Monday, July 25, 2011

Saving Lives -- and Math Education -- With Statistics

This month, we are all selecting one blog entry written over the past year to re-post. In light of Friday's tragic mass murder in Norway, I have chosen the essay I wrote in January after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. I know it's not a lightweight confection for your summertime enjoyment (I did that last month) but it received more comments than any other post of mine during the 2010-11 school year.

Despite the unhappy news I wish all INK readers a happy summer.


Once again, a child at a school assembly asked me where I get my ideas. As usual, I said ideas are everywhere. This month I’ve been getting ideas from the newspaper, particularly coverage of the Tucson tragedy. It’s given me the idea that it’s high time to write a book that will go some small way to make our country a better place for people’s lives, not just a better place for people’s math. In fact, I’m thinking of a book that can do both because they just might be related.

We live in an era and a society where dogma trumps evidence and the drama of one trumps the experiences of many. The tendency to generalize from single examples seems to take over the minds of those (and there are many) unwilling or unable to recognize the relative insignificance of the examples they flourish. Show a gun-rights supporter statistics demonstrating unambiguously that families with guns in their homes are far more likely to suffer an injury or death from gunshot … and they’ll come back with an anecdote about one exceedingly rare instance where someone defended his family with a gun. Talk about Columbine or Virginia Tech or Tucson and they’ll tell you an apocryphal story about the arms-bearing citizen who stopped a potential shooting.

Statistics let us distinguish data from anecdote. Maybe some day (how’s this for wishful thinking?) a society that is statistically literate will create laws that actually help protect people from madmen instead of absurdly lax laws that protect the madmen until it’s too late to stop them.

And we need to understand probability. If you tell a gun supporter that we need better background checks on gun purchasers, she might point out that the checks are no better than 50% effective. But if prospective purchasers have to go through three successive screens, nearly 90% of the mad shooters would be stopped. One more screen and you’re up to almost 95%. It’s in the math.

Would quality children’s books on statistics and probability make any difference in our laws or attitudes? I don't know but can we afford to wait any longer to find out? Let’s see… if 10% of the people had a better mathematical basis for interpreting the information and misinformation that bombards us daily, and if each of them told 10 people who told 10 people...

One of my math heroes is Dr. Arthur Benjamin, a math professor at Harvey Mudd College, and a world-renowned “math magician” who astonishes audiences with amazing mental math calculations that he can do faster than any of the eight volunteers who come to the stage with their calculators. Prof. Benjamin did a short Ted talk about his formula for changing math education in America. You can find it here: It’s only three minutes long and it might change your view of math education which, Benjamin believes, is on the wrong trajectory.

In every school system in America, math starts with counting and arithmetic, goes through algebra, aiming squarely for calculus. The genius of calculus and its importance to physicists and engineers is not to be denied, says Benjamin, but the vast majority of us will never use it. Instead they get lost and disillusioned with mathematics long before they face their first derivative. Benjamin believes that math education should point math users towards probability and statistics instead of calculus. You'll use your understanding of statistics and probability every day, whether you're a physicist or a farmer, whether you work in a factory or in front of a computer monitor (or both). And, I hope, you'll use it when you read the newspaper.


Vicki Cobb said...

Bravo, David!! I hope you get to write that book! Here are some questions I'm curious about. Are more children exploited and abducted today than in the past or is there just more reported in the news? Why don't we talk more about "acceptable risk" when assessing dangers? To what extent do we live in fear of the wrong things and ignore other things at our peril?

steve jenkins said...

An author who's dealt with this sort of thing in an entertaining way is John Allen Paulos. He's written a number of books — including 'Innumeracy' and 'A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper' — that look at our misperceptions about statistics. His books are intended for adult readers, but I think the topic would make an interesting picture book. And you are just the person to write it...

Loreen Leedy said...

Then there's Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife, which I haven’t read yet...heard an interview. Great post!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

As a non-math person and a follower of English football (Chelsea FC in particular,) I am discovering that statistics can indeed be fun. Have you read Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S. Japan, Australia, Turkey – and Even Iraq – are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski?

Susan E. Goodman said...

David--I'm joining the masses. And I think that it could be interesting (important) to look at the issue two ways--the way you reported. And also the way that people use statistics misleadingly to prove their case. When I was in college I remember reading a book called How to Lie with Statistics--a real eye opener.

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