To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson; "Where the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe." Jefferson wrote many things alluding to the necessity of a free press, as well as an educated public capable of partaking in that free press. He believed strongly that a reading public would be able to keep the government in check. Unfortunately we are in a time when something even more threatening has set in, innumeracy.
About 14 percent of people in this country cannot read. That is certainly an alarming fact, but it pales in comparison to the number of people who have trouble simply reading and understanding a graph. Many intelligent people are complacent in the fact that they are poor at math. Sometimes people even almost brag about not being good at math. This is a terrible tragedy since it can lead to major misunderstandings and belief in things that are just not true.
For instance a very common belief is that your time must be coming to win at gambling. Many people fall victim to this belief; they believe that they are increasing their odds at winning by playing longer. This, however, is just not true. Every time you pull the lever or roll the dice, you have the same chance of winning as you did before.
Innumeracy allows people to fall victim to scam artists and schemes to trick you out of your money. This can be clearly seen with psychics and mystics, if you really pay attention you will find that these people are playing the odds, and happen to be good at it. They will go to a crowd of people and say very general things so they are bound to hit on something, and then they draw the person in and often the people forget about everything that was incorrect. "I am seeing an R or was that a K"?
Sometimes people either intentionally or unintentially create misleading graphs to present the mathematical information. I have created a sample misleading graph. As you can see the graph appears to be increasing from left to right at a rather large rate. It is indeed increasing but by roughly 1 percent each time. Why does it look so large? Because I did not put the axis at 0, instead I started the axis at 9,000 which makes the changes look much larger than they really are.
Unfortunately people often do not recognize this as a problem, but it truly has far reaching impacts in your everyday life. If the public doesn't understand math, especially statistics, it could mean you are wrongly put in jail when you shouldn't be, you get scammed out of money by some elaborate scheme, you lose money gambling, you get injured because you think you are safer driving than flying when the opposite is true and so on.
Fortunately you don't have to become a mathematician to defeat this problem, you simply have to be privy to some important mathematical facts and understand just what graphs and statistics are telling you. Innumeracy is certainly a problem that should be treated on the same level as illiteracy. Both can have far reaching consequences to the individual and the people around them. Don't be caught off guard with some shady mathematics!
Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student.