Many people experience maths anxiety and some even mention feelings of “rage and despair”. One way to improve the subject’s perception is by playing down the Platonists, suggests Michael Brooks



Humans


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24 November 2021

Simone Rotella

WE HAVE a problem with maths. Our approach to the subject has led to a situation where 30 per cent of US adults are defined as having “low numeracy”: they can’t make calculations with whole numbers and percentages or interpret simple statistics in text or tables.

Some 49 per cent of UK adults – 17 million people – have no more numeracy than we expect of primary school children. Around 93 per cent of US adults describe themselves as experiencing some level of “math anxiety”, involving negative emotions – and possibly an elevated heart rate, clammy hands and dizziness – when asked to interact with mathematical problems.

I blame this on our obsession with the ancient Greeks. Many of our intellectual traditions hark back to this time and place, from the scientific use of Greek letters to the adoption of the Greek term “academia” as our society’s repository of knowledge. Last week, a new exhibition opened at the Science Museum in London that celebrates the ancient Greeks as thinkers who embraced a fusion of arts, science and religion as they “sought to understand the world in a logical and mathematical way”. But that depends on how you view logic and mathematics.

Is it logical to assume that “all is number”, as the Pythagoreans did? This led them to give certain numbers a special status and to dismiss the idea of nothingness, and thus zero as a number. While accepted in Chinese and Indian cultures, negative numbers were also impossible for the ancient Greeks to accept.

And what is actually divine about the “divine proportion”, sometimes known as the golden ratio? Although we often give the idea credence, there is no evidence that humans naturally credit this mathematically derived geometry with special aesthetic powers, as disciples of Euclid contend. The Greeks routinely ascribed mystical powers to shapes and forms: Plato described the 12-sided dodecahedron as the shape that God used “as a model for the twelvefold division of the Zodiac”. But there isn’t anything holy about this geometric form. Sometimes a shape is just a shape.

Putting such ideas on a pedestal is problematic because it has created a cloud of awe and “otherness” around mathematics. This has percolated through to how we teach it and how it is received. Maths is endowed with an almost sacred status for the power of numbers. Those who share this faith become insiders. Those who don’t feel excluded.

Among significant numbers of school students, this results in a sense that maths “just isn’t my thing”, creating anxiety about having to deal with it. In the UK, 36 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds experience maths anxiety. Some young people even have feelings of “despair and rage” about maths. The evidence shows that this anxiety lasts into adulthood, as does abandonment of the subject. Only one in five UK adults say they would be proud if their child were good with numbers, compared with one in two for reading and writing.

Celebrating a non-Greek, more utilitarian approach to numbers could help here – and would be much more faithful to the true history of mathematics. Sumerian construction workers used what we call Pythagoras’s theorem to create perfectly square corners long before the Greeks arose. The Babylonians used algebra as a tax-calculation tool. At the time of the ancient Greeks, Indian thinkers were using negative numbers in debt management.

Mathematics is a social utility, like law and democracy. It isn’t a religious movement. Perhaps we should solve this problem like the ancient Sumerians did, by grouping maths among the humanities, rather than as an adjunct to the natural sciences. Maybe then maths will finally belong to us all.

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