Recent events have me thinking about math. Trust me, as a guy whose last formal math course came in high school, I’m as surprised as you are, but the summer’s COVID-19 events have really hit home just how important an understanding of numbers and basic math concepts is to public policy and life more broadly, and just how innumerate (i.e., lacking those important things) we Americans collectively are. So today’s newsletter will take a slight detour from our usual deep-dive wonkiness to explore our innumeracy and why it matters, especially right now.
Our Innumeracy, Explained
To be clear, when I say “innumeracy” here, I’m most definitely not talking about someone—like me!—who lacks a thorough, formal understanding of advanced math or statistics concepts. Instead, this is about two interrelated—and far more basic—things: First, and as helpfully explained in this 2017 Wall Street Journal piece, is many people’s simple, biological inability to grasp large numbers and put them in the right context:
Here’s a brainteaser. Take a sheet of paper, and draw a line with the endpoints 0 and 1 billion. Then place a tick mark on the line where 1 million should appear.