Innumeracy, as defined by John Allen Paulos in his 1988 book of the same title, is an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of numbers and chance. At the time of its publication the United States ranked 25th globally in mathematical literacy; as of 2018 the US ranked 37th (PISA, Program for International Student Assessment). That decline is particularly disturbing as the country now struggles with Covid 19 and its consequences.
Innumeracy is a great book to revisit, or to read for the first time. While it predates our current internet, cell phone, social media, and data driven reality, it contains some very prescient passages about the consequences of innumeracy. For instance:
“. . . there is a direct way in which the mass media’s predilection for dramatic reporting leads to extreme politics and even pseudoscience. Since fringe politicians and scientists are generally more intriguing than mainstream ones, they garner a disproportionate share of publicity and thus seem more representative and significant than they otherwise would. Furthermore, since perceptions tend to become realities, the natural tendency of the mass media to accentuate the anomalous, combined with an innumerate society’s taste for such extremes, could conceivably have quite dire consequences.”
“I’m distressed by a society which depends so completely on mathematics and science and yet seems so indifferent to the innumeracy and scientific illiteracy of so many of its citizens . . ..”
I suspect, therefore, that Mr Paulos would not be surprised to learn that countries that are more mathematically literate than the US are handling the coronavirus outbreak more effectively, with fewer infections and lower mortality rates. While there are count-less explanations for our unhealthier performance, one might reasonably suggest that the citizens of more math-inclined countries better understand the fundamental “law” of coronavirus transmission rates: The rate of spread of the virus is proportional to the number of people infected. One infected individual infects 2x more, who infect 2x more each, who infect 2x more each, and so on.
Do the math. Wear a mask.
Peter has spent the past twenty-plus years as an acting/consulting CFO for a number of small businesses in a wide range of industries. Peter’s prior experience is that of a serial entrepreneur, managing various start-up and turnaround projects. He is a co-founder of Keurig.