A lot of people—perhaps most—are functionally innumerate.
Innumeracy sounds like it ought to be the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy, and it is something like that, and yet it is also different. And yes, this has to do with climate change.
Illiteracy is primarily a problem of knowledge—an illiterate person doesn’t know enough about the written language to understand it. It’s possible to be innumerate in that sense, and that kind of numeracy can lag far behind literacy for some. For example, I am so fully literate that I make my living as a writer and an editor, and yet I don’t actually know how big a million is. I could count to ten thousand, if I wanted to, but I couldn’t count to a million. I don’t know how.
But there is another form of innumeracy that has less to do with knowledge and more to do with the ability to use mathematical logic. For example, if I say “300 people died of food poisoning this year,” that doesn’t tell you anything. Am I talking about an outbreak in a small town, or am I talking about the entire United States? How many people die of food poisoning in a typical year—is 300 more or fewer than usual? Only with context does this number, 300, tell a meaningful story.
Knowing where to look for that context and how to interpret that context is the beginning of statistical literacy, a related but different issue, but if you don’t know some kind of context is necessary, then you might as well not know the number 300, either.
That’s functional innumeracy.
The reason this matters for climate change is that again and again in the course of researching for this blog I find numbers presented to the public without their context, or with inadequate context.
- Product A. requires more energy to produce than Product B.–does that include manufacture only, or does it also include the energy required for acquiring raw materials?
- A certain university boasts that it has reduced its carbon emissions by a certain number of tons per year—but what is the new carbon footprint, and is it bigger or smaller than typical for similar schools?
- Nationally, a certain substance is responsible for a certain number of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—but is that number big or small compared to the footprint of the country as a whole?
I realize it’s a little difficult to make sense of hypothetical examples, but I’m trying to keep this post quick and to the point, without getting bogged down with real-life detail.
When I see numbers presented without context, I wonder whether the people presenting those numbers don’t realize the context is necessary, or if they simply aren’t as interested in climate action as they appear to be? Indeed, careful attention to which context is missing often reveals something that could be to the advantage of the entity releasing the numbers—but whether the oversight was actually deliberate, I’m not in a position to say.
I can confidently assert, though, that the fact context is not given means that the public doesn’t demand it. And that means there are important questions, questions that could make a great deal of difference to how we attack climate change, that we’re not asking. It also means that we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to people who sound good but don’t have the facts on their side.
Innumeracy is unlike illiteracy in that the latter can really only be fixed by education. You can’t will yourself to read if you don’t know how. But if you understand numbers in a general way—and most of us do—you can will yourself to think more carefully about them, and on the basis of careful thought you can ask more questions.
Sometimes that’s all that needs to happen, to begin with—ask a couple of good questions.
And then seek answers.