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Why We Need The Math Police

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By Jonathan Wai and Lou DiGioia

Compare these two scenarios.

Scenario 1: You've just logged into Facebook and read a post by one of your "friends" that contains the sentence "Your right, I was wrong." Moments later, there are several replies to the post that point out the grammatical error. Your "friend" quickly acknowledges the error, corrects the sentence, and jokingly comments, "You're right to correct me!"

Scenario 2: You go out to lunch with a group of friends and when the bill comes, the person to whom the check was handed stares at it blankly. Instead of doing the relatively simple calculation to figure out what he owes, he gives up and asks if everyone can just split the bill equally because the math is easier. No one questions the request (not even those who ordered less), and everyone hands their credit card to the waiter.

What is the difference between these two scenarios?

In scenario 1, your Facebook friend was caught by the grammar police. Once your friend was alerted to his grammatical error, he took quick action to save face. In scenario 2, there was no equivalent pushback on the bad math, even though in this case it led to certain group members paying more than they owed. This shows the grammar police are alive and well.

What we need are the math police.

While the culture of correcting bad grammar (either spoken or written) existed before the advent of the Internet, the web provides a much greater opportunity to point out written grammatical errors on a very public platform. According to Urban Dictionary, the grammar police are "Those who seek to have correct English written online." Numerous online groups have been formed around this very premise. A quick search on Facebook reveals dozens of groups devoted to correcting grammatical errors, including one specifically called "the grammar police" that has nearly 30,000 likes. And although this group of grammar checking citizens can seem madly annoying at times, their presence illustrates that in American culture it is socially unacceptable if you can't read, write, or exhibit the appropriate use of the English language.

Just about all of us have been shamed at one time or another for making a grammatical mistake. But when was the last time you were shamed for not being able to do basic math?

Public personalities are also very careful to ensure that they use the appropriate grammar. Yet some of them are almost proud of saying that they are not very good at math or even that math isn't useful to them. Here are three examples:

Michelle Obama, at a National Science Foundation conference emphasizing the importance of math and science for girls: "I know for me, I'm a lawyer because I was bad at [science and math]. (Laughter.) All lawyers in the room, you know it's true. We can't add and subtract, so we argue. (Laughter.)"

Selena Gomez: "I'm not really good in math."

Andrew Sullivan: "Math is useless to the vast majority of us."

If the First Lady of the United States thinks it is appropriate to joke about being bad at math, a teen pop star admits to being bad at math, and a high profile journalist thinks math is virtually useless, what message does this send to all of us?

It sends the message that it is socially acceptable and perhaps even socially desirable to be bad at math in America today.

Yet a recent McKinsey Global Institute report projects that America needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers who are really good at math and 1.5 million more data literate managers. The ability to find patterns in the flood of Big Data that surrounds us has become more essential than ever. In addition, it is quite common to find that in international math comparisons, America finds itself rather mediocre.

If we want the next generation to aspire towards careers as data scientists and mathematicians, aren't we sending them the wrong message?

This is why we need the math police. We envision the math police acting in a similar fashion to the grammar police. They will be citizens who point out the poor use of math by others and will not tolerate people who joke about being bad at math. And just like the grammar police, they may be annoying at times. However, they will send the critical message that it is not okay to be bad at math in America.

Here are some examples of how the math police might operate:

After lunch with a friend, she is handed the bill. She does not bother to try to calculate the tip, but laughs about how hard the math would be to figure it out. Instead of laughing with her, you point out how simple a calculation this is and encourage her to do the math on her own.

A famous person is speaking at a high profile event. After the speaker jokes about being bad at math, the audience does not laugh but instead gives the cold hard silence of disapproval and reacts in shock that someone so famous is bragging about her mathematical incompetence. It would react the same way if the same person announced she could not read.

It is socially unacceptable to be bad at grammar today in America. And we know this is the case because the grammar police exist. It is socially acceptable to be bad at math today in America. And this is because the math police do not exist.

We don't think that the math police will form overnight. But if public personalities, role models at every level, and in particular parents make it a point to ensure that they are math literate and are proud of it, this would begin to send a strong message to the next generation that math is important.

Being bad at math is no joke. Nothing less than the future of America is at stake.

Jonathan Wai is a researcher and writer at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and serves on the board of directors of the MATHCOUNTS foundation. http://www.tip.duke.edu/node/960

Lou DiGioia is the executive director of the MATHCOUNTS foundation. http://mathcounts.org/page.aspx?pid=350

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai and Lou DiGioia

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