In my grouchier moments (one of which I am having right now), I am considering a public relations campaign to make fun of people who can't do simple math and shame them into either acquiring some fundamental skills or staying quiet and not bothering the rest of us with their ignorance.
I've devoted a significant part of my career to education: working with K-12 teachers, teaching at a university, developing programs for the public. I'm beginning to wonder whether we are not all just wasting our time and we would do much better to focus on developing an elite cadre of high-powered science literate researchers who will discover wondrous things and save us all from ourselves. Of course, that won't work because the people who know the science will be prevented from fulfilling this task by the science-ignorant who comprise the public, as well as the executive and legislative branches of the government.
I'm tired of hearing from people how hard math is. Do you ever hear people saying things like "oh, yeah, reading. I was just never good at that." Admitting that you are illiterate is harder than admitting that you are an alcoholic or a drug addict at this point. But admitting that you can't do math - well pfftt, I could never do math either, so that's just OK.
The truth is that most people don't want to be bothered, just like most people would rather state their opinion about things without wasting time looking up the facts. The NASCAR race I'm watching features the AT&T ‘Fastest Pit Crew of the Year Award’. Fans VOTE for the fastest pit crew. The last I looked, time is not subject to human opinion. Sure AT&T donates $20,000 at the end of the program to a deserving charity. But how silly do you have to be to think that 'fastest' has anything to do with your opinion? How about sponsoring something mathematically meaningful, like showing us a histogram of all the pit stop times, showing who was exceptionally fast or slow.
ADDITION: Anonymous Coward noted in the comments below that there could be different definitions of fastest. I should have given more information. The contest is per race and the voters are given no information about either what 'fastest' means or numerical information as to the pit times. I'd have no problem if they just switched it to "most valuable" because -- as you point out -- people can make their own interpretation of what is most valuable. Perhaps it is because I am a physicist: In my mind, "fastest" is a pretty precise term. Thanks for the comment!
A Dallas Morning News article on September 15th about dove hunting contained the following in an article by one Ray Sasser.
Remember your old geometry lesson about the long side of a triangle being equal to the two shorter sides. That means a dove 40 yards out and 10 yards high is 50 yards from the gun and clearly out of range. -- Dallas Morning News
Umm... No. Even if you don't remember the formula, just draw the picture. Or, God forbid, use some common sense. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right? If you had to walk 40 feet East and 10 feet North, but you had the option to walk directly th ere, wouldn't you just intuitively know that it was shorter to take the direct route? (Yeah, those ought to be 'yds' not 'ft' in the drawing, but I am in the middle of moving and trying to do this in a big ol' hurry.)
Apparently not if you work at the Dallas Morning News. The point of the DMN article was that people shouldn't try to kill things that are out of their accurate shooting range. Shooting something incompletely is worse than shooting it dead, as the injured animal generally dies an agonizing death a few hours or days later.
I realize this is the state that thinks that history textbooks have a pro-Islamic slant, and that creationism should be taught in science class; however, I am confident that there is nothing in the Bible that casts doubt on the validity of the Pythagorean theorem. That's it on the right, where d is the distance to the shooting target. The distance to the target is 41.2 yards, not 50 yards. (Thanks to Brian for pointing out my error in units.)
I don't think I'm being too demanding. This is pretty simple math. Squares and square roots are not beyond the ken of ANYONE who wants to understand them.
And that, unfortunately, seems to be the crux of the problem. I know plenty of people who can calculate how much the 40% off sweater on sale at Neiman Marcus will cost, but claim that things like mortgages or interest on their bank account are just too hard to understand. If you don't understand percentages (and compounding), perhaps you shouldn't be allowed to take out a mortgage. (I know, not feasible because it would lead to another financial crisis.)
Maybe we need to start applying intense social pressure to science and math illiterates. What we really need is branding. Let's recruit personalities from the fields of music, acting and sports who are willing to stand up for math and science. Great advertising opportunity: "If Paris Hilton can understand it, certainly YOU can."
Or maybe I've just been watching too much television lately.