Monday, February 26, 2018

Animal Numerosity Everywhere

The NY Times reports on a themed issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, in that many animals have impressive built-in numerosity ability: being able to distinguish between quantities between one and five, say, or proportionally in how 25 is different than 30. In some cases, better than humans: monkeys can visually identify certain number sequences in a split-second.

We are reminded of when Noam Chomsky conjectured that enumeration might be the first mental stepping stone on the way to language -- or how apt it is that we call the "natural numbers" by that name.
Scientists have found that animals across the evolutionary spectrum have a keen sense of quantity, able to distinguish not just bigger from smaller or more from less, but two from four, four from ten, forty from sixty.

Orb-weaving spiders, for example, keep a tally of how many silk-wrapped prey items are stashed in the “larder” segment of their web. When scientists experimentally remove the cache, the spiders will spend time searching for the stolen goods in proportion to how many separate items had been taken, rather than how big the total prey mass might have been.

Small fish benefit from living in schools, and the more numerous the group, the statistically better a fish’s odds of escaping predation. As a result, many shoaling fish are excellent appraisers of relative head counts.

Guppies, for example, have a so-called contrast ratio of .8, which means they can distinguish at a glance between four guppies and five, or eight guppies and ten, and if given the chance will swim toward the slightly fishier crowd.

Three-spined sticklebacks are more discriminating still: with a contrast ratio of .86, they’re able to tell six fellow fish from seven, or 18 from 21 — a comparative power that many birds, mammals and even humans might find hard to beat.

New York Times.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Is Accepting Math Deficiency Destroying Journalism?

From 2013, an article by a professional journalist, who thankfully skipped any math in college -- then when he went for an MBA to understand the business he was in, discovered that calculus was a prerequisite for entry. So he committed to the road from lowest-level K-6 remediation up to calculus.

He points out that being "bad at math" is so accepted in the journalism industry, that it's actually a point of pride. We recall the article in the New Yorker three years ago this month about Yitang Zhang's marvelous progress on the twin primes conjecture, in which the journalist actually framed the entire story around how he knew so little math, he had to lie and cheat his way through high school algebra.

In our current case, the journalist (and now professor) suggests that this anti-math bias in journalism may actually be a contributing factor to the collapse of the industry -- in that both (a) the present cohort is unable to make sense of quantitative, scientific, or technological stories, which grow ever more essential to the world around us; and (b) they are unable to understand the financial and business case of their industry.

Well, Professors Kimball and Smith, welcome to journalism, where “bad at math” isn’t just a destructive idea — it’s a badge of honor. It’s your admission to the club. It’s woven into the very fabric of identity as a journalist.

And it’s a destructive lie. One I would say most journalists believe. It’s a lie that may well be a lurking variable in the death of journalism’s institutions. 

Name me a hot growth area in journalism and I’ll show you an area in desperate need of people who can do a bit of math. Data. Programming. Visualization. It’s telling that most of the effort now is around recruiting people from outside journalism to do these things. 

But it doesn’t end there. Name me a place where journalism needs help, and I’ll show you more places where math is a daily need: analytics, product development, market analysis. All “business side” jobs, right? Not anymore. 

Truth is, “bad at math” was never a good thing in journalism, even when things like data and analytics weren’t a part of the job. Covering a city budget? It’s shameful how many newsroom creatures can’t calculate percent change. Covering sports? It’s embarrassing how many sports writers dismiss the gigantic leaps forward in data analysis in all sports as “nerd stuff.”

In short, we’ve created a culture where ignorance of a subject is not only accepted, it’s glorified. Ha ha! Journalists are bad at math! Fire is hot and water is wet too!


Nieman Lab.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Ontario Elementary Teachers Need Remedial Math

A story from 2016 on how in-service elementary-school teachers in Ontario are only about 50% likely to know K-6 math skills such as fractions or percentage calculations. In response, supplementary remedial courses are delivered for these instructors:
Teachers’ math phobia, which faculties of education across North America view as a “huge problem,” are seen as one factor in Ontario’s falling student math scores, especially in grade school, where most teachers have a liberal-arts background and have not studied math since high school...

Some professors say student teachers are often in tears when they try to recall their grade-school math, and tell them they’re grateful for the emergency crash courses.

“I’ve got some mathematically brilliant teacher candidates, but I’m also working with some who don’t know how to multiply or divide,” noted professor Mary Reid of U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “They have no idea what a ‘remainder’ is. They think a remainder of 3 is the same as decimal 3.”
 
The Star