Monday, April 18, 2011

Innumeracy:Mathematical illiteracy and consequences

Paulos, John A. (1989) Innumeracy: Mathematical illiteracy and its consequences.
Hill and Wang, New York.
This is a wonderful book, which exposes how mathematical illiteracy has become wide spread. The author encourages the reader to get a quantitative view of the size of numbers and how to explore everyday probability and statistics. Paulos gives several examples of how lay people misapprehend risk and misinterpret data. He also comments on how people find it acceptable to be openly ignorant about math, so that comments like “I was never good at math” or “I’m a people person not a numbers person.”
“Storytelling is as effective an educational tool in mathematics as it is in other domains” (14)
I couldn’t agree more. Without the story where is the buy in? Where is the historical significance of the big ideas that human beings triumphed over? Math comes alive when the story is told and reasons are given for relevance to everyday life.
“In innumeracy one I discussed the romantic belief that a concern with numbers numbs one to the big questions, to the grandeur of waterfalls and sunsets. Too many people cling to the usually unarticulated belief that one must choose between life and love on the one hand and numbers and details on the other. I’ll skip the book’s counterargument and merely respond: Balderdash”
This reminds me of when Richard Feynman commented on his “artist friend” who seemed to think that Richard lost the esthetic beauty of a flower by overanalyzing it. To which Richard called him “kinda nutty” and then explained that the esthetic beauty was there for his eyes too, but he could see so much more about the flower that had beauty on different levels. Feynman understood how the flower converted sunlight to energy or how the color would attract certain kinds of pollinators.

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