Bad at math

Columnist Lucy Kellaway has a story in today’s Financial Times about the sad lack of math skills in Britain. She pointed to an awkward and uncomfortable moment last week when the UK’s shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, was unable to do simple division on a live radio program:

“When asked what it would cost to employ an extra 10,000 police officers, the UK shadow home secretary’s reply was: “Well, um… about £300,000.” Then, when queried, she said: “Sorry. (Nervous laugh) No. Sorry. (Pause) They will cost… they will… (pause) it will cost… about, about £80 million.”

The interviewer did a swift sum in his head and pointed out that would mean £8,000 per copper. Thoroughly humiliated, Ms Abbott started to spew out random numbers with such desperation that by the end she was babbling incoherently about an additional quarter of a million police officers on the streets.”

— Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

Kellaway says this is evidence of something troubling: that it’s perfectly possible to be a member of the British ruling class and be astonishing rubbish at numbers.

I read the article with a tinge of embarrassment, but also relief. Embarrassment because my atrocious math skills could have been betrayed in just the same way, and relief because it’s good to know I’m not alone. In fact, Kellaway notes:

“I gave a talk last month at the Oxford Literary Festival and asked the 150 amply educated types in the audience to put up their hands if they were useless at maths. About 70 arms shot up. The only thing more depressing than how many of them considered themselves innumerate was that none saw anything wrong with it. Instead the looks on the faces of these mathematical dunces were of amused self-indulgence, as if being bad at maths was a lovable quirk, like having a weakness for salt and vinegar crisps.

“You’re a national disgrace,” I told them, whereupon they tittered complacently, confident I was joking.”

— Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

Kellaway very easily could’ve been talking to me. I’ve never had an interest in – or been good at – math, but somehow I’ve ended up working for a financial services company. I’ve miraculously been able to get by without it (…so far).

This issue reminds me of a discussion from a few years ago at a World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin, China. One of the exercises was to discuss the long-term impact of the internet; specifically what it will mean to have all of human knowledge available at the click of mouse. One delegate said the result will be a kind of “hive mind”, whereby people can outsource their knowledge to the internet, where it can be accessed on demand. If getting information is that simple, why bother remembering anything?

Throughout life, I’ve unknowingly taken this exact approach to math. I know how to do division and I understand the basics of numbers and algebra. But when it comes to actually doing calculations in my head, I’m a buffoon. It hasn’t held be back because of one of the world’s great inventions: the calculator. If you can do the calculation in your head, and I can get the answer almost as fast on a calculator, does that really make you better than me? Are math skills as important as Kellaway seems to think, or am I just seeking excuses to cover up my own personal shame?!

Kellaway *is* right about one thing:

“Most people who do not know the basics of maths tend to get away with it. The same is not true with words. Employers take a dim view of anyone who makes spelling mistakes on a CV, yet they routinely hire people who can hardly count, as they never put the latter skill to the test.”

— Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

I can only say: thank God.

Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.