Wednesday, August 22, 2007


John Allen Paulos coined the phrase in his 1988 book of the same title. On page 3 he defines innumeracy as "an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance". This condition is typified by the expressions "I was never very good at math" or "I'm a people person, not a numbers person."

ABC's John Stossel let's us know that not much has changed in the last 19 years.

To demonstrate that, "20/20" ran an experiment. We asked people to put on blindfolds and then to pick up a red jellybean from one of two plates that held a mixture of red and white jellybeans. We offered $1 to anyone who could pick up a red bean.

Here's the catch: While one plate held 20 jellybeans and the other 100, the plate with 20 beans had a higher percentage of red ones. We put up signs that told people this clearly: "10 percent red" of the small plate and just "7 percent red" of the big plate.

Surprisingly, even with the percentage signs in front of them, a third of the people picked the plate with 100 beans.

What people saw overwhelmed their ability to think abstractly about probability.

That's just painful to read.


David said...

I expect that the recent problems with toxic loans had a lot to do with innumeracy...but also with a certain kind of illiteracy, in that the numbers could only be understood in the context of the loan disclosures.

It is really very dangerous for people to leave school without knowing how to think about numbers and to read fairly complex documents...dangerous for their personal finances, dangerous for their career development, dangerous for the political direction of society, and, in some cases, just plain physically dangerous.

jetlife said...

The people who run the lottery depend on this human trait.
The Mega Bucks really gets me.
You mean I can win twice as much as the regular lottery, and my chances are only going to be ten times worse?
OK!! here's my dollar.

Tony said...

Ow, it hurts, it hurts. Please make the innumeracy go away.

Darren said...

I'm trying, Tony.

Erica said...

On the other hand, being somewhat mathmatically literate really does cut down on the amount of fun one has in Vegas.

Anonymous said...

The schools can't make everyone able to read complex documents. Some people are stupid. The best thing we can do is help stupid people understand their limits and the need to get help from smarter people when it's time to sign a lease or buy a house.

David said...

anon...true, some people will never be able to read something like a mortgage agreement, but the number of people who *could* learn, and don't, is very large.

Edward said...

Do they still pick the wrong plate when they aren't allowed to see them filled with jelly beans first?