Here's something all mathematicians know instinctively: changing a parameter in a dynamical system, even if it's only by a small amount, can have all sorts of non-obvious consequences. Some conservationists, however, don't seem to have learnt that lesson yet: by removing 160 feral cats from Macquarie Island to protect burrowing birds, a team of conservationists caused the rabbit population to
boom from 4000 in the year 2000 to 130,000 in 2006. The rabbits have now demolished up to 40% of the island's vegetation, which may never recover. Cleaning up the mess may cost up to $16 million.
According to experts, a simple risk assessment exercise could have prevented the disaster. "We need a culture change," Hugh Possingham of the University of Queensland told New Scientist. "It's a generalisation, but people who do environmental work are often adverse to mathematics, and so avoid quantitative risk assessments."
How do you persuade a nation that basic maths skills are just as important as being able to read and write? You put a price tag on them. This is what the accounting firm KPMG has done in a report published last week. The firm estimated that the soring number of people who leave school without adequate numeracy skills could cost the UK taxpayer up to £2.4 billion every year.
The problem with maths goes back to the Higher School Regulations which strictly divided subjects into Arts and Sciences, with Maths regarded as one of the Sciences and therefore could not be studied with Arts subjects. As it happens most of the Chemists and Physicists do not like Maths anyway, so maths is either not studied at all or it is treated as a highly specialist subject only suitable
for autistic nerds.
At 10:47 AM, Marianne
Freiberger, Plus editor said...
That's a very good point. When I was at school (in Germany) I specialised in maths and art, but most teachers advised me against this, saying that it would be better to put all my eggs into either the science or the arts basket, where maths was counted as a science. Though the division between arts/humanities and science wasn't enforced (in fact, officially it was discouraged) it existed in
practice, so to many of those not into science maths didn't even occur as an option.
While I think putting a cost to low numeracy skills is quite smart in terms of getting governments and big business to stump up some cash, I wonder how all those math-phobic people will react to the use of numbers (albeit with pound signs in front of them) to show that maths is important?
Maybe KPMG or Barclays would like to give some money to help support Plus too?
I believe the problem with numeracy and maths in general lies in the way it is taught in our schools. The subject is taught to enable students to pass examinations with little reference to its utility throughout life as a series of problem solving techniques. The article sums it up very well by highlighting "the gap between what people think maths is and what it could actually do for them".
This is a philosophy that I raise with my grandchildren when helping them with there homework. Let's emphasise the rigour a bit less in favour of the application of maths.
Combining a love of maths with a successful acting career
Victoria Gould has always known she would be an actor, and went straight from studying arts at school to running her own theatre company. But she eventually had to come clean about her guilty secret - she loves maths - and has since managed to combine a career as a research mathematician and teacher with a successful acting career on television and in theatre. In this, the first of a two part
podcast, Victoria tells Plus why she needs to use boths sides of her brain.
"Oh god, I hope not," was the reaction of a student when author Mario Livio asked the title question of his latest book at a lecture, and it's a reaction that's likely to be replicated by many unsuspecting bookshop browsers. But despite its frightening title, the book's appeal could not be broader. All that's required to enjoy this fascinating read is a capacity to marvel at the mysteries of
nature and humankind's attempts to understand them — this is "popular mathematics", or rather "popular philosophy", in the true sense of the word.
The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has done its bit this week in keeping the government honest, at least when it comes to its use of statistics. Within 24 hours of the Home Office releasing unverified and selective statistics, despite the protests of government statisticians, Sir Michael Scholar (chair of the UKSA) wrote a public letter to the Prime Minister's Office criticising the
government's actions. The quick response from the independent body responsible for ensuring the quality of official statistics generated a lot of media attention, not only highlighting the mistakes made in this instance, but also showing the power the UKSA may wield to stop the misuse of statistics.