Can you calculate your tip at a restaurant?
Can you do basic addition and subtraction problems?
Can you convert a fraction to a percentage?
Do you know how to take the average of a set of numbers? The median? The mode? Can you do it in your head?
Knowing my audience, a group of engineers and engineering enthusiasts, I suspect you answered yes to all of these questions. But that’s not the answer everyone would give—and that’s not just true of those with lower levels of education.
Recently, I’ve been hearing about the growing “numeracy” problem in our society. According to Alan Smith in his TED Talk entitled “Why you should love statistics,” numeracy is “the ability to deal with fractions, percentages, and decimals.”
Smith deals largely with England in his talk; however, he says numeracy is “not just an English problem,” with the United States leading the way with 40% of young people showing low numeracy skills in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey in 2016.
Now, researchers at the University of Miami are indicating that a poor understanding of ratios impacts everyday life. Evidently, consumers make “poor purchase decisions” when they need to use ratios to assess a product’s value.
One example ScienceDaily gives is that of consumers comparing fuel efficiency of two cars using the ratio miles per gallon prior to purchasing a car:
“They often flub the numbers by incorrectly assuming the mathematic equation to find miles per gallon would be to average the sum of the mileage of both cars and then divide by two, instead of using a more complex equation needed to accurately compare ratios.”
According to researchers, the example above results in only 2530% of shoppers reaching the correct answer.
Michael Tsiros, a professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, suggests this issue could be resolved by consumers having “ready access to software that calculates ratios.”
Within the context of the numeracy problem, that seems like a copout: solving the immediate problem of ratiocalculating errors affecting individual purchases, but not addressing the question of how to make our population better at ratios.
Despite having taken higher level math courses, I can admit to moments of low numeracy—largely because I have access to my favorite “computational knowledge engine” and a calculator. Still, I can’t say I’m comfortable with the situation.
Have you noticed the numeracy problem growing? Or is it, as one reader of Alan Smith’s older reports joked, that this figure is only shocking to the 51 percent—or in the U.S., 60%—of the population with high numeracy?
Image Credits: Alan Smith/Ted and Lane Oak/Unsplash

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