Why do we take innumeracy so casually?


Kids: It's not cool to be innumerate. Struggling with basic maths is as crippling to your daily life as struggling with basic reading and writing would be, and while shame isn't answer (self-improvement might be), pride certainly isn't the right reaction either.

Not that you'd know it from Suzanne Moore, who is positively beaming as she announces in the Guardian:

We are silenced by some jargon and bogus maths (sorry, probabilities) because we are mostly innumerate and because economic orthodoxy presents itself as a higher faith. I am not the only person uncertain as to what a trillion means, surely?

Normally, using the third paragraph of a piece to declare yourself ignorant, not only of the subject of the piece, but of the most basic possible building blocks of that subject, would mean that you probably should think twice before opening Word. If you write about the failure of astronomy to predict meteor strikes, and declare in para three that you don't understand what these "planet" things are, you get laughed out the building.

Yet admitting – showing off – that you don't understand maths while you write about economics is apparently a Cool Thing To Do.

It's even more irritating because Moore makes valid points. She writes that:

Economics is not a science; it's not even a social science. It is an antisocial theory. It assumes behaviour is rational. It cannot calculate for contradiction, culture, altruism, fear, greed, love or humanity at all.

Although she is being somewhat hyperbolic, but bringing up real problems with the subject which academics are continually struggling to incorporate into their broader theories. Similarly, she writes:

Some of the free-market economists are right, but politicians can't go there. The free movement of capital really requires the free movement of labour. Go where the jobs are, but do not complain when immigration undercuts your wage.

Again, the half-hearted attempt with which many politicians apply economic teachings to policy is aggravating. There is a tendency to cherry-pick recommendations when the economic rationale requires an all-or-nothing approach. See, for example, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which merrily reduced availability of legal aid, citing a report which argued that "no-win no-fee" arrangements could make up the gap, and then also reduced the availability of those.

But criticisms like this are more powerful coming from someone who has not just proudly stated that they don't know the difference between 1,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000 and don't believe that probability is real maths.

You don't have to believe that people are cold unfeeling automata who exist to maximise utility functions. In fact, most economists don't. But unless you plan to start your next book review with "I can't read, LOL, so this was really boring," don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

1-2-3-4, it comes across as very poor, 5-6-7-8, to think innumeracy's great. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Let 2016 be the year that Ireland gives women the right to choose

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. 

There is mounting pressure for the Irish government to look into decriminalising abortion. It has been growing since Savita Halappanavar’s death three years ago in a hospital in Galway due to complications during pregnancy. She was refused an abortion because Irish law forbids it. Earlier this month Irish women tweeted the Taoiseach Enda Kenny about their periods using the #repealthe8th in an attempt to bring attention to the issue. Now last Friday, Amnesty International published a letter calling for the decriminalisation of abortion internationally, signed by 838 doctors, most importantly this included some of Ireland’s leading healthcare professionals. This is the perfect time for political parties to commit to holding a referendum on the issue if elected they are elected and form the next government in 2016.

One part of the Irish legislative process I have always been proud of is the use of referendum and bringing serious questions to the electorate. It protects the constitution from changing on political whims or based on the beliefs of whatever party is in government. As such it remains a document of the people, it was after all put to vote before it was instituted in 1937. It also passes issues, which have proved contentious and in other countries have relied on the sympathy of lawmakers, by popular consent. Same sex marriage was legalised in a beautiful display of support, 62% of the electorate came out to vote for equality. Social media was full of pictures of Irish people living abroad going home especially for the referendum.

There has previously been a number referendums on abortion and following Savita’s death, the  Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 was brought in which allowed abortion if the mother’s life was in danger. It was important and a sensible measure to bring in. However it resulted in serious splits and some contentious situations. Lucinda Creighton defied Fine Gael’s whip and found herself stripped of her ministry and ostracised, leading to the creation of her new party Renua Ireland. Creighton was recently asked if she would agree with aborting baby Hitler. This is the ridiculous side of the debate which doesn’t help either side. Many thought that the 2013 act was too quickly done and not properly explained or understood. A referendum is the best way to avoid this. The question can be explained properly and debated to give people access to more information. Once passed, it is done so with consent from a majority of the electorate and this makes it much more difficult to argue against its legitimacy than if it is forced through. The result is also binding regardless of the current government’s stance, you can have a second vote but you can’t force people to vote the other way.

Public support for legalising or extending abortion rights is there. A RedC poll for Amnesty International in July showed 67 per cent of people thought abortion should be decriminalised while 81 per cent thought it should be allowed in more situations. 45 per cent were in favour of abortion whenever a woman wanted it. It is not an overwhelming figure but if 45 per cent of people believe this should be instituted then they ought to be listened to and the question brought to the country.

Realistically, nothing will be done before the next election which is expected to be held in early 2016. However now is an excellent time for political parties to examine their stance on abortion and look at holding a referendum and making it part of their manifestoes. The new government will then be in a position to announce a new referendum on abortion as soon as they are in power. The last one was held in 2002, meaning that many young people particularly women at the height of their fertility have never actually had a say on this matter.

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. The world that its authors inhabited is not the same as the one we live in today. The constitution has changed to bring peace to Northern Ireland, to legalise divorce and same sex marriage, let 2016 be the year it changes to give women the freedom to choose.