kai_krause's picture
Software Pioneer; Philosopher; Author, A Realtime Literature Explorer
On Average

Humans have fewer than two legs... 
...on average. 

It takes a moment to realize the logic of that sentence... 

Just a single "one-legged pirate" moves down the average for all of mankind, to just a fraction under two. Simple and true—but also counter-intuitive. 

A variation moving the average upwards instead: 

Billionaire walks into a bar. 
And everyone is a millionaire... 
...on average.

That's all rather basic statistics, but as obvious as it might seem, amongst the abundance of highly complex concepts and terms in this essay collection, many scientific truths are not easily grasped in everyday life and the basic tools of understanding are woefully underutilized by the general public. They are badly taughtif indeed they are part of the curriculum at all.  

Everyone today is totally surrounded by practical math. Leaving high school it should be standard issue knowledge to understand how credit cards work, compounding interest, or mortgage rates. Or percentage discounts, goods on sale and, even more basic, a grasp of numbers in general: millions, billions, trillions.  How far the moon is from earth, the speed of light, the age of the universe. 

Following the news, do people really get what all those zeros mean in the National Debt? Or the difference between "Gross National Product" versus "Gross Domestic Income"? 

Do they know the population of the US, versus, say "Nigeria"( Hint: Nigeria is projected to overtake the US as the third largest nation, reaching 400 million by 2050. 

If you ask around, your family and friends, who could give you a rational description of  "Quantum Computing," the "Higgs Boson" or how and why "Bitcoin mining" works?   

Millions of people are out there playing lotteries. They may have heard that the odds are infinitesimal, but often the inability to deal with such large numbers or tiny fractions turns into an intuitive reaction. I have had someone tell me in all honesty:  

"Yes it is a small chance, but I figure it's like '50-50'. Either 'I win'.... or 'I don't.'" 

Hard to argue with that logic. 

And yet—the cumulative cost of such seemingly small items is tremendous. Smoking a pack a day can add up to more than leasing a small car. Conversely, the historically low interest rates do allow leveraging possibilities. Buying a house, doing your taxes, it all revolves around a certain comfort level with numbers and percentages, which surprisingly large portion of us are shrugging off or acting haphazardly. 

Not quite getting the probabilities throwing dice and drawing cards is what built Vegas, but what about the odds in rare diseases or the chances of accidents or crime?  

The general innumeracy (nod to Hofstadter and Paulos) has far-reaching effects. 

There is a constant and real danger in being manipulated, be it by graphs with truncated Y axes, or pies that go beyond 100%, hearing news of sudden greater chances to die of some disease, or the effectiveness of medication, or so many of the tiny footprint notes in advertising claims.  It requires a minimum level of awareness to sort through these things. Acquiring common sense needs to include math. 

So which scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? 

I would plead to start with a solid foundation for the very basics of science and math and raise the awareness, improve the schooling, better the lives of our kids.... on average.