Quantitative Literacy in the age of alternative facts

“It’s not false, it’s just an alternative fact.” Kellyanne Conway (sort of).

Who remembers this quote? OK, I admit I don’t remember it perfectly myself, but it’s close enough. You can watch this video on YouTube if you want to see the birth of this now ubiquitous term.

So what is the responsibility of a math educator in this new world of alternative facts? That is what Kira Hamman and Dave Kung addressed in their joint guest lecture for the Quantitative Literacy SIGMAA, “The power of quantitative literacy in the era of alternative facts”.

Hamman and Kung fleshed out what they said were the three key questions in quantitative literacy and quantitative reasoning.

WHAT? We need to give our students context, and embed QR in a context of important social issues. “I don’t care if my students can calculate the truckloads of same it would take to haul away Mount Fuji?”, says Kung.  Instead, we might want to consider asking our students to work on mathematics in the context of Obamacare. Another example they gave is one of my favorites already to talk about in class, the BP oil spill. Using simple mathematics one can figure out (and some teachers and their students did in 2010) how much oil was actually spilled — it was much more than BP was reporting, and the journalists reporting on it did not catch this. One can even teach a lesson based on this work, courtesy of the National Center for Teachers of Mathematics. In the end, we should focus on what matters to us as students and as people.

So the question is, what math will help navigate the world as citizens and activists?  What is the math that most citizens need? The audience had many suggestions: relative risk, scale, exponential growth, the difference between millions vs billions, statistics, how to read graphs, correlation vs causation, units, data manipulation, and so on.

In short, the context of the mathematics being taught should matter to students and society – what do we choose to work on when we do this?

WHO? EVERYONE. Of course. Hamman gave a few examples of people she has come into contact with that needed mathematics (and furthermore contextualized mathematics) in different ways.

  • Scott – army veteran, Republican, good guy, friend of Kira, in the context of The Wall, did not really understand the difference between \$7 billion vs \$7 million.
  • Angie – opposite political spectrum, executive coach, was in a self defense class and was told “you could be snatched off the street” and tried to show that the stat was probably not true, but couldn’t finish the relevant calculation.
  • Elven – a student, after Ferguson, and after a campus community discussion on policing, wanted to cite numerical evidence, and could pull stuff together but couldn’t organize it into a clear or correct argument.
  • Hannah – student in calc class, in which there were only three women, and gets into an argument with another student about underrepresentation of women in engineering – but can’t use the available data to support an important point.
  • Braedon – taking a “baby” statistics course, in which he was asked to choose a question one would address with Q information, they didn’t need to answer the question just ask it. He is anti gun control, wants to prove that gun control doesn’t work, and starts cherry-picking data from sites, Kira pushed back – what do you mean by gun violence, control, what do you want to quantify? He came to the conclusion that we have no idea whether it works or not.
  • Lily – student, head of LGBTQ group on campus, went to an LGBTQ conference where there was lots of conservative bashing, and at the end talked to a group of students who were conservative, distressed that conservatism was associated with being anti LGBTQ. Came back asking, are conservatives more likely to be anti gay? What are you measuring, what do you need to look at? Came to office with a huge set of data she wanted to analyze.

So who? The diagram below explains that really, QL should be aimed at EVERYONE.

Who? Kira Hamman explains.

HOW? “What is the math community’s role in getting people to believe fewer lies?” (Dan Meyer)

People associate family structures with political structures. Below is a diagram based on George Lakoff’s theories on what people at each end of the political spectrum are likely to think/do.

Dave Kung describes Lakoff’s theories on left vs right beliefs.

What does this theory get us? A better understanding of…

  • Fake news tend to spread more on the right than the left if the political spectrum.
  • Conservative backlash to common core.
  • Public opinion on whether the US should bomb Syria: what was the support for bombing Syria under Obama and Trump (2013 & 2017 resp)? The polling data show in 2013, 28% of democrats supported the decision, and 22% of republicans supported it. In 2017, 37% of democrats supported decision, and 80% of republicans supported it.
  • Liberal bent of academia (and conservative backlash).
  • How we need to teach QL – we like to be authoritarian, “this is the right answer”, we lova that position and power, takes a lot of work to say what does it mean to teach in a non-authoritarian way? How do we use those progressive values in our class?

Then they asked the audience a tougher question: In what ways is your teaching authoritarian?

The main goal is to give students ownership and autonomy. Then Kung invited us to do some navel gazing. “In what ways are we (meaning he and Hamman) full of shit? Why is this not the right way to view the world? Lakoff’s theory is interesting, but falls apart when you think about race. Left and right DO have authorities. We need to also take time to acknowledge there is not perfect thing, but that we should be thinking about all of these things critically.

The conclusion is this: QR/QL in this age requires social justice content and context, it needs to reach everyone, and we need pedagogy that builds autonomy in our students.

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