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I am a native Texan who is graduating with a BSc in Mathematics at the end of this year from the University of Houston. I agree that the Texas Board of Education appears to be filled with people that want to rewrite history and teach creationism alongside evolution (or perhaps instead of) and I find it appalling. If I had my way they would have already been replaced with a board that supports proper science and accurate history. I also agree that innumeracy is a real problem in this country, in this state, and even in my school. I hope that this will no longer be an issue by the time I have children, and I will work towards that goal in whatever ways are available to me.

However, I am also licensed by the state of Texas to carry a concealed handgun, which I do solely for the purpose of self defense. I would never willingly shoot or harm anyone or anything that was not threatening me or a loved one with deadly force. As such, I take offense to the statement that "people in Texas will shoot just about anything that won't shoot back." Your point could have easily been made without that little snipe. In the future, please don't lump all Texas gun owners together as crazy people that have a burning desire to kill things. When you do that, you end up looking just as bad as the other side.

I followed your link to Ray Sasser's article in the Dallas Morning News - I think as disappointing as his error in describing the Pythagorean Theorem is, it's equally disappointing to see that there was only a single comment correcting his mistake (the second and only other commenter didn't seem too concerned about the mistake).

I guess that 1) the other readers didn't catch the error, 2) they didn't care to clear up the mistake, or 3) there weren't actually that many readers at all.

You're right, Brian - I shouldn't have painted everyone with the same brush and I didn't even think that someone would interpret my comment to include people as targets. Texans do disproportionately shoot doves. Last year, Texas had about 235,000 mourning dove hunters. California is second with about 70,000. Shooting the universal symbol of peace is ironic in a very discomfiting way.

Thanks for the post. I referenced it at:

I certainly can't argue with your statistics. I, too, dislike the idea that so many of my fellow Texans hunt "game" animals, and I agree with the irony of shooting the symbol of peace. However, not all Texans are like that! For example, my wife and I helped a pair of mourning doves out as best we could when they decided to make a nest on our front porch! (Please forgive me if the link doesn't work!)

I agree with you 110%. - wink wink -

"Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house." -- Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love :-)>

Regarding this subject, I am always reminded of this David Mumford quote:

"I am accustomed, as a professional mathematician, to living in a sort of vacuum, surrounded by people who declare with an odd sort of pride that they are mathematically illiterate."

This sums up my feelings exactly. It truly is a very "odd sort of pride."

And you are absolutely right. We have an urgent need to make mathematics "cool" to the public, and we need all the help we can. Science in general is needing it too, you know. While these are deep issues in the field of education, I do believe a big deal of PR is essential here in order to start making any progress. And I think the little things are a great place to start, as they can have a big impact. Make the scientist and the mathematician the heroes in movies and TV series. Make the smart gun kiss the girl. The Science and Entertainment Exchange is in a great place to do this, but it needs to be more active on nudging these projects in the right direction.

>An Dallas Morning News article on September 15th about dove hunting (yes, SOME people in Texas will shoot just about anything that won't shoot back - see comment #1 below)

You know, it'd be nice to read reasonable criticism of mathematics without unwarranted sniping at gun owners.

Eric, I removed your comment because I already distracted people from the main point. Let's not go any further in that direction.

Right on about people who are comfortable in their mathematical illiteracy. I try to call that out whenever I hear it.

I'm studying to be a researcher in mathematics education; we're applying science not only to how people learn mathematics, but what their relationship is with mathematics, including attitudes toward mathematical literacy. I agree with a lot of what you say here, but we do need better mathematics education. A motivated individual is a powerful part of that equation.

I hope your frustration passes soon. I'll try to do my part for science and math. Cheers.

most often the rot sets in very early, as open mind, curiosity and idiosyncrasy is killed by school as i know it. so some work might be aimed at the way early school is organized ?
many kids are set back by their home situation. i have good experience with family groups within a primary prevention setup. there was no selection of members by me. mother, father and kid(s) were all included. the groups had to meet outside of work hours.
there was a marked decrease in mistreatment at home, and better function over some time. the unfortunate learnt from the fortunate, and the fortunate learnt respect for the background of others.

The equation was in yards, not feet. Whether you did the math right or not, you still got the answer wrong. ;-)

I'll suggest that you, and anyone else who hasn't yet, read "What's Math Got To Do With It?" by Jo Boaler. Boaler not only describes the problem but has suggestions and recommendations about how to work to solve it.

Well-written. I think that part of the problem lies with the approach to numeracy. Maths ability requires skills, which take practice. Unfortunately curricula are often written with mind-numbingly boring amounts of repetition. I did not finish high school and am mostly self-educated, and people find it hard to believe that I never "did well" in mathematics. Why? Oh, maybe because I make my living as a software engineer who specializes in mathematically challenging applications. Why didn't I do well? I just didn't have the patience to work through all the exercises. I don't always think things through sequentially and sometimes take a different path to the problem, then check my results using conventional methods.

So I agree with you wholeheartedly, but I think the solution requires more of a creative approach in teaching. My wife went to school in India and got ranked based on scores, and the whole pressure was to score well. When people get that kind of pressure they learn to pass tests, but the maths skills often don't stick in the real world. But given questions like this classic train and bird problem: I take the engineering approach.

Some people have the potential for numeracy, but the assumption that all minds must work alike leaves many of us by the wayside.

I like your example from the Dallas Morning News as a good example of innumeracy. (Although if - to hit the dove - the bullet did have to take a 90-degree turn after traveling 40 yards, I'd certainly agree that the shot is "out of range").

But I'm not so sure about the example:
> But how silly do you have to be to think that 'fastest' has anything to do with your opinion?

For something like a pit crew, I do think 'fastest' may be a matter of opinion. Different people could reasonably define 'fastest' in a variety of meaningful ways: lowest average time over a season, lowest time for the best single change over a season, lowest time for the worst single change, etc. In addition, due to different drivers, cars, and technology employed by different teams, one could imagine a definition by which the ``fastest crew'' wasn't reflected in times at all.

We should combat innumeracy wherever it appears, but I think it's a mistake to try to force everything (especially entertainment, which is the example you've picked here) to numbers.

Like Diandra I think the voting for the fastest pit crew is stupid. Looking at the "top" pit crews in the voting, it seems mostly another favorite driver award.

Note that by getting yards vs. feet wrong, you are off by a factor of 3, while getting the Pythagorean Theorem wrong only made the author wrong by a factor of 5/4.

Thank you Brian. You have confirmed that I am, indeed, wasting my time writing.

I don't think people are lazy, I think people are intimidated. Most people are given the idea that math is difficult and once they are done with their requirements for it in school they are happy to move on. I don't think it's so much them disliking math or disliking "intellectualism" just that people don't have confidence. Everyone can read history or non-fiction, but there had been such a fence around Science and Mathematics that people are afraid to go there. Math is in many ways like advanced reading/comprehension, something most Americans aren't good at either. It'd be nice if we could expose them to science through some soft and non-intimidating math. But then a lot of what I see on the sciencey blogs I read is pretty far up there. I don't talk about anything I consider enormously complex on my blog and my mom made a comment it was "far above" her. And there's no way! So honestly I think it just comes down to confidence. I at one time in my life thought I wasn't "good at math" either. But now I know it's like anything. It just takes some effort, some perseverence, and a drive to get through it. I try to encourage everyone I know that math is not in itself difficult just something that takes some effort like being good at photography or drawing or any other skillset.

Things are much the same over this side of the England there is a strange pride and a feeling of superiority in NOT being able to do things..."Oh, I don't know anything about THAT!" they say, in a manner that shows such things are beneath them. They are also the people with the money and the status...thus the engineers,scientists, mathematicians and technologists are perpetually beneath the bankers, accountants and stockbrokers. It is interesting that when one looks at the people travelling first or club class on the airlines, they tend to be the "money men" whereas the engineers etc. are back in "cattle class".

As for educational standards..I had to interview young lads for apprenticeships in a motor vehicle workshop; they weren't going to be brilliant, but needed basic abilities. Some of our sample questions and answers: "What is 10% of 100?" "Oh...we did do percentages but I never quite understood it...can I use a pencil and paper?" or "How many tenths are there in an inch?" "I don't know...we only did the metric system."

I hate to say it, but it is true - I'm not great at math. I grew up at the end of the "girls don't need math" era, and as I didn't show any natural talent for math, there was no real effort to help me learn it. Not so for my daughter, who I expect to learn not only the basics, but advanced math as well. She can and she will.

I love Danica McKellar for her insistance that "Math Doesn't Suck." I have purchased her books for my daughter, my friend's daughter, and our local school district.

Eight years ago I was arranging the purchase of an espresso machine from an espresso machine manufacturer in France. The company didn't do business in the USA, but would sell me the machine, sending it air freight to my location. The company required payment wired in euros to their bank. At that time, the dollar was worth slightly more than the euro.

My bank would accomplish the currency transfer. Living in the USA, I of course, would pay the bank in dollars (USD).

The local banking representative arrived at the initial currency conversion (less bank fees) using her computer and informed me of the dollar amount. I then immediately informed her this was incorrect because her calculation had the USD > Euros.

I started with the basics. How many euros is a USD? Okay, then if 1 USD = 1.16 euros, how did the my dollar amount become larger than the euro amount for multiple USD. She answered, that's what the computer said.

I attempted to show her the math on a piece of paper, creating a proportion and solving for 'x'. The fractions and cross-multiplying resulted in a look of panic and she again made reference to her computer.

Next attempt was to create a little matrix. We will call one column dollars and another euros. We created the following.

1.00 USD = 1.16 Euro
10.00 USD = 11.60 Euro
100.00 USD = 116.00 Euro
1,000.00 USD = 1,160.00 Euro
10,000.00 USD = 11,600.00 Euro

We agreed the above amounts true. She even calculated the last three rows. Then I pointed out all the dollar amounts were always less than the euros amounts. Then I asked how her calculated dollar amount was greater than the euro amount. - "You're confusing me. I need to get my supervisor."

And so it it went again with her supervisor and then the bank manager. Amazing. I somewhat reluctently told them to transfer the money using their calculations and asked for a contact within this commercial banking organization whom I could discuss the transaction.

The following day, I called the banking main office in another state. The first person spoken to again worked the transaction incorrectly. "How can you say our computers are wrong? We're a major financial institution." I replied that I had great faith in their computers, trying to be polite. However, apparently the input method was most likely incorrect. It's 7th grade elementary algebra, I said, and we really don't require a computer. We again created the two column example and again they couldn't explain the irregularity and I was confusing them. I was tranfered up the food chain to their VP of currency exchanges.

Same conversation again, with the same outcome - Unbeleivable! When I asked how the dollar amount in the dollar column was greater the euro amount in the euro column, she said, "Maybe they do math differently in France." - I kid you not. She was serious. That comment was absurd. Algebra is not different by where one resides on the planet and we just happened to be doing it (okay, attempting to do it) in the USA.

She then provided me with the telephone number of one of the bank's currency traders who could better explain the math to me. Our parting comments where somewhat as follows.

Me: Yes, remeber how we struggled with alegbra in school? It was horrible.
VP: Oh yes. I hated it.
Me: Remeber how our teachers said that one day we would find a practical use for algebra?
VP: Yes, he always said that.
Me: Well, today is that day! I have no idea how you reached the position you hold.

When I called the currency trader and explained my tale of woe, he nearly laughed his head off and then corrected my account for the transaction.

Yes, it was sort of funny. Then again, it was and is extremely sad.

I sympathize with your observations and conclusions after 40 years of working in the aerospace industry and struggling with employees who couldn’t perform simple math or logical calculations. And I too thought that the best we could do was educate those that showed interest and aptitude in math and let them carry the rest of the world on their brainy shoulders. But, as one of the previous commenters notes, people will always be faced with tasks as simple as converting currency, so just having an elite mathematical intelligencia, while a highly desirable goal, is not enough, we need to get everybody up to some mathematical speed or other.

To do this the student must be convinced that math is important; the parents must believe knowing math means success; the teachers must have a missionary zeal to tell the story of mathematics; and society has to recognize the fundamental usefulness of mathematics and give respect for those who teach and know math. This is a lot of things to set right in our society; maybe the recent realization that STEM education needs upgrading and support will help accomplish these goals.

Recently I have encountered several blog sites that seem to offer pieces of the puzzle of how to meaningfully augment the presentation of mathematics such that the student gets a better foundation. At the moment I have no plan on how these resources may be used, but I would like to tell you about them and receive any other comments or critiques.

First, a blog called “Fun With Numbers”
presents many articles with clear and rational explanations motivating the need to know math.

Second, WolframAlpha
provides access to a computerized system for calculating almost anything.

The third blog, “Gowers's Weblog--Mathematics related discussions”
is a professional review of modern mathematics, not suitable for the undergraduate student. But, the article “Is the Tricki dead?” from September 24, 2010, suggests the development and usefulness of a Wikipedia-like resource that could answer student “How do I do…” questions that lead to suggestions of appropriate mathematics. At the moment Dr. Gowers seems to be trying to figure out if this is a useful thing to have or not. I believe it is. I would recommend anyone involved in mathematics education visit Gowers web site and offer an opinion (besides, who would not want to have their opinion in the same comments section as Fields medalist Terry Tao?).

Unfortunately I am at the end of my ideas other than to ask isn’t there some way we in the mathematics education community can make use of incredible online resources like these to somehow accelerate all students perception and knowledge of mathematics?

The problem is much greater than just math. We tolerate an ignorance of all technical fields much more than we do the traditional liberal arts. I think this is because, on some level, many people consider the liberal arts kinder and more empathic than technical fields. This is foolish, of course, but I have seen it again and again. I blame movies and television. I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie about an evil linguist who attempts to take over the world?

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    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
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      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
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      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
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      3/4 Triple sec
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      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
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      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
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      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
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      3/4 oz Rum
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      2 oz Pineapple juice
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      1 oz. Kahlua
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      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.