# Math with Bad DrawingsDecember 4, 2013 2:28 AM   Subscribe

Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World

Also on the pretty fantastic blog is The Bear in the Moonlight, which consists of seven tales about a curious student and a wise, Zen-like teacher. Each little fable aims to impart a truth about probability, and is followed by an explanation of the underlying ideas. (In the pdf versions you’ll also find discussion questions, in case you’re hoping these can garnish your lesson plans).

They’re for students. They’re for teachers. They’re for anyone curious about the mathematics of the unknown and the unknowable.

Previously: 5 Math experts split the check, let’s not complicate things unnecessarily.
and
Previouslier: Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe
posted by Blasdelb (32 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

Ooh excellent. A nice expansion on the topic is The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through a World of Numbers by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot
...the day after I finished the book I was told by the BBC news that drinking can increase a woman’s risk of cancer by as much as 20%! Oh my god, my own mother is on death row, 20% is a huge number, the women in my life are doomed (except my wife; she doesn’t drink). Or at least that’s what I might once have thought, but having read the tiger that isn’t I know better than that; the BBC will always tell you how much the risk is raised by but they never tell you what the risk actually is. Say the risk of any given woman getting cancer is 0.5%, a 20% increase means that this is raised from 0.5% to 0.6%; not so scary now, eh? But a number like 0.6% won’t grab the headlines, 20% will. This kind of alarmist reporting is everywhere, from the Daily Mail and the BBC to the Guardian and the Independent (review)
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:02 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Our World: Still No Scientific Consensus on Global Warming
Mathematically Literate World: Still 90% Scientific Consensus on Global Warming

YES.
posted by tractorfeed at 3:23 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Our World: Economist: “Eliminate Minimum Wage to Create Jobs, Improve Economy”
Mathematically Literate World: Economist: “Eliminate Minimum Wage, then Pray Our Model Has Some Basis in Reality”

MORE YES.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 4:39 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's YESSES all the way down.
posted by chavenet at 4:45 AM on December 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

So good.
posted by Songdog at 4:56 AM on December 4, 2013

YES for sure, if you don't mind defining things you like as rational and mathematical and things you don't as irrational and unmathematical. For example, the minimum wage arguments put forwards by economists are certainly regarded by them as mathematical. They may not be scientific, but it's hard to tell. And you may not like polling, but asking people which candidate they prefer for a future election sounds reasonable, and mathematical. And I'm not sure how "\$50 million" is any worse than "0.0001% of Government revenue" in mathematical terms. It's not making the political point you want to make, but that's not quite the same thing, is it?

Also, "Proposal Would Tax \$250,000-Earners’ Very Last Dollar, and That Dollar Alone, at 40%" is just wrong, isn't it? It would tax a \$250,001-earner one dollar at 40%. A \$250,000-earner will pay no tax at 40%...
posted by alasdair at 4:58 AM on December 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

And I'm not sure how "\$50 million" is any worse than "0.0001% of Government revenue" in mathematical terms.

Verbal literacy is more than just recognizing each individual word, it's being able to comprehend the patterns they make and to understand and form meaningful full sentences. Mathematical literacy likewise entails more than the ability to perform simple calculations--it's being able to put numbers in a meaningful context.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:05 AM on December 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

Our World: Proposal Would Tax \$250,000-Earners at 40%
Mathematically Literate World: Proposal Would Tax \$250,000-Earners’ Very Last Dollar, and That Dollar Alone, at 40%

This is why we can't have nice things. So much terrible policy and so many ruinous political agendas have been successfully advanced because most voters can't understand something as simple as a graduated income tax.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:14 AM on December 4, 2013 [11 favorites]

Poll Finds 2016 Predictions Futile, Absurd

I'd say that's probably not the poll's finding so much as everyone except the pollsters' finding, but really it's more a matter of political literacy than mathematical.
posted by psoas at 6:53 AM on December 4, 2013

"Hospital administered 10 times the dose" always make me think the patient was drowned in a bathtub instead being given a glass of water.
posted by bumcivilian at 6:55 AM on December 4, 2013

Our World: Economist: “Eliminate Minimum Wage to Create Jobs, Improve Economy”
Mathematically Literate World: Economist: “Eliminate Minimum Wage, then Pray Our Model Has Some Basis in Reality”

MORE YES.

Whatever you think about the minimum wage, a properly "mathematically literate" headline would recognize that it's a model either way.
posted by Mercher at 7:15 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Our World: Firm’s Meteoric Rise Explained by Daring Strategy, Bold Leadership
Mathematically Literate World: Firm’s Meteoric Rise Explained by Good Luck, Selection Bias

Meteors don't rise.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:22 AM on December 4, 2013

Fleebnork: Meteors don't rise.

It all depends on your frame of reference. Swap +y and -y and, presto, a falling meteor rises.

Meteoric in this case refers to speed (a scalar) versus direction.
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:38 AM on December 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

> "Meteors don't rise."

Which might be of concern if "meteoric" in that context didn't have the definition "marked by very quick success". But happily it does. Also, your plumbing isn't actually made out of lead and if your grandmother is earthy it does not necessarily mean she was constructed out of clay like a golem.
posted by kyrademon at 7:38 AM on December 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

I spent years doing programmatic animation in Actionscript, where the origin is at the top left. So meteors do rise. In actionscript. Which is totally the most scientific astronomical simulation thing ever.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 7:43 AM on December 4, 2013

Mathematical literacy likewise entails more than the ability to perform simple calculations--it's being able to put numbers in a meaningful context.

Quite right: the context here being "someone who supports this Government spending plan, and therefore wants to convince the audience that it isn't very much money". Other contexts might emphasise different contexts. My point is that I don't agree this these headlines demonstrate "mathematical literacy" at all, they demonstrate the use of maths to support a point of view. It is disingenuous to claim they do.
posted by alasdair at 8:05 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you make journalists all mathematically literate overnight you still wouldn't get those dull-ass headlines.

Our World: Market Rebounds after Assurances from Fed Chair

Actual Mathematically Literate World: WINTER FREEZE COMING .. WILL IT CAUSE CANCER?
posted by bonaldi at 9:09 AM on December 4, 2013

...and if your grandmother is earthy...

She is, but that's largely because we buried her.
She was dead at the time
I assume she still is...

posted by sodium lights the horizon at 9:13 AM on December 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure how "\$50 million" is any worse than "0.0001% of Government revenue"

It's not if you're already embroiled in budget calculations, know the size of the treasury, have a good grasp of the sheer scale of government programs, etc.

If, like most people, you don't, then "\$50 million" out of context will likely just sound shockingly huge.

It is also unhelpful in comparing this particular government policy to that of other established governments around the world, and helping judge the priorities of your elected representatives. Percentages would actually help you in this without forcing you to look up all the extra data on your 25-minute lunch break to try and put things in context.

The editorial decision to go with the \$50 million number is counting on this.
posted by tigrrrlily at 9:26 AM on December 4, 2013

This is great--especially "Math experts split the check"...but I noticed the same things Alasdair did, and I think he's right about it. Though with the \$50 million vs. 0.0001% case, I suppose I think that both measures are important.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:26 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mathematically Literate World: Illegal Downloaders Would Never Have Bothered to Obtain Same Music Legally

Amusing to see this little falsehood propagated in the midst of all the smuggery.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:36 AM on December 4, 2013

That one bugged me too. \$300 million worth of music downloaded illegally? What the downloaders would have paid if their only option was to obtain it legally is surely less than \$300 million, but it is just as surely greater than \$0.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:09 AM on December 4, 2013

Up is meaningless outside of a gravity well, so no matter what your origin is, it's meaningless until you start simulating gravity.
posted by fnerg at 10:28 AM on December 4, 2013

Also, meteors have a lot of movement perpendicular to down as well, right? So couldn't we just as easily talk about meteoric run?
posted by fnerg at 10:29 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, this is all unreasonably fantastic.

"Probability is for the nights like these,” she continued. “It is for the nights of half-light. It is for the nights when we can make out a form, but cannot tell its precise shape. It is for nights when light and shadow mingle, when knowledge and ignorance share our thoughts. It is an expression of our uncertainty – no more, no less.”

And as for the total derail about meteors - yes, they can apparently rise if the radiant (the apparent point of divergence for the meteor shower) is below the horizon. But seriously, "meteoric rise" refers to their blazing speed, not their direction. The difference between vectors and scalars strikes again!
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:19 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure how "\$50 million" is any worse than "0.0001% of Government revenue"

People are making an awfully big meal of the fact that one way makes it sound big and the other way makes it sound small. I can't see how one is "mathematically literate" and the other isn't: they're both just part of the truth.
posted by Mercher at 12:50 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Those pictures need to become one of those things you just point to whenever someone says something irretrievably dumb.

Whatever those things are called.

I vote that we pick "Metafilters" as the SI unit for dumbness.

Alas, the whole purpose of headlines is to make something boring or tenuous seem like THE WORLD IS ENDING! So the only solution seems to be to only print stories that have real significance in our daily lives or to leave us the fuck alone.
posted by Twang at 1:25 PM on December 4, 2013

What the downloaders would have paid if their only option was to obtain it legally is surely less than \$300 million, but it is just as surely greater than \$0.

Not for anything I've heard in the past year, no.
posted by Twang at 1:28 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

That one bugged me too. \$300 million worth of music downloaded illegally? What the downloaders would have paid if their only option was to obtain it legally is surely less than \$300 million, but it is just as surely greater than \$0.

Sort of depends on how much money those downloaders have to spend on music and what their price elasticity of demand is. (See, e.g., this.) For a non-necessity like an individual mp3, I suspect the demand plummets as the price rises, especially for penniless college students and their like. Your mileage may vary.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:56 PM on December 4, 2013

Our World: Rates of Cancer Approach Historic High
Mathematically Literate World: Rates of Surviving Long Enough to Develop Cancer Approach Historic High

My understanding is that this is actually not accurate - in pre-agrarian societies, wasn't the deal that higher mortality was due to childhood mortality, and then once people made it through childhood, they actually lived almost as long as us?

And this is sort of what bugs me about this - it's fun, but it feels like it's more about the author's own smug pet peeves than about what would be more mathematically accurate.
posted by lunasol at 4:56 PM on December 4, 2013

If people liked numbers more than outrage the world would be a much better place.
posted by cthuljew at 11:46 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that this is actually not accurate - in pre-agrarian societies, wasn't the deal that higher mortality was due to childhood mortality, and then once people made it through childhood, they actually lived almost as long as us?

Yes, and that's what makes the post's point accurate. Because we've kept more kids alive, a higher proportion of the population is older and more prone to cancer. The age-specific and age-adjusted rates of cancer fluctuate and trend over time (e.g., US Cancer Incidence and Mortality Rates), but even if age-specific rates stayed the same, the raw rates would have gone up simply because of the demographic age shift.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:03 AM on December 5, 2013

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