Numbers, Tyranny of

views updated

Numbers, Tyranny of

Numbers from opinion polls are frequently discussed in the news. Political candidates throw around numbers to justify the programs they wish to initiate. If consumers want to make a purchase, they almost always check the price. Whether buying a car, following a recipe, or decorating a home, humans use mathematics every day.

Math can help people shop wisely, buy the right insurance, remodel a home within a budget, understand population growth, or even bet on the horse with the best chance of winning the race. If a scientist or an academic researcher wants to prove a hypothesis, she or he almost always uses the statistical analysis of numbers. Qualitative research is held in a much lower position than quantitative research. Why is this phenomenon of numbers so prevalent in our society? Where did it come from?

A Look Back

The origin of our decimal number system can be traced to ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Sumerian societies that existed more than 5,000 years ago. The bulk of the credit for the base-10 system goes to the Hindu-Arabic mathematicians of the eighth to eleventh centuries c.e. Other societies in various parts of the world independently developed sophisticated systems of arithmetic.

The requirements of more demanding measurements, analytical quantifications, and complex calculations provided the impetus for the transfer from a symbolic system to the modern number system. Societies of all cultures and time periods have known that if humans are well versed in this language of numbers, it can help them make important decisions and perform everyday tasks.

The Prevalence of Mathematics

Researchers are demonstrating that all cultures have math and use it, like language, as a system to make meaning of the world. Numeracy is a set of cultural practices that reflect the particular values of the social, cultural, and historical context of a society. From the mental math of bazaar merchants, to the navigational skills of South Pacific Islanders, to the astronomical calculations of ancient Mayans, a huge variety of mathematical techniques and ideas have been developed worldwide.

Some mathematical practices are used in all parts of the world. People have been using these same principles for thousands of years, across countries and continents. These principles include counting, measuring, locating, designing, playing, and explaining. But there are cultural differences among these activities.

Academic mathematics may be similar in many societies because of imposed factors such as competitive economics and political ethics of the dominant culture. Whether one is sailing a boat off the coast of Japan or building a house in Peru, mathematics is necessary.

How can math be so universal? First, human beings did not invent math concepts; they discovered them. Also, the language of math is numbers, not English or German or Russian. Virtually every known society has had some method of dealing with numbers.

Primitive systems of mathematics may be as simple as having a name for "one" and a name for "more than one." Another elementary representation of numbers is the tally. It originally consisted of single strokes that were put in a one-to-one correspondence with the items being counted. Later these were combined into groups of five or more. These tally marks are also important today because items are still counted.

Numbers are important in many aspects of society. Number skills are needed to function in everyday life, including in the home, in the workplace,

and in the community. Although it is not always recognized, numbers are used in most everyday situations: cooking, shopping, financial transactions, crafts, interpreting information in the media, traveling, taking medications, using VCRs and microwave ovens.

Different people need different types of math skills, and their needs change in response to changes in their lives, such as buying a new house, learning a new hobby, or getting a new job. Consumer education typically uses mathematics to teach about credit, budgeting, and money management.

Beyond daily living skills, numbers are now being defined as the knowledge that empowers people. Thus, numbers have economic, social, and political consequences for individuals, organizations, and society. Low levels of numeracy limit access to education, training, and jobs. On-the-job lack of knowledge about numbers can hinder performance and productivity. Lack of this knowledge can also cause over-dependence on experts and professionals.

Inability to interpret numerical information can be costly. It can limit full participation as a citizen and make one vulnerable to political or economic manipulation. Sometimes the math of a particular group restricts access to professions. The attitude of a dominant group can become the norm under which others are measured. The ones who are attuned to a certain mathematical way of thinking succeed where it is used. Those who think in other ways may be considered lacking in ability.

Mathematics underlies every facet of science and technology from computer games, cellular phones, and the Internet to medical diagnostic tests, the design of new prescription drugs, and minimally invasive surgery. A "simple" differential equation modeling a very ordinary pendulum can reveal that the pendulum exhibits extraordinarily complicated and unstable behavior. Because pendulums are the basic subunit in some types of robots, mathematical understanding of their behavior can contribute to the design of better robots in industry.

One nonintuitive phenomenon that is illustrated by the fact that pendulums exhibit both simple predictable behavior, and complicated, unstable behavior is that chaos and controllability go hand in hand. This can be further illustrated in the history of airplane design. The first airplanes were designed to be extremely stable because nineteenth-century engineers identified control with stability. In World War I, however, pilots found that this stability made it impossible for them to dodge enemy fire. Thus making airplanes less stable made them safer because they were easier to maneuver. Math was used to change this stability factor and, therefore, saved many lives.

People who are empowered with numerical skills can participate fully in civic life and can skeptically interpret advertising and statistics. Knowledge of numbers is one way a society positions people. It can give a person a voice and more control over life circumstances. Lack of this knowledge can serve as a barrier in one's economic, political, and social life. Numeracy skills are needed to function in our technological society and workplace. Math is universally important, from counting pennies to the development of the newest technological advances.

see also Mathematics, Very Old; Number System, Real; Numbers and Writing.

Max Brandenberger


Kerka, Sandra. "Not Just a Number: Critical Numeracy for Adults." Eric Digest no. 163. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education, 1995.

Norwood, Rick "New Discoveries in Mathematics: It's a Theorem!" Accent on Mathematics, Newsletter of the East Tennessee State University Department of Mathematics, Issue No. 2, 1996.