Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Don't be fooled by numerical legerdemain

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics."
Benjamin Disraeli

"Math is hard." as Barbie used to say. Math isn't hard. English is much harder then math and teaching english to your children is easy. You do it without even thinking about it.

Too often in public schools the way they teach math ends up with students knowing less math at the end of class then when they came in. It is called Taught Helplessness.

It was brought home to me when I was reading a book quite unrelated to mathematics, "The Design of Everyday Things" It is a book on User Interface Design or the study of how people and machines interact. He talks about something he ran into quite be accident and only as an aside.

There are two places he noticed that people have big problems: Computers and mathematics. computers used to be really cryptic and hard to use, so hard many people taught themselves how to not use the computer, because it always told them they were wrong and if you do that enough times they believe it.

Public schools teach math so badly that student taught to be helpless when it comes to that subject. Math becomes magic to them. Tutoring a student that has a textbook that has problems that make no sense, makes it very hard for them to understand the concept. All they really know is, "I did it wrong therefore I am stupid."

If you mention numbers or equations then their minds go blank and static fills their ears. It is like they become allergic to numbers. Arithmophobia is what is it called. They are afraid of numbers. Balancing a checkbook is impossible for them.

Then the media comes on with their polls. Have you ever noticed that all their polls have an error of +/-3%. You cannot specify the error rate beforehand, no matter how hard you try, reality gets in the way. A 3% error is basically a perfect score, that just doesn't happen in the real world, I would expect the error to jump around a lot, closer to 10% with 3% only being seen occasionally. My wife worked at a place doing telephone surveys, let me tell you they were in no way getting 3% error rates.

How easy is it influence someone when they hear something along the lines of : "Americans approve of whatever because 49 per_pshshshauairere_ (static fills their minds as the anchor starts talking about numbers and numbers pop up on the screen)? Pretty easy don't you think.

Don't let yourself or your children be fooled by numerical legerdemain Math is a powerful, powerful tool that lets you break through junk science.

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