Numeracy: The Educational Gift That Keeps on Giving

Posted on February 19, 2012  Comments (5)

I like numbers. I always have. This is just luck, I think. I see, how helpful it is to have a good understanding of numbers. Failing to develop a facility with numbers results in many bad decisions, it seems to me.

A new article published in closed anti-science way, sadly (so no link), examines how people who are numerate (like literate but for number—understand) process information differently so that they ultimately make more informed decisions. Cancer risks. Investment alternatives. Calories. Numbers are everywhere in daily life, and they figure into all sorts of decisions.

People who are numerate are more comfortable thinking about numbers and are less influenced by other information, says Ellen Peters of Ohio State University (sadly Ohio State allows research by staff paid by them to be unavailable to the public – sad), the author of the new paper. For example, in one of Peters’s studies, students were asked to rate undergraduates who received what looked like different test scores. Numerate people were more likely to see a person who got 74% correct and a person who got 26% incorrect as equivalent, while people who were less numerate thought people were doing better if their score was given in terms of a percent correct.

People make decisions based on this sort of information all the time. For example, “A lot of people take medications,” Peters says. Every drug has benefits and potential risks, and those can be presented in different ways. “You can talk about the 10 percent of the population that gets the side effect or the 90 percent that does not.” How you talk about it will influence how dangerous the drug seems to be, particularly among people who are less numerate.

Other research has shown that only less numerate people respond differently to something that has a 1 in 100 chance of happening than something that has a 1 percent chance of happening. The less numerate see more risk in the 1 in 100 chance—even though these numbers are exactly the same.

“In general, people who are numerate are better able to bring consistent meaning to numbers and to make better decisions,” Peters says. “It suggests that courses in math and statistics may be the educational gift that keeps on giving.”

Related: full press releaseBigger Impact: 15 to 18 mpg or 50 to 100 mpg?Data Doesn’t Lie, But People Can be FooledUnderstanding Data: Simpson’s Paradoxapplied statistics is not about proving a theorem, it’s about being curious about thingsEncouraging Curiosity in KidsDangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of DataCompounding is the Most Powerful Force in the Universe

5 Responses to “Numeracy: The Educational Gift That Keeps on Giving”

  1. Anonymous
    February 25th, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    I have to say that I was fortunate enough to be taught numeracy from a very young age. I have no hesitation in saying that this stood me in very good stead for my further studies – a good foundation is important if you are to understand more complex problems in the future.

  2. Anonymous
    March 20th, 2012 @ 5:23 am

    Really interesting thought, it reminds me of this speech by Mathemagician Arthur Benjamin on TED Talks about Math and our education system.
    Here’s the link –

  3. Michael Lindahl
    February 13th, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

    Interesting. And also good to keep in mind when talking about something including numbers with people who are more or less numerate than you.

  4. Math Education Results Show China, Singapore, Korea and Japan Leading » Curious Cat Math and Science Blog
    March 11th, 2014 @ 8:29 am

    “Parents expectations for students has a significant impact on student performance. When parents have high expectations students have more confidence and put in more effort to achieve.”

  5. How to Use Data and Avoid Being Mislead by Data « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog
    June 6th, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

    […] tactic is to gain numeracy (literacy for numbers) and with that gain an ability to spot data fallacies that often lead people […]

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