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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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.