My last post on Humpty-Dumpty-ism will, I’m sorry to say, begin with a rant. I’ve got my soapbox and I am about to get on it.
In May 2015 we had a general election. Out of 650 MPs guess how many had science degrees? 300? 150? Keep going… 100? 50?
No, the answer was 26!
Another group claimed that there were 83 MPs with a background or interest in science or technology.
Am I surprised by these figures? Not in the slightest! Annoyed, depressed, disappointed and dismayed, yes, but surprised, no.
In fact it is typical of the public in general. If I had a pound for every time a parent had said to me at a parents evening, in front of their child, “I was never no good at maths when I was at school neither”, I would be considerably richer than my colleagues in the English faculty who received their pound for parents who said, “I am illiterate.” In the minds of the general public and politicians alike it’s ok to be bad at maths.
Take quiz shows. With the exception of University Challenge, where they ask proper, maths and science questions that are just as obscure as the history or literature questions, or Only Connect where one sequence recently had the first three statements and he teams had to guess the fourth :
1 (2) 2(3, 5). 3(7, 11, 13)
Answer at the bottom.
Now consider Eggheads, The Chase or Tipping Point. If I’m lucky there will be a ‘what is the square root of … ‘ question, perhaps even a ‘what is the positive square root of …’ question. Maybe a multiplication, a division or a finding a fraction of something. All trivial basic stuff. By contrast you have to know obscure quotations from Shakespeare, or the name of minor characters who appear in the opening lines of chapter 13 in a book by Dickens.
Time for my example of people using words they don’t understand, taken from the world of politics, education and mathematics and involving a misunderstanding of the word average.
On Newsnight and BBC Breakfast News in 2012, the then newly appointed chief inspector of schools and head of Ofsted from 2012 to 2016, Sir Michael Wilshaw, condemned the fact that one in five pupils are leaving primary school without reaching the “national average” in English.
Now I could have told you there and then that Sir Michael was not a mathematician, and I’d have been right, his degree is in History. He just typifies the arts/classics hegemony in our government.
Let’s look the definition of the word average.
1. 1. a number expressing the central or typical value in a set of data, in particular the mode, median, or (most commonly) the mean
Ok take a few deep breaths,have a seat, you’ll be fine. Whilst many will have a slightly dim recollection of the three ‘M’s, most reasonably intelligent people ‘get’ the idea of ‘average’ as being a kind of representative value, a snapshot of a larger set of numbers. If I tell you the average height of a group of eight people I just saw is 6′ 7″, i hope you will be thinking Harlem Globetrotters or the Pack of the England Rugby team, but not Snow White and the seven dwarves. Also you would, I hope, expect there to be some of the group a bit taller than 6’7″ and some of the group a bit shorter. Unless cloning has moved on a substantial amount since I started typing this, you wouldn’t expect them all to be 6’7″.
So let’s be clear an average is a “middle number” and by definition some results must be below average.*
(If you want to revise the different averages there is a link to revision lesson at the bottom.)
So we have a man in charge of Ofsted, who does not know the meaning of the word average. He can’t even claim it was a slip of the tongue as he repeated it several times, on different BBC news programmes.
Then there is Michael Gove. He was for a while Education secretary. What can I say about him. How about this exchange:
Interviewer: One (question) is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.
Interviewer: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Interviewer : Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: I cannot remember.
Another politician who has a degree in English, but doesn’t have a f***ing clue about maths. For a school to be rated ‘good’ pupil performance must exceed the national average. Unless every school achieves exactly the same results, some of them must be below average so every school can not be rated as good!
As a man who harbours suspicion about self-proclaimed experts, this is one time he needed one – a year 9 pupil perhaps. I can’t believe the interviewer let him off so easily and his last answer is frankly pathetic. Here’s a clue: you read English at Oxford, you slimey toad.
Like the man said: against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.
Links Averages Revision
For a more in depth analysis of the innumeracy of Wilshaw and Gove READ THIS
*If all the values are exactly the same then everyone will be exactly average
Only Connect answer
What will be the 4th in the sequence
:- 1(2). 2(3, 5). 3(7, 11, 13)
4(17, 19, 23, 29)
4 because the number of numbers in the brackets is going up one each time.
If you know your prime numbers, you will recognise 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, so you need the next 4 prime numbers, 17, 19, 23, 29
I’m off for a lie-down in a darkened room with the reassuring words of David Tennant on The Last Leg playing on a loop.