Fear of mathematics, 2

“Letter to my younger self” is a regular feature of the Big Issue, but apparently it is more widely distributed.

My new colleague Richard Cormack circulated to the department a link to a rant by the Australian statistician Ron Sandland, who had spent some time in St Andrews many years ago. The title of the piece was “Mathematics. Trust me. It’s important in your life”; presumably it was the transcript of a broadcast on the ABC; the link suggests that it was on my birthday, in fact.

Sandland’s inspiration was a “Dear Me” letter from Jodi Picoult to her 16-year-old self, and in particular the statement

Calculus. Trust me. You will never use it.

The article may well be tongue-in-cheek, since it doesn’t attempt to make the obvious distinction between understanding mathematics and eating its fruits. The well-chosen examples include the fact that the stock market value of the intellectual property of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter rival the assets of the three largest Australian mining companies; the fact that “the technology that underpinned CSIRO’s wireless LAN patent that enables billions of devices such as smart phones, tablets and computers to connect wirelessly came out of CSIRO’s pioneering work in radioastronomy” (and was based on the fast Fourier transform, one of Arieh Iserles’ examples which I mentioned recently), and the use of more accurate weather forecasts together with the technology of Google Earth enabled the writer to reassure himself that his daughter was not threatened by the serious bushfires burning in the New South Wales outback at the time (to say nothing of saving the lives of many people who were threatened).

The really scary thing was the comments elicited by the article. I certainly didn’t read more than a few of these, but it became absolutely clear that there is a huge amount of fear and denial about mathematics out there.

Curiously, the same day, there had been a discussion in the common room provoked by a casual remark “Our students are scared of computers”.

On the face of it, this is absurd; they use computers far more fluently than their elders: they are at home with Google, Facebook and Twitter, they read their problem sheets by preference on their phones rather than sheets of paper, and so on.

Of course, what was meant was, they are scared of programming their computers. They are like the car drivers who neither knew nor cared what went on under the bonnet, so long as the car took them where they wanted to go without breaking down. But computers are even more scary than cars: the program has to be exactly right or they will exact a humiliating revenge on the programmer.

(I have not driven a car myself for well over forty years. But once, when a rather unsophisticated old Fiat in which I was a passenger lost power in the middle of an Oxford street, I was able to fix it with a paperclip.)

The more I think about these arguments, the wider they seem to become. I have argued that mathematicians don’t need expensive journals from greedy publishers because we can (at least in principle) check the correctness of a paper on the arXiv whose result we want to use. We don’t just use the “seal of quality” provided by publication in a refereed journal. Yet even many mathematicians are scared to face the implications of this.

Anyway, I really believe that what many people are scared of is not mathematics itself, but the fact that it asks something of them which they have not been trained to provide, namely some thought and reasoning on their own account.

Our job may be as simple (or as complicated) as familiarising our students with this idea so that it no longer scares them.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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