Mathematicians Are Overselling the Idea That “Math Is Everywhere”

Michael J. Barany in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2153 Aug. 17 23.55Most people never become mathematicians, but everyone has a stake in mathematics. Almost since the dawn of human civilization, societies have vested special authority in mathematical experts. The question of how and why the public should support elite mathematics remains as pertinent as ever, and in the last five centuries (especially the last two) it has been joined by the related question of what mathematics most members of the public should know.

Why does mathematics matter to society at large? Listen to mathematicians, policymakers, and educators and the answer seems unanimous: mathematics is everywhere, therefore everyone should care about it. Books and articles abound with examples of the math that their authors claim is hidden in every facet of everyday life or unlocks powerful truths and technologies that shape the fates of individuals and nations. Take math professor Jordan Ellenberg, author of the bestselling bookHow Not to Be Wrong, who asserts “you can find math everywhere you look.”

To be sure, numbers and measurement figure regularly in most people’s lives, but this risks conflating basic numeracy with the kind of math that most affects your life. When we talk about math in public policy, especially the public’s investment in mathematical training and research, we are not talking about simple sums and measures.

More here.