Over Our Heads


Regardless of how you feel about advice columns, something interesting came out of online magazine Slate‘s “Dear Prudence” chat/forum yesterday.

A graduate student in mathematics wrote in to ask what to say to strangers or acquaintances who seem to boast that her area of study is “beyond them” or something they’d “never be able to grasp.”

The columnist gave some quasi-helpful advice (I guess), but then another reader wrote in to say that this is, in fact, a deeper problem:

“The point really is this: there is a cultural pride in innumeracy that doesn’t exist for illiteracy—no one will brag about not being able to read, yet [people] feel free to essentially brag about not being good at math. This is not people being candid about their abilities. It actually is a way of dismissing the importance of the field of study by implying that it has no cultural necessity or meaning.”

Confession:  I am one of those people.  Further research, however, has propelled me into a shame spiral about my condition.

Back in 1990 (when I was just learning to count), John Allen Paulos published a book on the subject of Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, and it became a New York Times bestseller.  A 1997 essay on this “New Literacy” still holds water today:

“Instead of enhancing Jeffersonian democracy, limited numeracy can easily shift the balance to a technocracy.

“Innumeracy hurts in other ways as well.  For example, public policy issues may increasingly move beyond the intellectual grasp of citizens who lack appropriate skills in quantitative reasoning.  Innumeracy encourages the view that all opinions are equally valid, that whenever there is disagreement the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Innumeracy thus becomes another means of disenfranchisement: by reinforcing the idea that truth is relative and unknowable, people with the least defenses against charlatans will be most vulnerable.

“Innumeracy also perpetuates welfare, harms health, and weakens families.  Without requisite quantitative skills, individuals will find it very difficult to make a transition from welfare to work.  Without critical skills to assess medical claims, individuals will often fall victim to false claims and questionable treatments.  Without the skills to manage a household budget, many become victims of easy credit or consumer fraud.  In short an innumerate citizen today is as vulnerable as the illiterate peasant of Gutenberg’s time.”

So the bottom line is that I have been a fool.  As the Washington Post warned back in 2001, “Math Illiteracy Spells Trouble.”

Claire Caplan enjoys dotting Is and crossing Ts. She works for a public radio station in Baltimore, Maryland. More from this author →