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Posted by on May 28, 2011 in Society | 18 comments


Most Americans, and most people, are functionally innumerate. What is “innumerate?” Well, if a basic lack of literacy makes you illiterate, then a basic lack of mathematic understanding makes you innumerate.

Of course the word “functional” is an important qualifier. For example, real illiteracy–an absolute inability to read–is extraordinarily rare in the United States, even in kids from the worst schools and educational background. That’s why we invented the term “functional illiteracy” (or “functionally illiterate”), because we needed to describe people who know their alphabet and can recognize a few words, but have trouble with much more than the headline on a news article, or who struggle filling out a driver’s license application. Similarly, most people can at least add and subtract reasonably well, so they’re not completely innumerate.

But if functional illiteracy is a problem, I think functional innumeracy may be a bigger one, because it’s more widespread in this society. It appears that most people cannot do math much past the arithmetic level, and tend to struggle even with that.

Now to be clear, I do not put myself up as a math expert; I barely got past basic algebra, which I’m not too good at. Nevertheless, one of the most important areas to staying even in contemporary society is an understanding of basic finances, which is really rather simple math in most ways, and many people struggle with that. Similarly, understanding a lot of social issues is very difficult if you do not understand basic, fundamental statistics. Don’t believe the old chestnut “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.” Most statistics, done properly, are not a lie at all, and can tell you enormous amounts about the world you live in. Furthermore, if you understand statistics, it will become very hard for someone to lie to you with statistics, because you can ask pertinent and simple questions that will help you determine if someone’s using a deceptive statistic.

Decades ago, it was generally believed that about 10% of the population is gay. What was that based on? A survey asking people if they’d ever had a sexual experience with anyone of the same sex. But that’s not a reasonable measure at all, for it leaves plenty of room for people who were just experimenting, who were pressured into something they really didn’t want to do, and so on. The simple pointed question of “How did you arrive at that figure?” would tend to help clarify what the statistic really means.

A recent survey of adults by Gallup shows that Americans tend to think that gay people are about 25% of the population. When asked how much of the population people think is gay, most people answer somewhere around that. Democrats exaggerate it a little more than Republicans, but generally, most people exaggerate the number by a factor of 5-10. A fully precise measurement of how many people are gay is hard to do since the definitions are somewhat fluid, but, a realistic figure of those who self-identify as gay puts them at around 3-4% of the population.

Now, from my perspective, the number of gay people in the world should be all but immaterial to their legal rights. They could be 80% of the population. They could be 1% of the population. It really shouldn’t be relevant. If anything, smaller numbers just means they’re probably in greater need of protection. But all of that aside, what disturbs me is the functional innumeracy of the answer.

If you think 25% of the population being gay is even close to the right number, that means you think about 1 in 4 people is gay. Now, I suppose if you’re living in a community like San Francisco, that number seems realistic. But otherwise, really? 1 in 4? Every 4th person you meet?

Maybe they were inclined to think, “well no, not in MY town, but you know, places like New York and California, it’s like that.” But that means you’d have to assume that in places like California, even more than 25% would have to be gay to make up for the fact that in other areas it’s less.

Of the people who answered Gallup’s survey, only 4% of the respondents got the essentially correct response, which is “less than 5%,” meaning, something like 1 out of 20 or 1 out of 25. Somewhere in that ballpark.

This isn’t the only area where people get numbers wildly wrong. Some years ago, Gallup did a similar survey that found that most people think there are far more blacks and hispanics in the United States than there actually are.

Similarly, a recent article in Rolling Stone attacks Fox News in very fearful terms. The author tosses out a lot of numbers that at first glance make this news network look like a behemoth, maybe the biggest influence on news that there is. Yet a close analysis of the numbers and a little critical thinking go a long way toward casting doubt on them and, therefore, casting doubt on other claims made by its author. For example, among the numbers tossed out is the assertion that “Fox News now reaches 100 million households,” which implies somehow that they have 100 million viewers. But this is ludicrous, and what the number self-evidently means is this:

Fox News is available on basic cable in most of the country.

Do some looking at the real numbers and you’ll find that, during prime time TV watching, Fox News on a good day has a bit under 2 million viewers, with the occasional spike during big events–and 2 million is considerably less than 1% of the US population.

I suppose that both Fox News and its fiercest critics would like you to believe they have 100 million viewers, but they don’t. Just for a comparison, liberal comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show typically pulls in about as many viewers as your average Fox News show.

Although things like gay people, minorities, political news networks, and so on are hotbutton issues, we can distract ourselves too much by looking at those specific issues. What things like this really tell us is that a lot of us are functionally innumerate: we don’t take the time to stop and understand numbers that get tossed at us. And that, I think, has long-term negative ramifications for society as a whole, including our political discourse.

Blogging pioneer Dean Esmay writes for Dean’s World, covering an eclectic variety of topics, political and non-. This guest posting is cross-posted there.