# Math illiteracy, can you believe this?

1. Dec 28, 2006

### robert Ihnot

On a new quiz show I was just watching, "Survival Guide," a contestant is pitted against originally 100 people in booths, who also guess the answer. The contestant wins $1000 for an answer per person in a booth, if she is correct and they are not. First question, she gains$1000 because someone did not know what claustrophobia meant. (99 contestants left.)

Second question all 99 people and contestant knew about Christ and Dec 25.

Third question: If Santa Clause parallel parks his sleigh, what is perpendicular to this position? A) The side doors B) The back of the sleigh C) The runners of the sleigh.

Before the contestant could answer, the question was graded on the 99 people in the booth. 54 OF THEM WERE WRONG. Thus she would have picked up an additional \$54,000 if correct, BUT SHE WAS ALSO WRONG AND DISQUALIFIED!

Talk about a low comprehension of math, innumercy,this seems to defy belief!

Last edited: Dec 28, 2006
2. Dec 28, 2006

### HallsofIvy

And it's not just math- or contestants. I remember a game show on which the mc asked "What Shakespeare character was known as the Prince of Darkness?" Surprizingly, none of the contestants could answer so the mc read of the answer: Hamlet. (Well, maybe not so surprizingly: he had misread "What Shakespeare character was know as the Prince of Denmark"!)

3. Dec 28, 2006

### yenchin

I remembered a survey done which shows that there are still people (including some high-salary executive...) who thought that the Sun revolves around the Earth... given that, I think I can believe math illiteracy

4. Dec 28, 2006

### arildno

Oh, but the Sun DOES revolve around the Earth, in the Earth's rest frame..

5. Dec 28, 2006

### yenchin

:tongue: Oh well... You know what I meant

6. Dec 28, 2006

### mathwonk

i have met people who do not know that in the infinite dimensional case, subfields of extensions fields correspond, not to all subgroups of the galois group, but only to closed subgroups, in the inverse limit topology.

7. Dec 28, 2006

### mbrmbrg

You just have to know what to say to these people.
There's a gentleman who lives near me who used to hate being asked, "What do you do for a living?" because if he answers, "I'm a mathematician," he is almost guarenteed to hear, "Oh, really? I can't do math." So the guy now listens sympathetically to near-strangers take pride in their ignorance before responding, "That's all right. I can't read." Conversation stopper.
Why is it okay to be incapable of performing simple arithmetic, but it's sad and evil to be illiterate?:grumpy:

8. Dec 28, 2006

### yenchin

And I have met people who thought that accretion disk can only form if a black hole is rotating, and not for Schwarzschild case; and people who thought a 0-dimensional sphere is a point instead of two points... BUT, I believe we are talking about *basic* math illiteracy here.

9. Dec 28, 2006

### Math Is Hard

Staff Emeritus
Do sleighs have side doors?

10. Dec 28, 2006

### yenchin

I have also always have people saying "I am always not good in math" or "I almost (or did) failed math" bla bla. Sometimes they seem almost proud of saying so. I guess it has something to do with the education system: most of the time people thought what they learned in schools are all the math there is in the world (hence utterly boring), and unfortunately many school lessons are about nothing but really basic calculations and simple theorems. So once they hate maths in school, it's very hard to win back their soul to like math again

Talking about math illiteracy, sometimes even students who score quite well in school mathematics also have illiteracy in one form or another. E.g. I once asked high school students and even a class of pre-university (A-level equivalent) students a simple question of what is Pi, and *NONE* of them get it correct. All they will say it's that Pi=3.14 or Pi=22/7. No one knows what is the definition of Pi after years of mathematics education! If that doesn't sound wrong to you, I don't know what does!! What is happening to education :grumpy:

11. Dec 29, 2006

### robert Ihnot

Well, I have met people who could not understand what a mathematician could be doing. Examples:

"Didn't the Greeks prove all of those things?"

Or the real killer: "That is a very practical career to undertake. Math concerns our everyday activity. We have to calculate all the time."

12. Dec 29, 2006

### Gokul43201

Staff Emeritus
I recently was reminded of this state of innumeracy while watching the Late Show. It was a segment titled "Stupid Pet Tricks", and one of the pets invited was Dave, the Math Dog. This dog seemingly produces correct answers to simple numerical problems (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squares, cubes, square roots) and it was quite amazing to watch. However, what I found more amazing (though, by now, I shouldn't) was Mr. Letterman's complete ignorance of how the integers worked. He struggled to come up with a pair of numbers whose difference (first minus second) was positive. Then he fumbled with providing number a, b such that b|a (the dog could only answer questions which had whole number answers). After this, he completely failed with the incredibly difficult task of producing a square of an integer (so the dog could compute the square root). When someone eventually came up with 36 and the dog answered with 6 taps with its paw, Letterman didn't know if that was correct! Later in the show, he was given a calculator to confirm this.

http://www.jg-tc.com/articles/2006/11/22/news/news003.txt [Broken]
http://rrochat.com/davethemathdog/images/elmwood_il.html [Broken]

Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
13. Dec 29, 2006

### morphism

That's unbelievable - both the dog and Letterman's idiocy!

14. Dec 29, 2006

### yenchin

The dog beats a human :rofl:

15. Dec 29, 2006

### uart

It reminds me of a so called "National IO test" that one of the TV stations ran here last year. One of the questions was :

"What is ten divided by one half?"

Almost everyone doing the challenge answered 5 instead of the correct answer of 20.

16. Dec 29, 2006

### matt grime

One I like to get off my chest occasionally:

last year, whilst helping someone with A-level maths preparation, I found the text book (yes, the text book) asserting that sqrt(2)=1.4. Mathematical illiteracy is ingrained by the very tools that are supposed to educate. No wonder I struggle make students understand the difference between equal and isomorphic when they haven't learned the difference between equal and not equal.

17. Dec 29, 2006

### arildno

Or the ubiquitous $\pi=3.14$:yuck:

18. Dec 29, 2006

### uart

Actually that (and Matts post) reminds me of something that I’ve often noticed. Have you ever had the situation where you received some information at a very young age from a trusted source, like a parent or teacher, and either the information was wrong or you just grossly misinterpreted it and as a result you ended up with something really erroneous stuck in your brain. It's almost like this obviously fallacious "fact" gets filed away in a part of the brain that is reserved for "things that are correct without question" and it can be quite funny/embarrassing when this "unquestioned" information comes out many years later when you really should know better.

This is something that has happened to me and speaking to various other people it seems quite common. Lots of people can recount some really dumb childhood learnt thing they held to be true for a very long time, I mean long after that same information would have been rejected as false if it had been presented to them at this later age.

My example is actually the Pi one. At a young age my father was teaching me to use a slide-rule. Now my dad was never a mathematician, so he told me "If you have to do calculations involving circles then there's this thing marked Pi on the slide-rule that is very useful. Some slide-rules don’t have Pi marked so you can just use 3.1, but if you want the exact value use 22/7".

So at this young age I learnt that 3.1 was only an approximation for Pi (so far so good), but that 22/7 was it's exact value . Now this little piece of misinformation sat dormant in my brain for many years until one day in a university maths course out it came. The Lecturer was discussing Pi and he said something along the lines of how the “Pi button” on our calculators was necessarily only an approximation of the true value of Pi. At this point I blurted out something like “yeah but if you use 22/7 it’s exact”. Ouch, I nearly got laughed out of the lecture theatre.

Actually my example is pretty tame, some people’s accounts are really laughable. Ones involving gross misunderstanding of physical phenomenon can be quite funny. Like the student in a 3rd year astrophysics course who stated that “the phases of the Moon are caused by the Earths shadow falling on the Moon”.

Has this type of thing ever happened to anyone else here?

Last edited: Dec 29, 2006
19. Dec 29, 2006

### Gokul43201

Staff Emeritus
Until recently, I'd been pronouncing 'timbre' the same way I pronounce 'timber'!

Naturally, I blame my 9th grade physics teacher!!

20. Dec 29, 2006

### matt grime

A university course teaches what the pi button does? I feel faint. Nurse, my tablets, please.

21. Dec 29, 2006

### uart

Haha. No he wasn't teaching us how to use buttons on the calculator. It was a very long time ago so I can’t remember the exact details. I believe he was merely using it as an example of the limitation of decimal representations when it comes to irrational numbers. Or it may have even been something he was saying in response to a question asked by a student. Anyway you can put the tablets away Matt, I can assure you that at no time in my university course did any lecturer ever give us a "buttons on a calculator" lesson. :)

Last edited: Dec 30, 2006
22. Dec 29, 2006

### mathwonk

well i traditionally talk about what the numbers on the calculator mean.

many of m y calcuklus students believe the answers their calcuklators give are exact.

others seem to think all real numbers are integers, and interpret the rules

(af)' = af' for derivatioves accordingly, asonly true for integers a.

i have often thought about how to persuade my students that there are more real numbers than just the integers, or finite decimals, or fractions.

it is not easy when you do not treat real numbers correctly. i have settled on emphasizing the purpose of real numbers is to emasure lengths, and explaining how this leads to representing them as infinite decimals.

this does not suffice, as so many students have in grained false ideas, like the pi = 22/7.

i try to explain how "numbers" should have various properties, like their physical interpretation or application, their symbolic representation, their convenience for calculation, their axiomatic properties,.....

i.e. isa "number" somthing such that a+b = b+a, or something that represents a length, or somehting that can be approximated by a decimal, or something that can easily be added and multiplied?

we think of them by their axioms, but students think of them by their names.

23. Dec 29, 2006

### mathwonk

uart, when i was in high school, my algebra book defined a function roughly as " two quantities so related that a change in one of them brings about a corresponding change in the other".

I dutifully memorized this and repeated it when i interviewed for admission to the honors calculus course in college at harvard.

that one answer almost got me diismissed immediately from consideration for the course. fortunately the prof gave me one more chance, and i recovered by proving the real numbers are uncountable, by cantors "second diagonal method", which i had learned by independent reading.

Last edited: Dec 29, 2006
24. Dec 30, 2006

### Gib Z

LOL I remember that! Do you live in Australia? It was on channel seven or sumthing, as the tests made me want to laugh. They probably designed it so people felt better about themselves :). About that contestant who could have had 54k, i want to him him.

25. Dec 30, 2006

### uart

Yes that was it. I really was pretty laughable wasn't it.

Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook