Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 9, 2022

Math skills are essential for scientific learning

By JONATHAN PATTERSON | October 26, 2017

030313-N-3228G-002 Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Mar. 16, 2003) -- Nearly 250 candidates for E-5 mark their answer sheets while taking the March 2003 advancement exam at the Club Pearl Complex. Island-wide, a total of 701 candidates took the test and included Sailors from shore commands as well as those temporarily assigned from deployed Pearl Harbor ships and submarines. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class William R. Goodwin. (RELEASED)

A Fields Medal is not in everyone’s future, and that’s fine. However, that shouldn’t stop people from acquiring a decent level of mathematical understanding.

Ignorance of mathematics is yet another iteration of the scientific illiteracy that runs throughout our society today, particularly in America. What stands out about mathematical ignorance, though, is just how widespread and accepted it has become.

This idea of so many people dismissing their lackluster math skills was brought up in a discussion between astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and British biologist Richard Dawkins at the Hayden Planetarium in 2015.

Describing what he viewed as “an unwarranted pride in being bad in mathematics,” Dawkins cla

imed that such blatant ignorance is uniquely reserved for the field of mathematics. As Tyson added, the joke of “I was never good at math” has become a common and acceptable excuse.

This is a major problem, and part of the reason why so many people today question scientific fact rather than embrace it. Scientific illiteracy has become embedded into American culture, and mathematical ignorance is at the forefront of the problem.

Currently the Program for International Student Assessment ranks the US 38th out of 71 countries in math.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported math scores among American 4th and 8th graders dropping for the first time in decades. America’s best chance to improve its standing in math lies in this current generation of young students.

No one would ever joke about not being able to read a book or not knowing who the President is; why is math any different? Why is math not granted the same amount of respect as other academic fields in our culture?

Now, knowing how to take a derivative or work with a Taylor series won’t help most Americans, but a general knowledge of math is so much more than that.

You see, being mathematically ignorant doesn’t make someone stupid — it just robs them of the opportunity to fully understand and appreciate math as a whole field, rather than just as a tool for working with numbers.

It’s the latter that causes much of the misconception that math is shrouded in. As William Thurston said, “mathematics is not about numbers, equations, computations or algorithms: It is about understanding.”

It’s that sentiment that makes math so valuable, yet so chronically misunderstood. We need to close the gap between what math is perceived as and what math actually is. The best way to do that is through our education system.

The better this country is at math, the better off it will be in the long run. Learning math doesn’t just allow you to take integrals, it teaches you a unique way of thinking and problem-solving. This is why it is so crucial that no one settles for simply being “bad at math.”

Closing yourself off from mathematics is like refusing to learn how to read. Although the Fibonacci numbers might not have a significant impact on your life, acquiring a mathematical mindset will.

Learning math will teach you to look at things logically, not just how to find the area under a curve.

This country cannot afford to continue down the path of mathematical ignorance we have started on.

With climate change becoming more and more threatening everyday, AI reaching new heights and science in general becoming more important than ever, Americans need to be scientifically literate to thrive in today’s world.

We cannot do that ,however, until we, as a country, stop ignoring math and start embracing it.

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