Weapons of Math Instruction

Occupy Math has railed in the past about the way fear of math has become a societal norm in our society. Several alert readers have pointed out a story on a man taken off an airplane and questioned for looking foreign and writing in some obscure code, possibly Arabic. It turned out the man was an economist and he was working out some differential equations. It seems certain that all the bigotry stirred up by the American presidential campaign is a big factor – but the complete inability of the man’s seat-mate to recognize mathematical symbols was a contributing factor.

Having complete ignorance of mathematics – and fear of it – as societal norms degrades everyone’s quality of life.

Occupy Math does not mean that everyone should be able to do differential equations (enough math to deal with your own finances would be nice). However, not being able to tell mathematics from Arabic suggests a stunning level of ignorance. The societal norms about mathematics discourage potentially mathematically gifted and scientifically talented individuals from developing their talents. This has a large cost in forgone discovery and the economic benefits that follow from discovery. Let’s look at examples of the fear-of-math norm.

The title of this week’s post is taken from a pretty good joke that, nevertheless, is funny in part because fear of mathematics is a real thing. A recent article on an experiment that shows monkeys can compare fractions starts with “Fractions strike fear in the hearts of many grade schoolers -“. The author chose to have his initial fluff text intended to generate interest be math is scary. God save me from my allies – this was written by a scientist.

One place that children learn societal norms is in school. In a study entitled Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement, published in PNAS, the researchers found that female primary student’s mathematical abilities are damaged by their teacher’s fear of math if she is female – a 90% chance for primary teachers. Female teachers who think math is not possible for themselves contribute to creating female students who think they cannot do math – long before the math becomes difficult or complex. The math you learn in primary school is pretty basic, but contagious fear and fad-based curricula make it much harder than it needs to be.

A current article in the Toronto Star is about terror of math in elementary teachers.

From the article, linked above:

“Some professors say student teachers are often in tears when they try to recall their grade-school math, and tell them they are grateful for the emergency crash courses.”

This means that fear of math puts us in a position where people who go on to be teachers responsible for basic math instruction have not learned and do not have mastery of basic math. They also clearly exhibit the contagious terror that feeds the cycle of misery and inability.

Another sign that being a mathematical ignoramus is considered normal is personal finance. In Canada, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada is sponsoring financial literacy month. The math you need to get a grip on your finances is one level up from the stuff you learn in grade school, but it is not that hard. Occupy Math developed a first year university course that includes this stuff for people that had avoided math in their high school careers. Let’s think about this for a minute – special months to increase awareness are held for the discriminated against, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. The mathematics involved in financial competence is virtually unknown by average citizens and represents a critical vulnerability. Payday loans let evil people get rich by ripping off the poor. The reason this rip-off is possible is that our schools fail to give citizens the elementary tools they need to protect themselves. One could conclude that:

Better math education is an anti-poverty program.

An article on favorite University majors in the United Kingdom’s Telegraph gives the following top ten list:

  1. Business and Management Studies
  2. Law
  3. Sociology and Social Studies
  4. Art and Design
  5. IT and Computer Science
  6. Psychology
  7. Education
  8. Nursing
  9. Biosciences
  10. History

Let’s look at these majors. Occupy Math has recently ranted on the math-aversion of many business majors. Mathematics and physics are the two best majors for getting a good LSAT score – but were not taken by very many people that took the LSAT test (look at the second table in the link). Of the remaining majors, only computer science and biosciences depend on math at all – and students go into these majors to do science while avoiding mathematics.

In other words – fear of math is leading people to avoid fields that use and benefit from math.

One of the side effects of fearing math is thinking it is okay not to learn it. This is bad because it may kill you. Doctors are not trained in math directly relevant to patient care and get it wrong routinely. They are unable to evaluate the comparative risk of treatment and non-treatment based on the chance test results are correct. They base life-critical decisions on wildly inaccurate risk assessments and don’t notice they are doing it! One of Occupy Math’s early posts was on a rather horrifying issue:

Doctors are not aware that if an accurate medical test says you have a rare disease it is almost always wrong.

Long ago, Occupy Math was on the way to the winter combinatorics meeting on an airplane. He was doing calculations (on a pad of paper) that later ended up in his thesis. A gentleman in a suit sitting in an adjacent seat watched intermittently and, when Occupy Math arrived at a row of zeros as the final result of the calculation, he asked in a nervous voice: “What accounting system is that?” Since most of the symbols were from the calculus of finite differences (and so nothing to do with accounting) this suggests that the only use the gentleman knew of for mathematics was accounting. So sad!

Occupy Math would like to thank Kele Lampe and Catherine Emerson for pointing out the article on someone being taken off a plane and questioned for doing math. Reader initiated posts are one of the goals of Occupy Math. Do you know other examples of situations where fear of math has a personal or societal cost? Comment or tweet!

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics

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