Mathematics Vs. Numeracy

When I say to people that I’m a mathematician, in a lot of cases people misunderstand what I do. Let me explain…

Mathematics, maths or math if you live in the U.S of A. is often confused with something called ‘numeracy’. When I say to people that I am a mathematician they think that I spend my time adding columns of numbers together, doing long multiplications, busying myself with percentages and getting very excited about pie charts. It’s got to the stage now where sometimes I just don’t even bother elaborating on what I, as a mathematician, am really interested in.

What I’ve just mentioned above, things like addition, multiplication, division, percentages, reading bar-charts and all the rest, are indeed part of mathematics, but really a part of mathematics that mathematicians are not particularly interested in – at least not nowadays. Yes, as I mathematician I can do all of these things quite comfortably but I’m not necessarily any better at adding up numbers than the next person. Yes, I know a few tricks that can speed up basic calculations but not necessarily any tricks that the proverbial Joe Bloggs wouldn’t know. Yes, I have to be able to do these things but not necessarily because I find them deeply interesting and they’re not the kinds of things that get me out of bed in the morning.

Just being numerate and able to handle numbers well doesn’t make you a mathematician just like the ability to wield a spanner doesn’t necessarily make you a mechanic. Obviously you need to know how to use a spanner to be a competent mechanic but just knowing how to tighten and loosen bolts is hardly something that is going to give someone the confidence to let you try and fix their car engine. There are plenty of people out there who know maths but who would still find mental arithmetic difficult beyond a certain point. This might seem crazy because surely as a mathematician they should find mental arithmetic a doddle…right? And that right there is where the confusion is coming in – equating mathematics with numeracy. These two things have an overlap but they are a million miles apart from each other.

Unfortunately many people don’t make any distinction between the two; maths is numeracy and numeracy is maths. I guess this is not helped by the fact that at school, most of the time spent in ‘maths’ lessons is spent doing numeracy; so unsurprisingly when people think maths they think times-tables, long multiplication, columns of numbers and boring stuff like that. But mathematics is about logical deduction, studying abstract concepts, precision, analysis. As a mathematician I’m more interested in studying algebraic structures such as groups, rings, fields, modules and Lie algebras; I’m more interesting in things like homology groups, transfinite numbers, set theory, mathematical logic and representation theory. None of these topics really require me to have anything more than an average level of numeracy – it helps to be comfortable with numbers but I can’t multiply six digit numbers in my head any better than the aforementioned Joe Bloggs. And I don’t need to be able to.

Most of the time I don’t bother telling people what I did during my maths degree – it’s not particularly interesting unless you have an interest in mathematics and (I really don’t want to sound like I’m being elitist or patronising when I say this) most people won’t know what you’re talking about because of the language that’s used. Does Random Man on the Street know what I’m talking about if I told hime that I did a course on Algebraic Topology or a course on Partial Differential Equations, or Fourier Analysis – I doubt it. I let people believe what they want to believe about what my degree entailed. If they believe that I spent most of my time looking at pages of numbers and doing big sums then I don’t usually bother to try and correct them – it’s just not worth it (I know that from personal experience by the way).

Just to be clear – no I can’t add a page of numbers up at a glance; no I can’t multiply two twenty digit numbers together effortlessly; and no I can’t interpret any old random statistic that is just given to me. I suppose this is why maths gets a bad reputation for being too boring and that mathematicians are just weird because they’re interested in percentages things like that – when you see maths and numeracy as one and the same thing then it’s like seeing literature and the alphabet as the same thing. There’s not really anything I can do to change this. Which is just too bad as many people will never experience mathematics and how deep the subject goes and how beautiful some of the theories are. I’ll just keep on keeping on…I think that’s the best way forward.