An Open Letter To “Non-Math People.”

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You’ve probably been lied to. It might be a direct and intentional lie, as with high school students Occupy Math met at a girls math conference (not Occupy Math’s name for it). Teachers told these women that they couldn’t do math — often before grading any of their work. The lie might be implied, as when the person teaching you math in fourth grade was clearly scared of it herself. We also have a distressing cultural context which paints mathematical ability — or even just being smart — as being anti-feminine. Men are not immune to this sort of idiocy either. Occupy Math has encountered far too many students who, when faced with a difficult concept in math said “I can’t do math, I’m not smart!” With many of these students it turns out they could do the math and they were pretty smart. For some reason, however, running away was a much more comfortable proposition than, oh, saying “can you explain that again a different way?”

Occupy Math finds the term “math person” pretty frustrating. If you think you’re not a math person then you’re taking a whole hamper full of issues and putting a two-word sticky note on it. Do you mean you will never win a prize for mathematical research or do you mean you can never learn to add? “Not a math person” lumps together a huge spectrum of ability levels and training in one small place. Here’s the scoop: unless you meant the “not winning a prize for original research in math” extreme, you’re probably wrong about not being a math person. I don’t mean you’re good at math right now or that you’re not afraid of it. I mean that it is incredibly unlikely that you cannot do math at some basic (but useful) level and probably you can do more. In this week’s post we will look at both fear and the case for trying to overcome that fear.

At this point some of Occupy Math’s readers are thinking “But I don’t want to be a math person!”

You’re not wrong — clearly you are in charge of and know what you want — but please consider the following question: why? Most people that dislike or fear math have had a bad experience with math. This bad experience is helped along by our cultural belief that fear of math is normal. To make matters worse, a person’s first encounters with math are usually in class, in front of their peers, and with their parents informed of the outcomes. If we pile on that teachers sometimes teach fear of math then its obvious that there is no way there are not a lot of people who are afraid of math. This fear is often irrational — but the single worst technique in the world for helping someone with fear is to berate them to “be rational”.

This gives us two questions, “what’s wrong with fearing math?” and “can I find a way out of my fear?”

There are a lot of ways to answer the first question. We live in a world of fake new, alternative facts, scams, cons, and people deliberately concealing inconvenient truths. Big tobacco spent millions obfuscating health claims about tobacco, big sugar has done similar things and also got non-sugar sweeteners declared carcinogenic in tests that turned out to be bogus. Big oil figured out climate change in the late 70s and then spent all sorts of money to make sure no-one else did. In each of these situations there was simple numerical evidence. You might think these issues are ones that professional scientists deal with, not just citizens — but if the citizens can be fooled and deceived, the forces of darkness can win. The people need to be in the loop or democracy ends up ignoring science.

On a more personal level, being able to tell if something is reasonable is a skill with a big mathematical component. Lets pull a quote from a Consumer Reports article on extended warranties.

In August, the Washington State attorney general filed a lawsuit against Comcast Corporation, one of the nation’s largest telecommunications providers, accusing it, among other things, of charging customers at least $73 million in subscription fees for a near-worthless protection plan.

Here’s the math: there is a price where an extended warranty is priced to cover the cost of those warranties that have to pay off. If people can’t estimate this balance point then the company is just throwing away money if they don’t change more than the balance price. A lot more. Occupy Math does not begrudge a company a reasonable profit, but extended warranties are giant profit centers and are usually horribly overpriced.

Is there a way out of fearing math?

Maybe. Math is hard to learn on your own, so a key step is finding a friend to work with or who can help you. Part of the problem we face is that “math” in school is not math from the real world and it is often taught by people that have math anxiety themselves. This leads to a key point: find a piece of math you might need with a specific goal tied to learning that math. If your problem is your budget, boot up Excel (or your favorite other spreadsheet), learn to put your income and expenditures into it, and play with different ways of grouping your expenses into categories. Your banking software may be able to export your income and expenditure data into Excel directly. This well let you noodle around with your personal cost-benefit trade off for things you spend money on. You may be able to reduce your financial stress by noticing that you’re spending more than you want to on something you don’t like that well. That friend I mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph? For the budgeting example, this would be someone who knows a bit about Excel.

We live in a data-driven world. Occupy Math is not urging you do become a math whiz or a financial annalist, but it is worth being able to double check what other people tell you. Warren Buffet provided a wonderful example in this direction. Mr. Buffet issued an open challenge to hedge fund manager. He bet them a million dollars that a stock index (which pays based on how the stock market moves) would perform better than funds managed by very expensive professional stock portfolio managers. First of all, only one firm (of dozens) even took the bet. Second — it looks like that firm is going to lose. This is strong evidence that hedge funds enrich their managers at the expense of their participants — they offer no value for service. The hype these hedge funds put out drowns out the simple numerical evidence that they don’t pay off.

Let’s look at another field where people freak out about their talent: art. A common error is to think that, if you’re not Monet, there’s really no point in indulging your artistic side. The truth is that if you’re not Monet you can still knit, do elegant layout on meals you serve, or enjoy sketching. Like math, art is worth the trouble even if you’re not a world-class master. Occupy Math is definitely not an artist. His friends that are artists tell him this and try and help him pick better colors for his fractals. The key point here is that Occupy Math really enjoys making fractals and there are people who enjoy looking at them. If Occupy Math had given up the first time some said “where did you get those colors”, then all those fractals would never have happened. If you’re worried about math, try think its art for a minute and see where that gets you.

Why is math in school so awful?

One problem with math teachers is that they often do everything from start to finish off the top of their own head — they want to show you all the moving parts. Since math is easy for someone with big math skills they have real trouble presenting it as a reasonable set of steps. In math we figure out how everything works and just assume that anyone can do the arithmetic. Clearly this isn’t true: you should keep in mind that your goal is to be safer and retain more of your own money not to do math the way your teacher did.

If you learn how to run simple statistics software on the information from you business venture, or learn enough to talk to your number cruncher (even if you are not that crunchy yourself), then you have become a novice math person. If you are inclined to increase your personal power, you can move up from there. Its hard to explain how critical this process is to keep our society healthy. Remember the financial crash in 2008? A big part of what fueled it was that the stratospheric lords of finance misunderstood a simple mathematical tool for dealing with risk with the somewhat intimidating name of Gaussian cupula function. Occupy Math must concede that there was also a problem with testosterone-fueled wild overconfidence — but not abusing the math might have averted or tempered the crisis.

There are lots of resources for dealing with lack of enthusiasm for math and there is good evidence that math isn’t intrinsically hard — rather we are using really bad instructional methods. There is a chilling overall pattern: we seem to believe that learning math is a task for the young — that once you’re out of school math is just not your problem any more. There are exceptions — and math resources for adults is on the future topics list for Occupy Math — but in general we think of learning math as something we need to get right only for children.

Occupy Math has brought up a few of the many ways that getting at least one of the lower level belts in math can make you safer, richer, and better able to deal with the world. There are many others. If you have a story about how math helped you, or how you found yourself at sea without math, let Occupy Math know. He treasures your comments and tweets!

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

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