### Innumeracy Watch

Soon after getting my PhD, I went out to buy my first car. The manufacturer was offering very advantageous 1.9% financing, a deal to which I naturally agreed. When I went in to sign the papers, the salesman looked in his little book, and announced, “Your monthly payment will be …,” stating a figure noticeably higher than I had figured. I reached into my breastpocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “According to my calculations, that should be … Why the higher figure, Chet?” (Slimeball car salesmen always seem to have names like “Chet.”) “Oh, that’s the … *<mumble, mumble>* … insurance.” “I don’t need insurance. I’ll pay the …” There was some hemming and hawing, but the loan papers were redrawn, and I eventually signed.

Which brings us to the sad case of Richard Cohen [via P.Z. Myers], who insists that being ignorant of basic algebra, far from being a handicap, is positively a good thing,

I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time…

Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know – never mind want to know – how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later – or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note – or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Cohen. I don’t care whether you enjoy going through life being cheated by every slimeball named “Chet” who has the good fortune to cross your path. If you’re unable to figure out that the monthly payment, $m$, on a loan with Principal, $P$, consisting of $n$ monthly payments at an annual interest rate, $p$, is given by the formula^{1}

well, that’s too bad for you. And I’m sure the Chet’s of this world will be only too glad to “help” you figure out whether it’s time to refinance your mortgage or how best to save for retirement. It’s only money after all…

No, it’s when Mr. Cohen turns to commenting on matters of public policy that his innumeracy becomes a threat to the public discourse. And, most of all, it’s when he offers girls like “Gabriella” the ‘wisdom’ that Math is hard and she needn’t worry her pretty little head about it, that I really get steamed.

I have a 10 year old daughter and I’ll be damned if she succumbs to the societal cues, coming from all side, to the effect that girls are just not cut out to understand math. Wallow in your own innumeracy, if you wish, Mr. Cohen. But keep your *mitts off my daughter*, thank you very much.

#### Update:

Here’s the news article that inspired Mr. Cohen’s column. Apparently, a lot of schools are not equipped to teach algebra to their students and the students are not prepared to learn it. Ergo, it must not really be important…#### Update (2/18/2006):

A reader (I have the*best*readers) wrote in to point out that I should have done a bit more …

*algebra*. Using the identity $\sum_{k=0}^{n-1} x^k = \frac{x^n-1}{x-1}$ one can rewrite (1) in the more calculator-friendly form:

which, now that I think about it, was probably the form that I *actually* used.

**You Passed 8th Grade Math**

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

#### Update (2/25/2006):

You can try your own hand at some of the horrible stuff that Richard Cohen thinks “Gabriela” shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about. I’m not actually that fond of the test. Too many nearly identical questions involving a linear equation in one variable. And at least one of the questions (#6) is of the rote-memorization (“The Gobi desert is in Asia; the Sahara is in Africa.”) variety that Cohen is so fond of.^{1} Yes, I think I used a computer to *evaluate* this expression. Computers are great for tasks like that. They are, like any mechanical aid, an *extension* of, not a replacement for our ability to think quantitatively.

## Re: Innumeracy Watch

Things like this would be hilariously amusing if it weren’t for the scary fact that give the past record of your leaders, something like this could lead to the removal of algebra from the school syllabus.

Maybe it’s time for another plunge into the dark ages with ID replacing Biology and Typing instead of Algebra. Seems like some dystpian, futuristic SciFi story happening in reality, ne?