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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Anxiety is not cool, funny or fashionable

A charitable initative to encourage sufferers to knit a Christmas jumper signalling their condition is well-intentioned but way off the mark.

The other night, I had one of those teeth-falling-out dreams. I dreamt I was on a bus, and every time it stopped one of my teeth plunked effortlessly out of my skull. “Shit,” I said to myself, in the dream, “this is like one of those teeth-falling out dreams”. Because – without getting too Inception – even in its midst, I realised this style of anxiety dream is a huge cliché.

Were my subconscious a little more creative, maybe it would’ve concocted a situation where I was on a bus (sure, bus, why not?), feeling anxious (because I nearly always feel anxious) and I’m wearing a jumper with the word “ANXIOUS” scrawled across my tits, so I can no longer hyperventilate – in private — about having made a bad impression with the woman who just served me in Tesco. What if, in this jumper, those same men who tell women to “smile, love” start telling me to relax. What if I have to start explaining panic attacks, mid-panic attack? Thanks to mental health charity Anxiety UK, this more original take on the classic teeth-falling-out dream could become a reality. Last week, they introduced an awareness-raising Christmas “anxiety” jumper.

It’s difficult to slate anyone for doing something as objectively important as tackling the stigma around mental health problems. Then again, right now, I’m struggling to think of anything more anxiety-inducing than wearing any item of clothing that advertises my anxiety. Although I’m fully prepared to accept that I’m just not badass enough to wear such a thing. As someone whose personal style is “background lesbian”, the only words I want anywhere near my chest are “north” and “face”.  

It should probably be acknowledged that the anxiety jumper isn’t actually being sold ready to wear, but as a knitting pattern. The idea being that you make your own anxiety jumper, in whichever colours you find least/most stressful. I’m not going to go on about feeling “excluded” – as a non-knitter – from this campaign. At the same time, the “anxiety jumper” demographic is almost definitely twee middle class millennials who can/will knit.

Photo: Anxiety UK

Unintentionally, I’m sure, a jumper embellished with the word “anxious” touts an utterly debilitating condition as a trend. Much like, actually, the “anxiety club” jumper that was unanimously deemed awful earlier this year. Granted, the original anxiety jumper — we now live in a world with at least two anxiety jumpers — wasn’t charitable or ostensibly well intentioned. It had a rainbow on it. Which was either an astute, ironic comment on how un-rainbow-like  anxiety is or, more likely, a poorly judged non sequitur farted into existence by a bored designer. Maybe the same one who thought up the Urban Outfitters “depression” t-shirt of 2014.

From Zayn Malik to Oprah Winfrey, a growing number of celebrities are opening up about what may seem, to someone who has never struggled with anxiety, like the trendiest disorder of the decade. Anxiety, of course, isn’t trendy; it’s just incredibly common. As someone constantly reassured by the fact that, yes, millions of other people have (real life) panic meltdowns on public transport, I could hardly argue that we shouldn’t be discussing our personal experiences of anxiety. But you have to ask whether anyone would be comfortable wearing a jumper that said “schizophrenic” or “bulimic”. Anxiety, it has to be said, has a tendency – as one of the more “socially acceptable” mental illnesses — to steal the limelight.

But I hope we carry on talking anxiety. I’m not sure Movember actually gets us talking about prostates, but it puts them out there at least. If Christmas jumpers can do the same for the range of mental health issues under the “anxiety” umbrella, then move over, Rudolph.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.