Let's be Numbers People!

You’ve heard it.

“I’m just not a numbers person.”

... and it probably didn’t phase you, it’s a thing people say.

I’m writing today because I don’t think that this is okay, or necessary.

Or more glibly, you can’t cop out of the last ten characters of our orthography, notably the most universal of those characters, by simply saying that you’re some how not able to handle them.

Also you shouldn’t. Data are numbers and data drive decision making, and data are used to mislead, confuse, obfuscate, illuminate, explain, illustrate, communicate, and guide in increasingly important contexts.

This video illustrates the problem with numerical illiteracy very well. It’s a satire poking fun at the unrealistic numbers used in the debate over intellectual property rights.

Watching the news it seems like pundits and spin doctors use numbers to mostly communicate the ideas of “big,” “huge,” “growing,” “shrinking,” and “calamity” and not for any complex purpose. But we tend to tune out the numbers and equations and trust the conclusions.

We shouldn’t do this and, I argue, we don’t need to.

I think part of the problem is that some of us didn’t do well in math in the third grade because we didn’t memorize our multiplication tables. I’ll admit I’m a rather abysmal arithmetician, but most of what you need in order to understand “numbers” is an ability to think conceptually and understand symbols.... not the skills that you struggled with in math class.

You need to be able to stop and think about what the numbers mean, just like when you read words and stop to think what they mean.

We actually do this with numbers all the time, it’s how we know a tall tale from a true story. You know the difference between one mile and one hundred miles. So if someone tells you they ran a mile you think, “it’s great that you are getting back into shape.” But if they tell you they ran one hundred miles, you think “Wow, I didn’t know you were a closeted ultra-marathoner.” And when they tell you they ran 3,000 miles you might ask them if they fell asleep watching Forrest Gump and maybe just dreamed it.

That’s exactly what Rob Reid is doing in his talk. You could do that with a little time and Wikipedia. See maybe you’re a numbers person already!
There’s no reason why all of us can’t use all of the “math-ey” information out there to help us make better decisions. We first need to step around the misconception that some people just can’t “do math” and then get on to the “doing math.”

If you’re skeptical, I’ll chalk that up to an education system particularly effective at teaching people not to learn. But we are here to change all of that.

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