Why do we take innumeracy so casually?

2+2=LOL WHO CARES AMIRITE?

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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.