Facts of the Matter
In the numbers world, adults don’t add up
What is it that gives numbers their power? Numbers exert influence beyond being merely symbols of counting because there are psychological considerations that go beyond merely counting.
There is much buzz in the academic world about the increasing rate of innumeracy and illiteracy in colleges and universities, and the business world complains that employees cannot manage the three R's.
Numeracy is more than calculation just as literacy is more than spelling.
A large percentage of adults in the United States cannot do basic operations such as calculating a simple ratio, percentage or percent change. Food and drug manufacturers take advantage of the "food is cheaper in bulk" idea.
Which is less expensive, 14 ounces of canned spinach for $1.09 or the jumbo 30-ounce size for $2.60? Are 24 10-ounce cans for $6.59 cheaper than 20 11-ounce cans on sale for $8? What kind of gas mileage is the old car getting?
The emotional component appears in a more passive arena, as in the following examples.
Prices that end in "99" are magic. $14.99 is perceived as $14, not $15, and $1,999 is "less than $2,000."
Recent research discovered a house priced at $451,435 would be perceived as less expensive than one priced at $450,000.
"Four out of five experts recommend our product." Impressive! Who are the experts, how biased were they, at what are they experts, and what about that fifth expert?
We distrust a statistically valid poll of 10,000 people but are swayed by three paid actors giving a testimonial for a product.
Innumeracy is not a trivial problem in a world where the use of numbers is increasing faster than people can learn about them. Twenty years ago John Paulos listed several problems in "Innumeracy: Mathematical Literacy and Its Consequences" that have grown worse in the interim.
» Writers and readers cannot critically examine and evaluate news stories that involve numbers.
» Borrowers misunderstand compound interest and amortization.
» Pseudoscience persuasively but incorrectly presents convincing numbers out of context.
» People nervously fly in remarkably safe aircraft but ride relaxed in an exceptionally dangerous car.
» Gamblers loose billions of dollars by failing to recognize the nature of probability and large numbers.
» Workers with higher numeracy get more jobs, higher wages and more promotions.
Innumeracy is not merely a problem of math education. Many people who have studied calculus don't understand the way data is abused and don't comprehend quantitative inferences.
Numeracy is to understand data, see beneath the surface of the numbers, to recognize the gaps and to demand enough information to see the real issues that the numbers portray.
To paraphrase Iddo Gal, a cognitive scientist, numeracy is much more than mathematics. It is the combination of skills, knowledge, beliefs, dispositions, habits of mind, effective communication and problem-solving skills that people need in order to effectively and autonomously engage quantitative situations that arise in life and work.
Richard Brill, professor of science at Honolulu Community College, teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. E-mail questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org