Numeracy neglect—A personal postmortem

My failed enlightenment

I’ve been thinking about my intellectual education, and what I wish had gone differently.

I am 26 years old. I’ve been reading books and going to school since I was 8. This puts my career as a learner at about 19 years. Honestly? I feel a bit disappointed. I’ve had a predominantly “humanistic” education, which is a nice way of saying that my gaps in scientific subjects are embarrassing. Meanwhile, I ended up interacting with people who’ve invested their formative years in getting a solid foundation in mathy and sciency subjects. Inevitably, I found myself envying their skills and wondering where my study time has gone, and what do I have to show for it.

In particular, I have diagnosed myself with a condition I call numeracy neglect. When I reflect on my education, I find that: (1) I was a bright and precocious kid. (2) I was always very curious and had a strong motivation to understand the world. (3) Despite this, and despite all the resources that society invested in me, I managed to go at least 15 years without learning much about mathematics, physics, chemistry, and computer science (to mention just the basics).

This contradiction pains me, but it also makes me curious. How does something like this happen?

Numeracy neglect

I will focus on mathematics, since it’s a subject that most people are taught, but it’s typically misunderstood and unappreciated.

Reflecting on my experience, I can identify two problems.

1. Aesthetic insensitivity. The inability to experience the beauty of mathematics, and to apply one’s general curiosity to it.

2. Epistemic ignorance. The inability to see or accept the fact that mathematics is the language of science, and if you don’t understand mathematics, you won’t understand most science. In general, the inability to understand mathematics’ relevance and usefulness in life.

Another way to put it is that the first is a failure to grasp the intrinsic value of mathematics [1], while the second is a failure to understand its instrumental value.

How does this apply to my experience?

Aesthetic insensitivity

I was not born with a natural aversion for mathematics. I remember enjoying arithmetic and geometry in elementary school. Today, I feel a deep curiosity for mathematical subjects; I’ve also developed, or perhaps rediscovered, an aesthetic appreciation for mathematical concepts.

Yet something went amiss in the age 11 to 23. My grades in mathematics, physics and chemistry were low. I felt little curiosity for these subjects and would only study for the tests. I did no better when I started university. In my first year, I showed little desire to understand statistics, and passed the exam with the minimum grade. It was only later that I (slowly) began to wake up.

Part of it was due to laziness. I was a fast reader and had an excellent memory. This allowed me to excel in most subjects without much work. In contrast, numerate subjects required more dedication and systematic study.

Perhaps it was also a self-esteem issue. Mathematics is hard. Studying it forces me to confront failure on a regular basis. It’s humiliating to constantly fail on the simplest problems. (I recently downloaded the app Brilliant. It makes me feel anything but.) I was typically praised for intelligence rather than effort. Although some studies have challenged the mindset hypothesis, my experience confirms the trope (at least in hindsight). I had a lot of self-esteem invested in my intelligence, and it was much easier to feel brilliant while repeating philosophy, than to face my struggles with logarithms.

But there was a deeper issue at work. After all, I wasn’t lazy when it came to subjects that I cared about. And there were things that I valued more than my self-esteem, such as the need for knowledge.

Well, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I would say that at that time, mathematics was not really real to me.

Many students complain that maths is too abstract, too detached from real life. They cannot find enjoyment in it (which is why I speak of ‘aesthetic insensitivity’). However, I’m not sure that abstraction is the real problem. (In my case, I spent a lot of energy on philosophy, which can be very abstract.) Rather, the problem may be one of failing to see the referents.

When I read philosophy, I felt that the concepts written on the page were referring to something real — something the words stood for. We could call them ‘ideas’, or ‘objects in ideaspace’. You don’t read philosophy to see how the writer combines words on a page. You read it because you are interested in the ideas that the words point to. If you understand the words, you can explore the ideas, play with them, break them apart or combine them. This makes philosophy enjoyable and even beautiful.

In contrast, when I was studying mathematics, I wasn’t able to really see the referents. I was blind to the reality of mathematical structures. It seemed like a purely syntactical game: we had numbers and symbols, and were taught how to combine them. Of course, I knew that numbers were ‘real’ in some sense. And I felt that mathematics was generally discovered rather than invented. But I did not get the glorious feeling that I was soaring in ideaspace, stretching my mind to think the unthinkable, and gazing at the fundamental structure of the multiverse. The signifier was there, but the signified was hidden.

It was programming that opened my eyes. As I started learning Python, I understood the difference between the label and the thing. When coding, one works on two levels: the namespace, which contains the labels for the objects, and the objects themselves. You manipulate objects through their names, but the two levels must be kept apart. As a beginner, I didn’t understand this. If you are new to coding, there might come a moment when you feel the need to access a variable name at the object level. Imagine you are saving the weight of various dogs, so you declare < terrier = 22 >. Then you want to print <”the weight of {terrier} is {22}”>. You can get 22 by calling the variable <terrier>. But how do you print the name of the variable? Now you start looking for a function that takes the label down to the object level, such that the function <get_varname(terrier)> would return “terrier”. This is a bad idea, because you’re mixing up labels and objects, referents and referees. In your code, the variable <terrier> is merely an address for the object <22>. It has nothing to do with the object <”terrier”>, unless you explicitly point it there.

At some point, I realized that doing maths is not so different. You are manipulating names that refer to objects. It’s true, you cannot touch the objects directly; cannot see them except through their names. Still, the objects exist; it isn’t a purely syntactical game.

There really is a thing like the number 17. Somewhere out there, in ideaspace. You can call it “17” or “seventeen” or “diecisiete” or “xyz123″. You might be unaware of its existence, but that won’t make it disappear; you may go around saying it isn’t prime, but that won’t alter its primeness one bit.

When you do maths, you’re not just shuffling symbols on the blackboard. You arrange labels meaningfully, and lo and behold — this gives you access to real mathematical objects! You can explore them, play with them, break them apart and combine them. You can discover the number 17! You can prove its primeness! Prove that primes are infinite! And this can be fun.

To take the coding analogy further, you can imagine a Universal Mathematical Compiler that inputs your notation and translates it into real mathematical operations on real mathematical objects (provided your syntax makes sense). If you understand mathematics, it’s like having a virtual machine in your brain that simulates the operations and returns an actual output. This output is not something you invented, or could have predicted in advance. You send a query to the universe, and the universe answers. It’s like a message coming from the other side. It’s your own private window on the inner workings of the multiverse.

Is this enough to start feeling that mathematics is beautiful, and to develop a passion for it? Perhaps not. But it should at least get one beyond the point where mathematics feels boring and empty.

Epistemic ignorance

Even if you don’t like mathematics for its own sake, you should eventually realize that without it you cannot understand science. Donald Knuth said: “Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer.” Like many aphorisms, this goes too far; Darwin’s understanding of evolution was ‘scientific’ in my book, although his science was not advanced enough that he could have specified a faithful simulation (for instance, he didn’t know about DNA). However, having a complete mathematical description of a system and being able to predict its behavior and simulate it on a computer, at least theoretically, is probably as far as scientific understanding can take you.

So why didn’t I study more science?

If I could meet my eight-year old self, this is what I’d tell him: “You are curious about the world. To understand the world, you need to understand science. To understand science, you need to understand mathematics. Life is short, and the Art is long. Don’t waste your time on dialectical philosophy. Don’t get enmeshed in ‘critical theory’. Don’t think you’re smart because you read science news. Acquire at least a fundamental grasp of mathematics, then get some respected textbooks and study the fundamental sciences. Make sure you have a basic knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology, as well as the theory of probability, so that you won’t be completely ignorant of the nature of the universe, and you’ll be less likely to fall prey to supernatural beliefs, psychologisms and mind-projections. Then you can focus on the disciplines that most interest you.”

Why did my younger self fail to grasp this? It wasn’t a problem of worldview. Early on, I embraced atheism, the scientific worldview, physical reductionism, the whole package. Yet how great was the mismatch between my professed values and my actual choices!

ME: “I believe physics describes the fundamental laws of the universe.”

NOBODY: “So… you’re studying physics?”

ME: “Gosh, no! I can’t even tell you what thermodynamics is.”

NOBODY: “Oh. So you don’t care about understanding the universe?”

ME: “How dare you! Of course I do! I thirst for knowledge, truth and understanding!”

NOBODY: “So what are you doing to increase your knowledge?”

ME: “I’m studying Kant. Did you know that space and time are a priori forms of experience?”

NOBODY: We need to have a talk.

It all seems a bit absurd today. I have to make an effort of imagination to understand what was going on in my mind. This part is still not clear to me, but for now I can think of three factors.

The first is affect heuristic. I didn’t choose which subjects to study based on a ranking of usefulness. Nor was I reflecting on the expected ROI of my study time. I was just going for what felt interesting or titillating or particularly mysterious at any point in time. And if that meant choosing Adorno’s Negative dialectics over sitting down and doing physics problems, damn the world. This point ties in to aesthetic insensitivity: I felt that mathematics was neither exciting nor beautiful (at least for me) so I didn’t take pains to study it. It was much too late when it occurred to me that the way I feel about a subject has no bearing on its importance or usefulness.

The second factor is that I had an implicit faith in conceptual, dialectical ‘knowledge’. The kind of knowledge that makes you feel smart when you say that light is made out of waves, even though you have no mathematical understanding of what a wave is. I confused true understanding for being able to recite a great number of facts about different subjects.

The third factor is that I had no practical application for my knowledge. I didn’t make predictions. I didn’t give myself the chance to be mistaken. I didn’t have a mission that forced me to either learn or fail. At the end of the day, all I did with most of my knowledge was think about it verbally and sometimes talk about it with other people.

Use computers!

If you could change just one thing in how education works today, what would it be?

I will throw my own suggestion, the most direct and effective I can think of: use computers.

No, I don’t mean giving the students free tablets so they can watch YouTube videos. I mean putting the computer at the center of your pedagogical system and teaching mathematics and the other exact sciences through it. Currently, the principal medium for doing maths in schools is pen and paper. What if instead people learned theorems and models by reproducing them in code?

After all, computers are a much more natural medium for doing that. Despite their limits, computers can actually simulate and run formal systems, as opposed to… Forlorn students scribbling symbols on their notebooks, trying to make the answer come right?

As soon as children can reasonably learn to read and write in natural language, they should be taught the rudiments of programming. This would show them, for starters, that logic and mathematics are really real — not mere syntactical games. It would also empower them to grow up as shapers, rather than mere users, of technology.

Later, you could have them simulate the models of physics, chemistry and biology. They could engage in competitive or cooperative games which reward curiosity and stimulate them to think. You could have them design the games themselves, or send them to gather data and test theories. The possibilities are endless. This would not be a replacement for theory and the classical blackboard exercises. But it would provide a practical, engaging field of application which may awaken at least some students from chronic boredom and apathy (though it may create special difficulties for others).

Of course, this would require reshaping the whole educational system and turning most teachers into programmers. I didn’t say it was easy, or currently feasible. But neither is it beyond the touch of human capacity, I think. Two centuries ago, only 12% of people could read. Today the numbers are basically reversed, with an estimated 14% of the world being illiterate. Yes, some children have serious difficulties with reading, but most can master it to an acceptable degree.

Will something similar happen with programming? I don’t know; I can only hope. The spread of literacy was accelerated by cheap newspapers and print books. Personal computers have been around for fifty years, but only in the past two decades they became cheap enough to enter most households. And cheap smartphones are even younger. At least today most people know how to use a computer, which is a start.

Considering the rate at which educational institutions evolve, it might take a few decades before programming becomes a basic subject in most schools. In my opinion, it would be worth it to expend some effort in accelerating the process; the payoffs may be very large.

[1] This Quora post provides a nice description of the aesthetic value of mathematics (unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the author): “The Surreal numbers are useful for broadening our minds, filling us with a sense of awe and marvel at what our own minds are capable of and what things exist in our imagination even if they don’t fit in our accidental physical universe.”