Social Question

Mariah's avatar

Why is it socially acceptable to be bad at math?

Asked by Mariah (19396 points ) May 9th, 2012

People have no problem saying they’re terrible at math, but I’ll bet these same people would be embarrassed to admit it if they were illiterate or if they couldn’t find Canada on a map. Why are we as a culture so forgiving of math inadequacy?

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31 Answers

john65pennington's avatar

Computers and calculators have made us this way. I think most people have come to depend on computers and calculators way too much.

Not one or two of us, but ALL of us are this way and it’s become socially acceptable.

Sunny2's avatar

Has a study ever been done on the brain’s capacity to learn different subjects? Just as people can’t read easily because of their brain’s ability to decode (dyslexia), there may be problems with decoding number concepts. It may start with learning numbers tables. It really becomes obvious as soon as practical number problems are brought up. Socially acceptable happens when people realize they aren’t the only ones with the condition. If it is a condition.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

That’s an interesting question. I’d say it has to do with both a general air of anti-intellectualism here in the U.S. (and some attacks against it are valid, many aren’t, in my opinion) as well as people being encouraged to be confessional about their flaws. We love nothing better than someone identifying just how ‘human’ they are (as in ‘I’m only human’ and ‘We’re all human’ are some of the favorite excuses for action in this society). I also want to point out that it’s much more acceptable for women to distance themselves from math as part of that whole ‘thinking is hard for people with vaginas’ shtick we’ve got going on in the U.S.

Blackberry's avatar

Maybe when people think of those that are good at math, we picture engineers and mathematicians: people with complex and important jobs. Then we think we could never do that. We assume if someone is good at math, they must have been born with that “gift” and they’re likely to become an accountant or engineer.

thorninmud's avatar

Maybe it has to do with the whole “left brain, right brain” thing that was popularized decades ago. It became pretty much conventional wisdom that some people are left-brainers, good at linear, rational, analytical thinking; while others are right-brainers, good at holistic, creative, synthetic thinking.

From that perspective, someone who is bad at math needn’t be considered deficient or stupid, but just having stronger skills in other domains.

That model is now viewed with considerable skepticism by neuroscientists. it’s not that these different modalities don’t exist, but the division is not as clear-cut as this model would suggest. But it still thrives in the popular psychology.

nikipedia's avatar

I’m not sure I agree with your premise that it’s more acceptable to be bad at math than other things. How often do people confess they’re terrible spellers, bad with names, couldn’t navigate their way out of a paper bag?

wundayatta's avatar

Maybe it’s more acceptable for women to be bad at math then men. I think women are more willing to say that. Just an impression. No data to back it up, though.

Seaofclouds's avatar

I think it has more to do with the complexities and the different levels of math. When someone says they are horrible at math, we don’t know where they are horrible. Is it that they can’t understand basic algebra, geometry, or they can’t add 2 + 2? If someone says they can’t read, it’s seen as a basic skill that they are unable to do. I think people would be viewed differently if they were being very open that they can’t do the basics of math (such as 2 + 2), but since just saying “math” can mean so much, we look at it with a broader meaning.

TexasDude's avatar

Um, y’all know that there are learning disabilities associated with math skills that are relatively common, right?

ratboy's avatar

The following is from the article Dispelling the Math Myths:

Did you notice how quickly people say that they were no good at math? Did anyone say, I’m no good at reading? or I can’t read? When and why is it acceptable in our society to say we’re no good at math? We’d be embarassed [sic] to declare that we’re no good at reading yet it’s quite acceptable in our society to say that we can’t do math! In today’s information age, mathematics is needed more than it ever was before – we need math! Problem solving skills are highly prized by employers today. There is an increasing need for math and the first step needed is a change in our attitudes and beliefs about math.

A Revolution in Mathematics? What Really Happened a Century Ago and Why It Matters Today addresses what the author takes to be the root problem, and discusses some possible remedies. I found his remarks on the K-12 education community toward the end of the article to be particularly interesting.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Seaofclouds beat me to it. Saying you’re bad at math usually talks about levels beyond 8th grade, while saying you’re illiterate talks about levels more around 1st grade. Having a hard time with calculus isn’t the same as having a hard time reading a Newsweek article or Nancy Drew, it’s the same as having a hard time reading obscurest, dense French philosophers.

Plus, you will notice that when people claim they have a hard time reading due to dyslexia, a significant amount of people will respond to that by relaxing their need for others to read.

PurpleClouds's avatar

It’s not acceptable as far as I’m concerned.

Mariah's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard Of course no one is judging anyone for having a learning disability. That is understandable just as someone with dyslexia having trouble spelling is understandable. What I find remarkable is (what I perceive as) a disparity between what’s acceptable to not grasp in math as opposed to other facets of our education.

I think a lot of you do have a point that my comparison to literacy wasn’t the best – literacy is a benchmark many of us reach around age 6 or 7 and the comparable math skills for that age are adding and subtracting small numbers, and I think people would be pretty taken aback if an adult were incapable of doing that.

But I still think there’s a disparity. Thinking back to seventh grade, in my English class we read Romeo and Juliet, and in my math class we learned how to do operations with negative numbers. I think an adult in our culture could get away with saying they don’t know how to multiply negative numbers with less judgement than if they said they don’t understand Romeo and Juliet.

josie's avatar

Because if our culture valued high levels of intellectual skills, it would make the people who are sort of dumb feel marginalized, and these days it is considered socially improper to permit those who are marginal too actually have to confont that occasionally unpleasant fact. It is considered proper to engineer their milieu in order for them feel included and good about themselves.
One way to do that is to make sure that nobody is too smart. A good place to start that process is to de emphasize mathematics in the school curriculum since math is one of your first thinking courses in school. What better place to start making a civilization a little more dumb.
And now we know the process has been successful, because people are not embarrassed to say they poor at math. Universal mediocrity at last!

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Mariah Do you have any idea how much people don’t understand Romeo and Juliet? Having to explain to people that maybe a story that ends in a lot of deaths should not be the epitome of romance is the bane of my life.

mazingerz88's avatar

I suck at Math! I’m guessing most of the time it’s a self-defense and self-pitying mechanism. They’re not really proud of the fact. They tried but they just can’t be engineers.

YARNLADY's avatar

Being good at math and other scholarly subjects makes you a social outcast, or an egghead. Therefore, it’s socially acceptable to say you are not good at math.

ucme's avatar

Hmmm, putting 2 & 2 together, I conclude this behaviour would cause multiple issues & create division for the individual concerned…...& you can count on that.

lloydbird's avatar

@Mariah No…I don’t think that it adds up ; either.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Mariah Not everyone states that they have problems doing math because of a learning disability. I’ve mainly stopped telling people; if I just tell people “I’m bad at math”, it’s that oh-so-human thing of me that Simone mentions. If I tell people “I have discalculia”, all of a sudden, my hardships with math are an obstacle – don’t I understand? I can’t let this get me down! Even if there’s very little upside to me busting my butt learning something I do just fine without, think of how strong I’ll be. If I stop trying to learn math now, I’m a quitter. But if I stop trying to learn math now because, eh, shit’s hard, I’m just so very human.

Rarebear's avatar

Holy crap. What an awesome question.

Sunny2's avatar

@thorninmud The right/left brain was never an either or concept. It’s kind of like being left or right handed. I know at least one person who is primarily left brained, but is also relatively good with math (including Calculus) If you know which side your brain leans to, you can use learning methods that are enhanced by that side of the brain. There is so much still to learn about brain function!

redfeather's avatar

Guys, I’m terrible at math. I almost failed every year, but barely passed in the last few weeks. I always had a 95–100 in English though. I just can’t process numbers well. I did better in geometry where I could look at the shapes and angles, but something as abstract as algebra just didn’t work for me.

Symbeline's avatar

Cool question, to which I have absolutely no answer. Disregarding learning disabilities and left brain/right brain stuff, which not everyone knows about…I’d say that it is indeed a clear observation; lots of folks think being bad at math isn’t a problem, but reading/writing problems makes you a savage.
Instead of looking at math, I’m gonna look at reading. Reading and writing are extremely valuables things to know, no matter what you do…one could say the same for math as well, but in most every day things that require math, it only requires the basics, and even someone who doesn’t know their multiplication table can get away with it using tools like computers and calculators. I mean, cash registers pretty much do all the work for you. May not have been this way before, but it is now. More complex mathematics aren’t present everywhere. Now again, the same can be said of reading and writing, but I think its basics are much wider in scope of everyday use, plus there aren’t many secondary tools that can save your ass if you can’t properly read or write something.
I do believe that math has its own personal taboo as generally being either pretty hard, or really boring. So people agree on that. But reading and writing is like breathing for most, so illiterate folk get the hack. Or some dumbass societal factor therelike. (izzat even a wurd)

Now I’m not saying math is useless, bloody far from it, and I ain’t saying that reading and writing can escape on slang and cultural habits; but besides the technical stuff that separate both, there is some social factor that must play a part in how people perceive both subjects when it comes to being good/bad at them.

mazingerz88's avatar

Lets’s face it. Not everybody could do complex math enough to design space shuttles and keep nuclear reactors running. I do understand we need sufficient number of new engineers to replenish those who would retire.

Now if that number dwindles to an alarming level? Well…maybe we could always recruit from those countries in the top 10 spots for having the best Math students. Wait isn’t that happening already?

The US is currently in the 24th place? Unless we do something to improve, we may find ourselves quite diminished. Not hard to understand that. I mean 1 + 1 = 11 right? Yeahhhh! : )

fluthernutter's avatar

When I use to say I’m bad at math, I’m was actually saying I’m too drunk to calculate how much tip to leave.

I think it’s the easy thing to say to get out of number-crunching. Being a human calculator isn’t terribly fun. The theoretical stuff is fun though.

Mariah's avatar

Just to clarify, I don’t mean to imply people should be ashamed of being unable to do calculus. It’s the basic stuff I’m curious about.

Thanks for your theories and answers, folks!

Blackberry's avatar

@fluthernutter A person that was good at math showed me a great trick. To tip 20%, move the decimal to the left and multiply by two. For example, your total is $50.00, so your tip would be $10

fluthernutter's avatar

@Blackberry It’s not just the 20%, it’s the headache of figuring out how much everyone owes when you’re out drinking with a bunch of people.

Here in California (9.75% tax), I just double the tip.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@fluthernutter That is a headache. Especially when you go to one of those places that tacks on tip if your party is over a certain size, and then you have to figure out all this extra stuff.

snapdragon24's avatar

I never thought about that…good question. I always hated math. Too much brain power. Also because I just don’t get it!

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