We have to develop a counternarrative to explain what we do; we don't need more [if there were an html code for scornful tone of voice, I would insert it before this noun] "data"!— colleague, in debate about the means of improving student retention and measuring educational outcomes
Already two decade ago, John Allen Paulos observed, with alarm:
Innumeracy, an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of numbers and chance, plagues far too many otherwise knowledgeable citizens. The same people who cringe when words such as 'imply' and 'infer' are confused react without a trace of embarrassment to even the most egregious of numerical solecisms. I remember once listening to someone at a party drone on about the difference between 'continually' and 'continuously.' Later that evening we were watching the news, and the TV weathercaster announced that there was a 50 percent chance of rain for Saturday and a 50 percent chance for Sunday, and concluded that there was therefore a 100 percent chance of rain that weekend. The remark went right by the self-styled grammarian, and even after I explained the mistake to him, he wasn't nearly as indignant as he would have been had the weathercaster left a dangling participle. In fact, unlike other failings which are hidden, mathematical innumeracy is often flaunted: 'I can't even balance my checkbook.' 'I'm a people person, not a numbers person.' Or 'I always hated math.'He has some explanations:
Part of the reason for this perverse pride in mathematical ignorance is that its consequences are not usually as obvious as are those of other weaknesses.He further attributes this arrogant ignorance in part to flawed education, but mainly to psychological factors:
Some people personalize events excessively, resisting an external perspective, and since numbers and an impersonal view of the world are intimately related, this resistance contributes to an almost willful innumeracy.
Quasi-mathematical questions arise naturally when one transcends one's self, family, and friends. How many? How long ago? How far away? How fast? What links this to that? Which is more likely? How do you integrate your projects with local, national, and international events? with historical, biological, geological, and astronomical time scales?
People too firmly rooted to the center of their lives find such questions uncongenial at best, quite distasteful at worst. Numbers and 'science' have appeal for these people only if they're tied to them personally
—Innumeracy (NY, 1988), 3-4, 80-81Solipsism over statistics: perfectly explains what I see around me every day.
Whatever the explanation, it's really a disgrace. Or is it an embarrassment? Oh, well, seven of one, a half dozen of another.