Bad at Math = Teh Suck

Chad Orzel and Neil DeGrasse Tyson nail something ridiculously important. (Watch the whole clip, and definitely read Orzel’s old post)?:

A great clip from his World Science Festival appearance the other night, especially the bit toward the end:

“One thing I think that as a nation we should be embarrassed by is that the scientists– you can do this experiment yourself, I’ve done the experiment– the scientists, by and large, know more liberal arts than the science that is known by liberal artists.”

Or you can read my longer, less funny version from a couple of years ago. Either way, it’s an important message: It should be exactly as embarrassing in educated company to say “I’m no good at math” as it would be to say “I’m no good at reading.” The fact that it isn’t– that it’s ok to laugh off innumeracy– is a major problem for us as a society.

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This is actually a point I had never really thought about, and even I’m guilty of it. Of course in my family the line was closer to, “Oh, I could do any Algebra or Trig, but hit the wall at Calculus.” And of course, my family is an odd duck. I’m going to go ahead and claim I am not one of those liberal artsy folks who chuckle about being bad at math. But I’ve never called anyone out for laughing at being bad at math. Maybe it didn’t come up as much, because I grew up within music circles and music and math have a very strong relationship.

Back to their point: Orzel and Tyson are precisely right. Math should be a function like literacy. And it’s not even complex math. Arithmetic and basic Algebra should be proudly ingrained in all American brains. We don’t all need to be calculators. My wife regularly comments about how quickly I can multiply through things, but I attribute that to being quickly able to tear down problems (23 x 5 is actually (20×5)+(3×5) in my head) and having being the loot roller for more Dungeons & Dragons games than anyone else I know.

These guys don’t expect that either. They expect that it doesn’t matter what speed you can figure out a problem, they care that you can figure out the problem at all. Tyson properly goes into this with science as well. Organic Chemistry? Nuts to that. Asking how exactly something works, where it comes from, what are its limitations? Reasonable. Even if you can’t understand the specifics, you should at least be able to cut through the bullshit and see if the claim someone is making could actually be valid.

Actually, that ties into what I try to explain to my son. He’s following what advertisements are and it’s easy to see him get tripped up. He’s a knowledge hound, a precise knowledge hound, and I love him endlessly for it. So when some commercial makes a claim that its product does some amazing feat, I have to methodically walk him back and explain that ads, while not fully lying (usually), are shiny exaggerations of what something is actually capable of.

My favorite example: a box of Kix cereal. Right on the front, it claims to be a good source of Calcium and Vitamin D. Know what milk is chock-full of? Calcium and Vitamin D. So what does the Kix give you? Briefly crunchy filler. And yes, it tastes good and is easy to snack on so we still give it to the kids anyway.

To wrap up, I again agree: if someone makes the claim of being ‘bad at math’ and proud of it, remind them that it’s not okay to be illiterate in the basics of our civilization. We depend on it. I know I’m not touching on the fact math is probably not taught in the ways to reach all learners, but that’s a separate fault. I am sick of people being proud of being ignorant.

My dad is a brilliant man, double mastered in science and engineering. Knows something about everything. He’s why I’m abnormally adept at so much. But he’s a bad speller. He got screwed by an experimental method of teaching phonetics when he was a kid. He’s not proud, it’s just something he has to cope with. Doesn’t mean he can’t string a clear paragraph together or talk to someone about music or literature. So even if you’re bad at math, that’s no excuse for not being able to calculate my change at a coffee shop.