Quantitative Literacy Hits the New York Times Op-Ed Page

Quantitative Literacy Hits the New York Times Op-Ed Page


In math, what we need is “quantitative literacy,” the ability to make quantitative connections whenever life requires (as when we are confronted with conflicting medical test results but need to decide whether to undergo a further procedure) and “mathematical modeling,” the ability to move practically between everyday problems and mathematical formulations (as when we decide whether it is better to buy or lease a new car).

The authors are exactly right, of course. It remains amazing to me that people justify geometry as a core skill because you can use it to measure the size of your lawn(!!) or to cut boards for a table(!!). And Trig is important because the average person can use it to — well, what?

Here’s the sorts of things *I* consider compelling cases for math literacy:

  • You want to ride your moped to work, but wonder if that introduces more risk into your life than you want (you’ve met a lot of broken boned moped riders in your life) — how can you figure that out?
  • You think “Meatless Mondays” sounds like a great way to reduce atmospheric carbon, but you need to evaluate arguments it has no effect.
  • Your child is the age where they normally get their MMR shots. You have to make sense of the MMR “debate”
  • The country is slowly sliding into a catastrophic decade-long recession, and you have to make sense of some basic arguments about job creation, growth, and whether Medicare is “broke”.
  • Your parent is dying, and the doctor is explaining to you the odds and risks of various procedures. You have to help choose one.

The majority of college graduates can do none of these things. The majority of college graduates, in fact, do not understand that the probability of being a person with cancer is greater than the probability of being a smoker that has cancer, or even that most raw numbers mean nothing (24 moped accidents this year in the state! Mopeds are dangerous!). 

And virtually no one understands why a prostate test of at risk men over 50 is more accurate than a test of all men over 40. (For a recent and topical example, see the great mammogram debate). 

Start keeping track of where you encounter numbers, and where they matter to your decision making. I guarantee you that most of the numbers you meet in a day are simple statistics, and what you need to understand them in a background in reading statistics critically. I guarantee you you will hear at least one statistic today that requires analysis.

The algebra people will tell you alegbra is important because you can use it to wire your house(!!).

Hire an electrician. You have more important things to focus on.

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