I was sent to the blog post "Headlines
from a Mathematically Literate World" by (of all places)
one of Debby Witt's link-collection posts
at the NR Corner
blog. I went seeking amusement; I came away merely irritated.
I like to think
I'm relatively good at math, although I started getting out of
my depth in "Introductory Methods of Applied Mathematics" in
my junior year. I think it was the instructor's unexpected
usage of the greek lowercase-xi (ξ), a scribble which I—to this day—cannot
write legibly. (I was fine with everything else: alphas, mus, thetas…)
Note-taking was impaired, things went downhill from there. That one
little squiggle was my own personal learning impediment.
Anyway: the article, written by one Ben Orlin,
purports to criticize math-impaired folks
at the newspapers. Also a pet peeve of mine! So I had high hopes.
Unfortunately, the article is pretty bad. Its goal is to
improve headlines (all imaginary, I think), using mathematical
insight. Some hit the target, too many don't.
Let's take an easy one
first, which I will screenshot:
In an article that attempts to speak from the holy cathedral of
"mathematical literacy", this is just embarrassing. Orlin
apparently wants to make the point that government expenditures
may sound big in absolute terms ($50 million is a lot), but
can be made to sound small if you figure out their cut of
the overall budget.
Or to put it in terms that matter a bit more: if you want
to eliminate a $680 billion deficit (FY2013), you would have to
find and zero out about 13,600 of those $50 million
Trivial. But here's an exercise for the reader: $50 million is 0.0001% of
OK, I'll do it for you: 0.0001% equals 10-6, aka
So $50 million is 0.0001% of $50 x 1012, or $50
trillion dollars. That's almost 20 times bigger than
actual Federal government revenue ("only" $2.8 trillion in
it's about 3 times bigger than the entire
current US GDP (about $15.7
trillion in CY2012).
So my headline would be:
Mathematically More Accurate World: Controversial Program
Would Cost 0.0018% of Taxpayer Money
While accurate, that maintains the tendentious subtext that Orlin
apparently wants to slide in: people are silly
to worry about wasteful government spending if it's a sufficiently
small fraction of the budget. But it's not math making that
judgment: it's Orlin.
Now (to be fair) sometimes he's completely right:
Good point: generally speaking, people misperceive risks, and a
sensationalistic news media seldom helps. (See this story for some relative numbers on the danger
from shark attack, vs. (say) wrestling with a recalcitrant
vending machine. Note that the article is written by a sharkbite
But other times Orlin simply goes off the rails:
That's (again) not "mathematical literacy" speaking: it's Orlin.
Apparently he likes minimum wage laws, and the only people
who oppose them are "economists" with those new-fangled "models".
It's easier to do that than, I suppose, than deal with an actual headline
from an article by an actual economist.
Look, I'll make it easy.
Here's one: "The
Minimum Wage Is Cruelest to Those Who Can’t Find a Job". Key
A “fair wage” is a “free wage”—that is, one that results from voluntary
exchanges among workers and employers. Government should prevent fraud
and violence and allow individuals to enter into mutually beneficial
exchanges under a just rule of law that protects persons and property.
The minimum wage violates freedom of contract and hence private property
rights; it is neither moral nor effective. It is unfair to workers who
can’t find a job, especially young workers in search of a better future.
Or, using Orlin's format and a reality-based headline:
Our World: President Obama Claims "No Solid Evidence"
Increased Minimum Wage Costs Jobs
Economically Literate World: President Obama Wants To Make It Illegal
To Hire Workers At A Wage He Dislikes, Can't
Imagine Anything Bad Could Possibly Happen
I don't want to ignore the fact that there is a debate
on the economic impact of minimum wage
laws. See, for example, the WaPo fact checker
Kessler, who (generously) awards the President merely two Pinocchios for
his silly claim. (I'd especially recommend it to Orlin, who might learn
that the debate doesn't just involve "models", but also a lot of
OK, just one more:
Not much pretense to "mathematical literacy" here at all.
I will rewrite:
Our World: Politician Promises to Fund Math Education
Politically Literate World: Politician Pledges to Throw More
Taxpayer Money At A Failing
System Of Math Education With Zero Evidence That It Will Improve
Anything, And No Accountability If It Doesn't
See? It's easy.