It’s true: numbers can smell fear

Consider a mother who is trying to reassure her child about a visit to the doctor a checkup. Suppose that the woman has had several bad experiences with the medical profession herself and is projecting a good deal of fear. She also manages to say things like  “Don’t worry, you probably only need three shots and they only hurt a little.” By the time she leaves for the appointment the kid is in an abject funk. The child’s emotional state will amplify any pain that happens and help the experience become a traumatic memory. This way of visiting the doctor is exactly how we teach mathematics.

In the early grades the person teaching math is often someone who disliked, or hated, math when they were in school. This sometimes happens in the later grades as well.

A very clear message that comes through in many K-12 math classes is that math is not possible for human beings to do, with the possible exception of a few really strange people. Even worse, many math teachers tell their female students that they cannot do math because they are girls. I was invited to speak at a math conference for high-school girls in Iowa and, when I asked about their math classes, this was the most common comment they made.

One of my proudest memories comes from a conference in New Orleans. A paper on a method for modeling how a disease spreads, based on the work of my student Elizabeth (Lisa) Shiller, won the “best paper” award. Over eight hundred other papers were presented at that conference, but hers was judged superior to all of them.  Lisa was one of the rare individuals who actually came to Guelph to study math.  Many of our students are former biologists who notice, first, that biology has too much memorization and, second, math at a university is unlike math in high school. The teacher isn’t afraid of the subject, the pace is faster, and the class introduces new ideas and points of view all the time.

Try telling an average student in high school that math is fun and they wonder what you’re smoking. Sometimes they wonder out loud.

Much like the kid whose mother managed to turn a checkup into a visit to the torture chamber, once you’ve learned a little math anxiety it tends to feed on itself. Its a lot easier to do well on a quiz if you’re not afraid of it. Its also easier if you’ve prepared for it. There is this weird mental state people get into where studying for a quiz or test becomes an acknowledgment that you will have to take that quiz or test and so people put off studying because that feels like a way to avoid the pain. This blog is working on the hypothesis that treating math as an everyday occurrence and occasionally handy tool might help people to cut back on their fear.

We’re going to look at a number of things in this space. I’m going to try and convince you that math is interesting and useful, but most of all I’m going to try to convince you it is possible. My editor has advised me to tell stories – luckily I have a few stories saved up from my years in the trenches. The big topics I want to hit are:

  • Making sure people are ignorant of mathematics is a tool of oppression. Making sure people cannot “do the math” is a way of keeping them down. Math makes you harder to cheat, harder to lie to, and better able to notice what’s around you.
  • Women in math. I’m a member of one of the most sexist professions on the planet. Looking at the history of women in math from Emmy Noether to ViHart its clear that women can be wonderful mathematicians. My questions: how much potential are we wasting? What can we do about it?
  • Math is ubiquitous. As a mathematician I was hired by the University of Guelph to do biology. I work with several sorts of biologist, several sorts of engineers. I went into math to be able to help almost any sort of scientists and it turns out that’s an achievable goal.

I hope I see you here again.

Dan Ashlock
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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