Why it’s not cool to say “I’m no good at maths”

Back in the early 1980s, I was – as they say – “badly taught” maths, at the otherwise very good, Oxbridge factory, Aylesbury Grammar School. A linguist and an artist, STEM subjects held little joy or allure for me. I was streamed into the fourth or fifth set, where there were more animal noises than algebra in most classes. Poor old Mr Uren, a hero engineer in the war. The boys took the piss out of him mercilessly.

I struggled and muddled through, scraping a B at both O-level in year 10 and the same in AO-level the year later. Not bad, I suppose, but nowhere near my performance in arts subjects. And, I suspected, nowhere near my potential.

After a first degree in classics and a dozen years in PR jobs, I went back to school and retrained as an experimental psychologist. And what a rude awakening it was for me and many other students to discover that psychology has really rather a lot of maths in it. Not hardcore, pure maths. But pretty soon quite complex statistics, mostly built on correlations. In the first lecture of my Master’s – double stats – I confess that I did wonder if I’d made a mistake.

But I persisted and took the conscious decision to overcompensate. So, I put an inordinate amount of effort into getting to grips with statistics. I soon discovered the beauty and the storytelling potential of statistics – that numbers hold the key for scientists to weave their narrative weft. And when the Master’s morphed into a Doctorate, I was soon teaching others in the arts of Multivariate Analysis of Variance and non-linear regression, cluster and factor analysis.

I did lots of teaching during my four-year, second stint at university – and afterwards, too – but no subject was ever as gratifying as stats teaching. Lectures. Tutorials. And best of all lab practicals, analysing real data sets on stubborn PCs, using the unyieldingly stubborn stats program, SPSS. The movement over the course of a class or a term or a year – from panicky rabbits in headlights to serene swans gliding over the pond of data analysis – was something to behold.

Today, the excellent national charity National Numeracy is running its first National Numeracy Day. In the pre-publicity, an excellent – and lengthy – editorial in the Financial Times reported estimated that “Britons’ lack of numeracy subtracts £20bn from the UK economy”. In recent conversations with the team at National Numeracy, I’ve learned that fully half the working population in the UK – about 17m workers – has the mathematical ability of a primary school child. And a further 28% didn’t achieve the Government’s “bare minimum” target of an (old school) GCSE grade C.

Put it another way: just over one in five of the working population of UK plc – about to be cast into the unknown by the self-inflicted idiocy of Brexit – is minimally good enough at sums to cope.

To plan and budget and forecast.

To judge whether the dose of a medicine they’ve been asked to give to a patient is right for them.

To understand whether they’ve got a good mortgage deal or know whether they’re being ripped off by their utility or credit card suppliers. Or worse yet, a payday loan shark

Blimey. There’s clearly a lot of work to do.

National Numeracy Day is designed to draw awareness to the state we’re in – and the State we could become – if more of the employees of UK plc had even a little more confidence and competence in all things mathematical. They’ve got a great, responsive, increasingly tricksy online test that helps you benchmark where you’re at and shows you where you could improve. This isn’t any sort of flash-in-the-pan, over-in-20-second personality profiling test like the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica was so interested in. It’s a real commitment of time – up to half an hour of brain power and problem-solving. I really do think it’s worth the candle, and be sure – if you do give it a go – you don’t make it a lunchtime treat. Give it the respect and time it deserves.

Last week, I held the formal launch of my new book Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with DataHaving recovered from my poor school experience thanks to an overcompensation strategy as I became a psychologist, I’m not bad at maths these days. I see great beauty in the power of analytics to answer questions, build narratives, and create the kind of evidence-based stories that can poke fake news in the eye.

So far, the book has been well-received. It’s designed to give those charged with using data to tell stories with influence – what I argue is the signature requirement of the modern knowledge economy – to do so more confidently and more competently. Obviously, it demands a level of numeracy to be useful. Which is why National Numeracy’s new, annual day – not to mention its hugely worthwhile purpose overall – is to be welcomed, applauded, and supported.

Forza, National Numeracy! We are all indeed #numberspeople. All power to your project.