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.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.