same IMHO should apply if you can't figure out the math of basic everyday things -- frontloading of debt repayment with interest, dealing with change when paying for things, how MPG is a nonlinear scale, etc.

  • 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.

  • by Minwee ( 522556 ) <> on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:55PM (#39224891) Homepage

    If you have to pull out your phone, fiddle with the buttons, start up a calculator application and fiddle with the buttons again just to figure out that that the $27.50 plus 12% tax that you owe is substantially less than the $34 you were just charged, then perhaps you should just give up and expect to pay a 10% innumeracy tax on every transaction you make for the rest of your life.

    Saying "But I have a calculator! Somewhere." is no substitute for being able to perform simple math on your own.

  • 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.

  • by tom17 ( 659054 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:24PM (#39225327) Homepage

    I guess it's what you grew up with. If you come from a country where tax is included in the displayed price, and where tipping is not a screwed up part of the culture, then it's nontrivial to train yourself to have to do these sums you are simply not used to doing.

    Tips, I can understand I suppose, it's part of the culture here and the wages are adjusted down to account for tips, I am sure. But why the hell not display the *actual* price of a product? Pisses me off lol.

  • 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.

  • Re:Maths?? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tim Ward ( 514198 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:13PM (#39225949) Homepage

    I suggest you have never met a mathematician - it is a sure identifying characteristic that they can't do arithmetic.

    Just like Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, and Real Programmers Don't Use Pascal, it is also the case that Real Mathematicians Can't Do Arithmetic.

    A Real Mathematician knows about the number zero, and several different versions of the "number" infinity, and can probably cope with the number one on a good day, but any other numbers are arithmetic, not maths, and far too applied to be worthy of their attention.

  • Re:Maths?? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Grumbleduke ( 789126 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:13PM (#39225953) Journal

    I have a maths degree, but completely screwed up some basic arithmetic recently. Arithmetic is, as you said, a branch of mathematics, but it not the sum total (pun intended) or even a necessary part. Rather than equating it with not knowing the letters of the alphabet, I'd liken it to being unable to spell:

    Good spelling, while useful in every day life isn't nearly as important as being able to write well and understand complex texts; a computer can help you with spelling. Similarly in maths, good arithmetic can be useful in life in speeding things up a bit, but with calculators on every phone and computer it isn't crucial. Whereas the important bits of maths (analytical thinking, the rigours of proof, reasoning, deduction etc.) are much harder to get a computer to help with, and are much harder to spot in oneself if not present.

    It doesn't really matter if people can't remember how to do long division or multiplication by hand; what matters is that they find out/work out how to do so when needed. Given that, the OP's point does have some validity, and is not merely pedantic. That said, the title mentions "numeracy", not mathematics.

    Of course, the real problem seems to be not that people cannot do maths (which, anecdotally, ime, they usually can when given encouragement and a few pointers), but that they're being taught to answer maths test questions, rather than understand the principles behind the problems; as such, it's easy to forget the specific methods, and hard to work them out later when needed. Sadly this seems to be a problem across much of the UK education system.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • by jackbird ( 721605 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:23PM (#39228865)

    I spent a summer working a register, and I can tell you that while at the start of the summer I could make change in my head fairly quickly and accurately, something about the mental state of using the register to figure change absolutely ruined that faculty. Took a couple of months for it to return in the fall.

  • 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"!

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling