|Swedish alphabet. Note lack of W. [Source]|
“I was always bad at math” is an excuse I have heard many of my colleagues complain about. I’m reluctant to join their complaints. I’ve been living in Sweden for four years now and still don’t speak Swedish. If somebody asks me, I’ll say I was always bad with languages. So who am I to judge people for not wanting to make an effort with math?People don’t learn math for the same reason I haven’t learned Swedish: They don’t need it. It’s a fact that my complaining colleagues are tiptoeing around but I think we’d better acknowledge it if we ever want to raise mathematic literacy.
Sweden is very welcoming to immigrants and almost everybody happily speaks English with me, often so well that I can’t tell if they’re native Swedes or Brits. At my workplace, the default language is English, both written and spoken. I have neither the exposure, nor the need, nor the use for Swedish. As a theoretical physicist, I have plenty of need for and exposure to math. But most people don’t.
The NYT recently collected opinions on how to make math and science relevant to “more than just geeks,” and Kimberly Brenneman, Director of the Early Childhood STEM Lab at Rutgers, informs us that
“My STEM education colleagues like to point out that few adults would happily admit to not being able to read, but these same people have no trouble saying they’re bad at math.”I like to point out it’s more surprising they like to point this out than this being the case. Life is extremely difficult when one can’t read neither manuals, nor bills, nor all the forms and documents that are sometimes mistaken for hallmarks of civilization. Not being able to read is such a disadvantage that it makes people wonder what’s wrong with you. But besides the basics that come in handy to decipher the fine print on your contracts, math is relevant only to specific professions.
I am lying of course when I say I was always bad with languages. I was bad with French and Latin and as my teachers told me often enough, that was sheer laziness. Je sais, tu sais, nous savons - Why make the effort? I never wanted to move to France. I learned English just fine: it was useful and I heard it frequently. And while my active Swedish vocabulary never proceeded beyond the very basics, I quickly learned Swedish to the extent that I need it. For all these insurance forms and other hallmarks of civilization, to read product labels, street signs and parking tickets (working on it).
I think that most people are also lying when they say they were always bad at math. They most likely weren’t bad, they were just lazy, never made an effort and got away with it, just as I did with my spotty Latin. The human brain is energetically highly efficient, but the downside is the inertia we feel when having to learn something new, the inertia that’s asking “Is it worth it? Wouldn’t I be better off hitting on that guy because he looks like he’ll be able to bring home food for a family?”
But mathematics isn’t the language of a Northern European country with a population less than that of other countries’ cities. Mathematics is the language of nature. You can move out of Sweden, but you can’t move out of the universe. And much like one can’t truly understand the culture of a nation without knowing the words at the basis of their literature and lyrics, one can’t truly understand the world without knowing mathematics.
Almost everybody uses some math intuitively. Elementary logic, statistics, and extrapolations are to some extent hardwired in our brains. Beyond that it takes some effort, yes. The reward for this effort is the ability to see the manifold ways in which natural phenomena are related, how complexity arises from simplicity, and the tempting beauty of unifying frameworks. It’s more than worth the effort.
One should make a distinction here between reading and speaking mathematics.
If you work in a profession that uses math productively or creatively, you need to speak math. But for the sake of understanding, being able to read math is sufficient. It’s the difference between knowing the meaning of a differential equation, and being able to derive and solve it. It’s the difference between understanding the relevance of a theorem, and leading the proof. I believe that the ability to ‘read’ math alone would enrich almost everybody’s life and it would also benefit scientific literacy generally.
So needless to say, I am supportive of attempts to raise interest in math. I am just reluctant to join complaints about the bad-at-math excuse because this discussion more often than not leaves aside that people aren’t interested because it’s not relevant to them. And that what is relevant to them most mathematicians wouldn’t even call math. Without addressing this point, we’ll never convince anybody to make the effort to decipher a differential equation.
But of course people learn all the time things they don’t need! They learn to dance Gangnam style, speak Sindarin, or memorize the cast of Harry Potter. They do this because the cultural context is present. Their knowledge is useful for social reasons. And that is why I think to raise mathematic literacy the most important points are:
Popular science writing rarely if ever uses any math. I want to see the central equations and variables. It’s not only that metaphors and analogies inevitably have shortcomings, but more importantly it’s that the reader gets away with the idea that one doesn’t actually need all these complicated equations. It’s a slippery slope that leads to the question what we need all these physicists for anyway. The more often you see something, the more likely you are to think and talk about it. That’s why we’re flooded with frequently nonsensical adverts that communicate little more than a brand name, and that’s why just showing people the math would work towards mathematic literacy.
I would also really like to see more math in news items generally. If experts are discussing what they learned from the debris of a plane crash, I would be curious to hear what they did. Not in great detail, but just to get a general idea. I want to know how the number quoted for energy return on investment was calculated, and I want to know how they arrived at the projected carbon capture rate. I want to see a public discussion of the Stiglitz theorem. I want people to know just how often math plays a role for what shapes their life and the lives of those who will come after us.
Don’t tell me it’s too complicated and people won’t understand it and it’s too many technical terms and, yikes, it won’t sell. Look at the financial part of a newspaper. How many people really understand all the terms and details, all the graphs and stats? And does that prevent them from having passionate discussions about the stock market? No, it doesn’t. Because if you’ve seen and heard it sufficiently often, the new becomes familiar, and people talk about what they see.
We don’t talk about math enough. The residue theorem in complex analysis is one of my favorite theorems. But I’m far more likely to have a discussion about the greatest songs of the 60s than about the greatest theorems of the 19th century. (Sympathy for the devil.) The origin of this problem is lack of exposure, but even with the exposure people still need the social context to put their knowledge to use. So by all means, talk about math if you can and tell us what you’re sinking about!