Posner and Becker on crappy US Math Scores

by F.

Sure, US math scores suck. But who cares? Check out what Posner and Becker have to say here. I absolutely agree with this. Posner hits the nail on the head: the “ability” to do long, boring calculations is hardly economically useful, while what we should be learning—simple statistics and basic science facts and methodology—isn’t taught to everyone:

What would be socially and even economically useful would be to instruct high school students in the rudiments of statistical theory. That would help them learn to think straight about a range of public policy issues, as well as to avoid certain recurrent mistakes in everyday life. People are terrible at handling probabilities. For example, most people, including otherwise quite intelligent and well educated people, don’t understand that randomness is not regular alternation–that a typical random pattern is 1000110110001, not 101010101010. And this mistake leads them, for example, to give undue weight to the recent performance of a mutual fund (e.g., 1101). But whether to teach statistical theory in high school is an issue of educational policy rather than a matter of raising the scores on math tests.

It would also be helpful to the United States, mainly from a public policy standpoint, if more of our people were scientifically literate; and it would help them to be so if they knew some math, because modern science is heavily mathematical. In my book Catastrophe: Risk and Return (2004), I examined the issue of scientific literacy briefly, pointing out that only a third of American adults (adults, not 15-year-olds) know what a molecule is, that 39 percent believe that astrology is scientific, that 46 percent deny that human beings evolved from earlier animal species, and that almost 50 percent do not know that it takes a year for the earth to revolve around the sun (many do not know that the earth revolves around the sun). These are amazing statistics, and yet, according to the materials I consulted, the scientific literacy of the U.S. population actually exceeds that of the European Union, Japan, and Canada.

I’m constantly amazed at how tedious math books are. I checked out two books on Bayesian statistics, just to refresh myself on the basic ideas. I waded through pages and pages of proofs and other stuff—and these were beginner texts. And I care about this…Why?

I wanted to use a pencil; I didn’t need to know how one was made.

But there is hope. In the world of statistics, you can read Statistics Hacks, a wonderful book. That is what most technical books should be like. Short, useful, and fun.