Recently there was a report on TV about Hurricane Isaac and gas prices. It seemed that because some oil drilling rigs in the Gulf Coast had to be shut down, oil companies were predicting a spike in gas prices. A local woman was interviewed and she said that she had been planning a Labor Day weekend trip to Pennsylvania to visit relatives but if gas prices went up, she might have to cancel her trip. It made me think of John Allen Paulos.
In 1988 John Allen Paulos published a book called Innumeracy, Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences. Innumeracy was the inability of many people, educated and not-so-educated, to deal comfortably with numbers. It was a great book then, and an even greater and more important book now.
To understand the connection, consider a simple question: If gas prices go up, say 30 cents, how much extra would it cost the woman on TV to make the round trip from here to Pennsylvania, about 600 miles or so, in a car that averaged 30 miles per gallon? If she was going to cancel her trip, she must have thought the increase in price would put a severe dent in her travel budget. So it’s worth asking just how large that dent would be. I think it would have surprised her that the increase in her gas expense would be only $6.00 for the entire round trip. Only $7.20 if she had a less fuel efficient car that got 25 miles to the gallon. In fact, if you took the 30 mpg across the country and back, 6,000 miles, the higher gas price would cost you only $60.00 more. Don’t believe it? Do the math: driving 6000 miles divided by 30 miles per gallon would use 200 gallons. An additional 30 cents per gallon would be 200 times 30 cents or $60.
If Paulos was correct in 1988, that in our society innumeracy was all too common, I think the problem is even worse today, almost 25 years later. And I am not talking about discomfort with numbers in a math class, but rather with numbers in everyday life; estimating increases in travel costs, making change, creating simple budgets, thinking about numbers and graphs presented by political candidates.
I have had three distinct careers; a college teacher, director of a non-profit organization, and most recently, co-owner of a retail business. In each setting I had colleagues and employees who, at one time or another, said some variant of “I’m not good with numbers.” In each case it was clear that their innumeracy made their work harder and slower, and in the end, interfered with their ability to fully understand the tasks in front of them.
But was it a lack of skill or just a high degree of discomfort with numbers, high enough to keep them from even trying? I think that most people would have said that a drive across the country and back would cost much more than $60 extra if the price of gas went up 30 cents. It feels unintuitive. But how many people would go the extra step of actually figuring it out. I suspect not many. Once, a friend of mine bragged that he had done some research and found a gas station that offered a lower price on gas. He saved 14 cents a gallon on about 12 gallons, but had to drive 7 miles to the station (and back). When I told him that he just saved $1.68 on the gas, but used a half gallon of gas, costing about $1.75, he smiled and said - “well, I’m just not a numbers person.” In both cases, the math was pretty simple.
Numbers play a vital part of all our lives and for many, they play an even larger role in the day-to-day work setting. It’s time we stopped using, and accepting, the “I am not a numbers person” excuse for avoiding tasks involving numbers. I believe we are smarter than that. Numbers should be embraced, not avoided. Employers should have higher expectations. We should have higher expectations for ourselves and our children. Numbers are all around us, now more than ever. A recent report concluded that US students ranked 25th in the world in math scores. We all need to be better numbers people.
And please don’t get me wrong. I hate higher gas prices as much as anybody. I just wouldn’t necessarily cancel my travel plans when the prices go up.