math for everyone

I’ve always liked math as a tourist, the way people who don’t paint visit museums.  I draw daily on my ability to reason quantitatively, but not on the college trig I took for fun a couple of years ago.

The default curriculum in math culminates in calculus, of greatest practical use for scientists and engineers.  For the rest of us, it was at best an opportunity to flex a different set of mental muscles, and pick up an alternative (and usually fleeting) understanding of how things work.  We’ve said everyone should take it anyhow, because mathematical ability is one of the hallmarks of the educated person.  That’s a lame reason, and our students see through it instinctively, even those who can’t define “tautology.”

For a couple of reasons I think we’re on the cusp of better rationale.  The next few decades may be when we discover the use of math for everyone, serious, advanced math, not just calculating the 15% tip, and not just as a passing intellectual curiosity but as a vital skill.  And it won’t culminate in calculus, but in statistics.

Lately we’ve seen articles from social theorists, often economists, looking for causal connections in strange places.  They hook together electronic pools of information and watch for patterns, ulta-relationalizing the relational database.  What comes out is surprising and not always convincing:  a study of the impact of of a really good fourth grade teacher on the pupil’s later lifetime earning, for example.

As our databases move to the cloud they become easier to connect; these statistical tools and techniques are developing, multiplying, before our eyes.  That means that in their working lives, a greater share of our students will make decisions based on such connections, and need to understand probabilities, odds, and significance in deeper ways than we did.

The second realm where they’ll need this skill is personal.  The big, vivid example of cloud computing and relational database combo platters is, for me, the revolution in personal health records.  They are putting more information into everyone’s hands, but also making it possible, in the aggregate, to evaluate the likely outcomes of various forms of treatment.  Diagnosis and prognosis can be expressed in terms of odds, odds that need to be related to each other.

This week a NOVA report on mapping the human genome took some time to explore the ethics of letting people see their own personal gene sequence.  Half a dozen companies will now read to you your DNA, in return for a little saliva and lot of money.  Of these companies, only one will give you the report directly; the others make you go to a physician, who then tells you how to interpret it.  They worry about patients’ ability to understand concepts like “less predisposed genetically to contract heart disease than most other women of your age and race,” or “seven times likelier than the general population to develop Alzheimers before the age of 50.”  Society, they argue, should make sure a licensed doctor is always there to talk people through it.

Yeah, I thought.  Or we could teach them stats.

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4 thoughts on “math for everyone

  1. Ken, you are so right. Having a deep understanding of statistics is critical and necessary for our ever growing/changing global economy. Much like advertisements, we are bombarded with statistical data wherever we go. It is such a part of our culture, that it is taken for granted. Whether it be watching a sporting event, to reading the latest health findings or hearing the latest politcal polls. To be well-informed, active community members of our robust society, being data/math literate as well as financially literate are a must!

  2. The preeminence of calculus in American higher education can be attributed predominantly to Sputnik. Calculus is wonderful, but its preeminence stems from the need to solve a 50 year old problem: beating the Russians to the Moon. Statistics solves the quantitative problems that our current students will face in their lifetimes much better than calculus does.

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