Reflections on Innumeracy

Abbas and I often complain of the all too common problem of innumeracy in our society. Jennifer Ouellette over at Cocktail Party Physics reflects on innumeracy, the TV show Numb3rs and the pedagogy of math.

For a science writer who specializes in physics topics, I’m still surprisingly phobic about math. Chalk it up to my English major roots, but the sight of even a simple algebraic equation still elicits an involuntary shudder of trepidation. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of aptitude. I might not be gifted in the subject, or have that mysteriously intuitive grasp of abstract numerical concepts that distinguish most talented mathematicians and physicists from the rest of the population, but I always did very well in my high school algebra classes. So why did I fear it so much?

Human beings tend to fear the unfamiliar and unknown. We might have been formally — nay, forcibly — introduced as part of the required US educational curriculum, but math and I, we were never close. Our relationship was doomed from the start. For one thing, we never learned how to communicate. Our conversations were strictly monologues, with no room for give and take. I might have gotten “As” in my algebra classes, but I was merely doing what I was told: memorizing the “rules”, plugging in the parameters, and dutifully crunching out answers by rote, with no real grasp of the significance of what I was doing, or its usefulness in solving real-world problems. The lack of a contextual framework meant that no genuine dialogue could take place, and without that dialogue, there could be no real understanding.