Wednesday, November 17, 2010

G.V. Ramanathan: How much math do we really need?

Ramanathan, an emeritus professor of math, statistics and computer science at U-Illinois at Chicago, asks this question in a Washington Post column.

How much math do you really need in everyday life? Ask yourself that -- and also the next 10 people you meet, say, your plumber, your lawyer, your grocer, your mechanic, your physician or even a math teacher.

Unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everyday life. That courses such as "Quantitative Reasoning" improve critical thinking is an unsubstantiated myth. All the mathematics one needs in real life can be learned in early years without much fuss. Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation.

Those who do love math and science have been doing very well. [...] As for the rest, there is no obligation to love math any more than grammar, composition, curfew or washing up after dinner. Why create a need to make it palatable to all and spend taxpayers' money on pointless endeavors without demonstrable results or accountability?

Link via Edward Tenner's post -- Is Math Overrated? -- at The Atlantic.


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    Some time ago, you linked to this post
    and a couple of them seem to need some math. Apart from that, one reason often given is that it is needed in other subjects.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Isn't the author omitting an important aspect of mathematical education- the training in rigorous logical and analytic thinking? I think one of the problems is how the society and the administrators confuse mathematical training for the ability to do arithmetic operations on numbers. In reality, mathematics is all about abstract thinking- using logical and structured arguments to solve problems. It will surely come in handy in daily life. Perhaps if everyone is trained hard in mathematics, we wouldn't have as much irrationality as we currently do. Wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone thought in terms of propositions and proofs? Few people trained to think this way would believe in superstition and pseudo-scientific garbage. Contrary to what our politicians and religious leaders want us to believe, logical thinking and sound reasoning are more important than morality.

  3. Pratik Ray said...

    Despite liking math (and even using a bit of it for my work) myself, I would still agree with the author. There are plenty of folks who can think analytically without taking a math course to give credence to the idea that math is the *only* way to improve critical thinking and analysis.

    If it is not the *only* way, then why not let people pursue other avenues that can combine utility with pleasure?

    @ karatalaamalaka: Going by personal experience, there are plenty of mathematicians (who I presumed have trained hard in mathematics) who happen to be extremely religious persons who consider themselves to be morally upright ;)

  4. Nappinnai NC said...

    I agree with Karatalaamalaka. He nailed it. In the name of spirituality/Religion, there is too much nonsense/violence going on. Logic is a part of Math. Many religious leaders(be it any religion) don't have scientific/math background to address fundamental issues like sex slavery, trafficking etc. How one can establish peace without tackling these issues which require rational/logical thinking in terms of human fairness. One would see many Scientists & Mathematicians being moral than moralists being the other way round.

    As the second commentator pointed out, i would say even God is a 'conceptual' thinking. When people start giving names out of their 'finite-ness', it creates havoc 'my god is superior to your God'. This type of thinking leads to ridiculous outcomes. If we approach problems in life in an objective way(like science is), we will not have any disparities/inequalities.

    Only when there is sound reasoning(no bias towards anything/anyone), morality is long-lived, otherwise, its always short lived.

  5. Unknown said...

    this guy really needs to read strogatz's nyt math column. like many people do, he is confusing math with numerical calculations. its the same fallacious thinking that brands infosys coders as computer science geeks and social science as meant for "those who don't know math"

    in reality most great literary works actually have math woven into them

    in fact ive seen several people, including classmates in iisc and colleagues at work who claim they are doing hardcore math when in reality they are just crunching numbers or running regressions with some software package