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Why is math important? How do statistics affect people’s beliefs?

Math is everywhere around you, even if you don’t realize it. Numbers and statistics are essential for modern-day life to make predictions, solve simple problems, and answer complex science questions.

Let’s look at why math is important in everyday life.

**1. Math Answers Complicated Questions**

**According to ***Naked Statistics*** by Charles Wheelan, statistics can offer insight into questions we couldn’t possibly design an experiment to answer**. For example, say we wanted to know whether exposure to a certain chemical (we’ll call it chemical X) corresponds to higher rates of cancer. Ethics precludes purposefully exposing people to chemical X in a laboratory setting for the sake of science. Additionally, so many other variables impact a person’s personal cancer risk that we can’t possibly know if chemical X was the sole cause of anyone’s cancer diagnosis. Without statistics, complex but important questions like this would remain unanswered.

To answer the question of whether chemical X is associated with higher rates of cancer, researchers could collect a large dataset including people who were and were not exposed to chemical X and record their rates of cancer diagnoses. Then the researchers could use regression analysis to determine the association between exposure to chemical X and a cancer diagnosis, independent of other factors such as smoking, exercise, family history, and so on. Statistics can even tell us what percent of a person’s overall cancer risk is mathematically associated with exposure to chemical X rather than other factors.

As Wheelan explains, the ability to mathematically separate individual variables (like exposure to a particular chemical) in the complexity of the real world makes statistical analysis an invaluable part of medical and social sciences research.

**2. Math Influences People’s Beliefs**

**When searching for the truth, statistics are appealing—they seem like hard, believable numbers**, and they’re necessary for expressing certain information, such as census data. Many people take statistics at face value because they suspend their common sense when presented with numbers, panic at the thought of complicated calculations, or feel math can’t lie.

However, **statistics aren’t as objective as they seem.** In *How to Lie With Statistics*, author Darrell Huff explains how people who want to conceal the truth manipulate numbers to come up with statistics that support their positions. These people—advertisers, companies, anyone with an agenda—often don’t even have to actually *lie*. Statistics is a flexible enough field that would-be liars can make their case with implications, omissions, and distraction, rather than outright falsehoods.

**Not all bad statistics are manipulations or lies, of course.** Some are produced by incompetent statisticians; others are accidentally misreported by media who don’t understand the field. However, because **most mistakes are usually in favor of whoever’s citing the statistic, it’s fair to assume that a lot of bad statistics are created on purpose.**

The manipulation of statistics just shows how much math is important, due to the power numbers hold over people. For example, say an advertiser wants to fib the truth about how many people have bought a specialty menu item at a restaurant. Maybe it hasn’t sold enough to convince people it’s a customer-favorite. So the advertisement might say “A million people have visited this restaurant, home of its world-famous cheeseburger.” A million people might’ve not eaten the burger, but that’s how many people have eaten at the restaurant. The wording of the advertisement tricks people into thinking that if such a large number of people are eating there, the burger must be good.

**3. Math Sharpens Your Brain**

Another reason math is important is that it encourages brain health and sharpens your mind. Math and science involve a lot of problem-solving, so it takes brain power to do it. Just think about a simple task like baking. If you’re cutting a recipe in half, you need to use math to determine the accurate measurements. Even a simple task like that boosts brain power.

In *A Mind for Numbers*, Barbara Oakley discusses the two modes of thinking that your brain uses to solve problems, and how to use them most effectively. Your brain naturally alternates between two modes of thinking: Focused and Diffuse.

**Focused-mode** thinking occurs when your attention is focused on something, allowing you to process detailed information. However, it’s susceptible to the “Einstellung effect,” which occurs when you are unable to solve a problem because the solution is outside the range of where you are looking for it.

**Diffuse-mode **thinking occurs when you relax your focus or let your mind wander. It continues to process information from previous focused-mode thinking subconsciously, but differently: It can circumvent the Einstellung effect by allowing you to mentally step away from detailed problems and see the big picture. It can also generate creative ideas and creative solutions to difficult problems, by connecting diverse concepts in your brain.

However, once you devise a creative solution with diffuse mode, you still have to switch to focused mode to carry out the solution, because diffuse-mode thinking doesn’t process information in enough detail for full implementation.

**Solving any difficult problem requires an exchange of information between your brain’s focused-mode and diffuse-mode functions.** Sometimes multiple cycles are required. So start by deliberately focusing on the problem and then deliberately divert your attention, allowing your brain to switch to diffuse mode. Repeat as needed, alternating between modes until you solve the problem. Here are a few things you can do to intentionally switch to diffuse-mode thinking:

- Go for a walk or do something athletic.
- Take care of routine chores that don’t require attention to detail.
- Rest and Reflect. This is especially important because rest plays an important role in your brain’s normal functioning: One hour of studying with a well-rested brain will allow you to learn more than three hours of studying with a tired brain.

**4. Math Is Everywhere in Modern Life **

**Your hunter-gatherer brain isn’t designed for complex math**, says Rolf Dobelli in *The Art of Thinking Clearly*. This means you can’t instinctively grasp complex math concepts, but understanding these concepts is increasingly important for modern life.

To demonstrate why math is important in modern life, here are some situations in which struggling with math negatively impacts your decisions:

**The Distribution of Averages**

Averages are one of the complex math concepts that your brain isn’t evolutionarily prepared for, Dobelli explains.** One of the biggest pitfalls when working with averages is ignoring the distribution: **the original set of numbers used to calculate the average. Without knowing the distribution, averages are misleading because they don’t show the outliers: the extremes at either end of the distribution that drastically change the average. To get a true average, these outliers must be removed, Dobelli says. This isn’t instinctive, but it’s important for modern life because outliers are increasingly common.

**Self-Selection Bias**

Statistics is another area of math that you’re not evolutionarily primed for, Dobelli says. One statistical error is self-selection bias, in which **the nature of the participants in a study influences its outcome.** Specifically,** **people only join studies they’re comfortable with responding to, which alters your data, Dobelli says. Those who might provide embarrassing or somehow “undesirable” responses simply won’t take part, narrowing your study’s scope and skewing the results.

**5. Math Helps Make Forecasts**

Philip E. Tetlock, the author of *Superforecasting*, believes using math and numerical probability estimates in forecasts is critical. In the 1950s, the CIA forecasting team discovered this after delivering a report forecasting the likelihood of the Soviet Union invading Yugoslavia. The report concluded that an attack was a “serious possibility.” When a State Department official later asked the director of the forecasting team what they meant by “serious possibility” in terms of odds, he estimated the odds at 65 to 35, much higher than how the State Department had interpreted it.

This miscommunication was understandably alarming. The director of the forecasting team, Sherman Kent, took the problem back to his team and asked them each to put a number on “serious possibility.” Though they had all collectively approved of the phrasing in the official report, every single team member assigned a different numerical value to those words. Kent was horrified: Not only were the forecasters not on the same page, but their forecasts were being used to inform foreign policy. If their reports were misunderstood, there could be global consequences.

That claim may sound dramatic, but it’s exactly what happened in 1961 when President Kennedy commissioned the Joint Chiefs of Staff to report on his plan to invade Cuba. The final report predicted a “fair chance” of success, and the government went ahead with what became the Bay of Pigs disaster. After the fact, it was clarified that “fair chance” meant three-to-one odds *against* success, but President Kennedy interpreted the phrase more positively and acted accordingly.

Another sector that relies on math and numbers is meteorology. It has embraced the clarity of numbers, and most of us are now accustomed to seeing weather forecasts in terms of percentages. Although miscommunicated numbers in weather don’t seem as drastic as invading Cuba, it could still have dire consequences. People rely on percentages (read as “chances”) in forecasts to prepare for severe weather, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Accurate forecasts can warn people to get to shelter before the storm arrives in their area, potentially saving lives.

**Wrapping Up**

Numbers don’t just disappear when you finish math class. Math is a crucial life skill that’s important for jobs and solving problems, no matter how big or small. Just imagine a life where you don’t use math—it’d be nearly impossible to function because we wouldn’t be able to tell time, cook, or travel.

*What are other reasons why math is important? Let us know in the comments below!*

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