Archive for the ‘3 Reasons Why You Need Maths today’ Category

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3 Don’t-Mess-with-Mama Reasons Why You Need Maths today

January 6, 2014

Maths is not just about doing calculations.

You may not become a mathematician, scientist, engineer, computer programmer or medical researcher, but you need to understand what they are saying.

In recent years maths has become academically sidelined, pushed into a Nerd Ghetto. Meanwhile, if you can quote some Yeats, despite living in ignorance of Avogadro’s number, you rank as an intellectual.

I can stomach this high-minded attitude in literary magazines, but when a science magazine spruiks this view I want to scream. This is a ‘there-there’ motherhood statement to reassure delicate egos. Don’t bother your pretty little head with mathematics you won’t need it.

New Scientist 28 Dec 2013

New Scientist 28 Dec 2013

In a recent opinion piece in New Scientist Michael Brooks (Invest in Minds Not Maths, 28 Dec 2013, p38. ) claimed ‘Instead of looking to produce scientists or engineers, we should focus on simply turning out agile minds.

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It’s time for some Tough Love. Michael Brooks is wrong. Here are 3 Don’t-Mess-with-Mama Reasons why you need maths today: 

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1. Maths is a Precision Thinking tool.

Mathspig models legs photoshopYou cannot claim to have an ‘agile mind’ if you are not trained to use the precision thinking tool of mathematics. Your powers of reason will be restricted.

Reliable estimates, for instance, claim 1 million Australians were affected by eating disorders in 2012. Meanwhile, women’s magazines push unrealistic images of women’s bodies by stretching models’ legs using photoshop. So what? Now do the maths.

Models legs are stretched by, up to, 89% in magazine photographs. 89%. That number will change the way you think about this issue. (See How Women’s Magazines Distort Women’s Bodies)

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2. Maths Slays Superstition.

Medieval_witchScience alone cannot counter false beliefs, superstition or black magic.

The scientific method depends on maths via observation, measurement, calculation, proof and then replication.

Miracles, on the other hand, cannot be replicated. Without maths science becomes just another belief system. No argument can counter belief as it becomes trapped in the ‘My belief system is better than your belief system’ argument loop.

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galileoThe Enlightenment of the mid-1600s gave birth to the Scientific Method thanks to the work of scientists such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) , Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and John Locke(1632–1704). Galileo ought to be included. In 1610 he discovered 4 moons of Jupiter, measured the period of orbit of each moon and concluded that the earth was not the centre of the universe. This contradicted belief systems of the time. The religious rulers declared him a heretic, forced him to recant and held him under house arrest until his death.

But the bishops could not arrest mathematics. And Galileo’s scientific observations ‘proved’ to be correct again and again but he was not accurate on all matters. He thought the moons’ orbits were circular not elliptical.

Like Galileo, Science is not always correct. Nevertheless, it is all we have to fight the dark arts. The poet, John Donne (1573-1631), jested about the ‘New Philosophy’ of science at the time:

(The) new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.

John Donne

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super food ad.

Scientific proof slays the ‘mythical dragon’ of belief and new beliefs are popping up all the time. Have you heard the latest about super foods? 

We’ll all be super humans soon. Won’t we? And some diet foods burn fat. Great! We’ll all be super-slim super-humans. Wow! Now keep reading.

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3. Maths Kills Spin

You also need maths today, more than ever, to counter SPIN, MARKETING and all sorts of PROFIT DRIVEN PROPAGNDA. Trust no one could be your mantra. Banks will send you credit card bills including a minimum monthly payment, which, as some victims have discovered, wouldn’t pay off your credit card debt before you DIED.

SAMSUNG

Pharmaceutical companies sell drugs with an efficacy of a piddling 5% above the placebo. (I’ve interviewed members of Australia’s drug regulator, TGA.) 5%! You may as well give yourself sugar pills. That’ll save money and they’ll work too. The placebo effect works even if you know it’s a placebo.

Social Scientists use Mickey Mouse Maths to lobby governments for funding for, possibly, non-existent problems. Here’s one example. ‘The Productivity Commission estimates that workplace bullying costs the economy between $6billion and $36bn every year.‘ (Gary Johns, Bullied in the Workplace? Blame the Boss, The Australian, 31 Dec 2013) Really? The total funding for public hospitals in Australia in 2013 was $14bn. Curious.

Now let’s have a closer look at this estimate.

Neither sophisticated nor trained in the specific use of complicated mathematical weapons, I’m not the James Bond of maths. I’m more a ‘Jason Bourne’ type mathematician. I use the everyday maths I have at hand. I keep it simple and, wherever possible, I use first principles.

The mid-point of the Productivity Commission estimate is $21bn. So the cost of bullying in Australia including uncertainty is:

$21 ± 15bn  or  $21bn ± 71%.

These numbers are a joke. The Productivity Commission is using estimates that involve a 142% error range. Yet, I suspect even as I write, someone somewhere is using these stats to apply for a study grant or an intervention program. This type of Mickey Mouse Maths costs us money!!!! We, the public, pay firstly for these numbers to be ‘calculated’ then we pay for intervention programs to curb these ‘imaginary numbers’. I dare say bullying in the workplace exists. But these numbers do not support such an argument.

Social Scientists are not the only professionals to use bad Maths. What do you call scientists, who use maths they do not understand? Are they misinformed fools or fraudsters? On an amusing level, I’ve asked several meteorologists what ‘20% chance of rain’ actually means. (Hopefully, some reader will inform us.) Is it related to the area or duration of rain? Or both? They didn’t know. So I then asked ‘How do you calculate this probability?’ The answer? ‘The computer does it for us.’ Ladies and gentlemen, the weather is brought to you today by Clueless & Clueless.

sally-3On a more sinister level, scientists who do not understand the maths they use can be dangerous. This is the point where Science and journalism diverge mathematically. Scientists must put numbers on the board. To win hearts and minds (while over-working well-worn clichés), journalists must tell the story of one person. Here is the story of Sally Clark. On 9 November 1998 at Chester Crown Court Sally Clark, a Cheshire solicitor was convicted of smothering her two baby boys. The prosecution used  Prof Roy Meadows, who’d discovered Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, as an expert witness. He testified that the chance of two children from an affluent family suffering SIDS was 1 in 73 million. Sally Clark was found guilty. The problem was the Prof got the maths wrong. He arrived at this number by squaring 1 in 8500, the likelihood of one cot death in similar circumstances. He assumed the events were independent like flipping a coin.

The chance of 2 Heads in 2 coin flips is:

½ x ½= ¼

observer Sally clark

Two cot deaths in one family are not independent events. A Cot Death gene, for instance, would dramatically increase the likelihood of multiple Cot Deaths in one family. Sally Clarke spent 3 years in jail. Protests from the Royal Statistical Society followed. Prof Meadows was struck off the medical registrar in 2005. Sally Clark died of acute alcohol poisoning in her home in 2007. ( See Conviction by Maths Error)

So Mickey Mouse maths costs us money and bad maths can kill. Would someone tell Michael Brooks Mama wants to talk to him and she’s not happy, not happy at all.

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