How a Mathematician Became Math Phobic

It’s rare that you get a chance to really see life from the other side. Today I did.

I presented at the Western Social Science Association conference at 8am. I stayed to watch the other talks – and got a serious taste of what many people feel when in a math class.

I was comfortable with the concepts.

Strangely, I was totally comfortable with the hypotheses of this group of social scientists.

I saw talks where people speculated on what was up with juvenile detention workers that liked their jobs. And I was cool with it.

I was fascinated, engaged and understood the hypothesis that people who identified with their gender, and lived that way, were more healthy than those who claimed one thing and behaved the opposite.

It made perfect sense to me that someone would want to do research to see if indeed boys who are close to their moms pray more as grownups.

I got uncomfortable when they started talking… stats!


It was the math that got me.

At first I watched in relative peace as these folks paraded the slides loaded with positive and negative decimal numbers. I ignored my ignorance of something they deemed important called “R2.”

I told myself that if I knew what these things were, I would totally get this.

I’m an algebraist. We don’t even use numbers, much less negative decimals.

But I assured myself that I was perfectly capable, I just hadn’t learned this branch of math.

But the talks and slides kept coming.

And my defenses didn’t hold up.

Wil was kind enough to give me a cheater hint. I tried to memorize it. The rule ended up looking like this:

Positive number means “as one thing goes up, the other does too.”

Negative number means “as one thing goes up, the other goes down.”

“Big” number means it really is true.

“Small” number means it probably is just B.S.

I developed math-anxiety.

When a stat slide came up, I looked away. The speaker’s voice became Charlie Brown’s teacher. I checked my iPhone to see what was happening on Twitter.

As Wil would say, I was participating in avoidance behavior.

But occasionally I’d try…

Calgon - take me away!

If one of those slides came up and I didn’t turn away fast enough, I’d give it a shot.

After all, I’m a mathematician by trade! This shouldn’t intimidate me.

I would fish around desperately in my brain for that memorized rule.

And to think that just two days ago I told my students, “You can’t just follow the rules – you should understand what they mean.”

Easy for me to say.

I’m going to crawl into the tub with a glass of wine.

Will you comment or tweet?


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9 Responses to How a Mathematician Became Math Phobic

  1. Very interesting that this would happen, especially to our fear(less?) math leader! It should be a great empathy tool to keep in the back of your mind to help to connect with students.

    • Curiously, Wil, it’s having a strange effect in the classroom. Because of the increased empathy, I’m getting super angry at the disservice we, as teachers, have done to these people all these years.

      My blood boils.

  2. Hi

    Lovely article and something that I have seen first hand. As a teacher of science and Maths I have presented at conferences solely to Maths/science teachers. All is going well when we discuss the socio ecconomic impact and pedagogy impacts of interventions, but as soon as I mention variance, ANOVA and other statistical tests to assess the validity of my claims, you can see the audience change.

    I wonder if its time for statistical literacy in schools alongside numerical literacy?

    Glen Gilchrist

    • This might be an audience issue. The other people in the room at my conference had no problem with the stats. They would even ask questions about it. So I was the fish out of water.

      For you, though, I wonder if the presentation of the stats adds value to the (intended) audience. If someone really wants to know that your claims are valid, perhaps giving them a web link to the details might be good.

      And regarding statistical literacy – a general idea of mean, median, mode and even some standard deviation stuff seems like a good idea. But I’m not sure if ANOVA is something the standard person will really need.

      Although, maybe they should… hmm…

      Thanks for stopping by, Glen!

  3. Nice article Bon. Although I teach adn blog about math, there are basic mathematical ideas that I have totally forgotten because I have not totally used it for years. Like the ANOVA which Glen mentioned. I don’t know what is it for. LOL

  4. I am not sure that statistical literacy is the only problem. The majority of people view statistics as a sociopolitical way of measuring approval. You see statistical analysis all over the media to show who agrees with whom,and many other forms of approval. On the psychological level we all desire approval. So from that logic, even the most educated of us still face fears in social settings that we are not “experts” in the topic of discussion.
    Where statistical literacy comes into play is that those who are not well versed in statistics actually brings out two fears. The need for approval, and fear of the unknown. Maybe if more people were better educated in statistics we could at least lessen one of those fears.
    ( This is just my opinion I am not an expert or an educator, but this is the way my often over-analytical mind breaks it down)

    • I like the way you think, John!

      I wonder if they were talking about stuff I didn’t know about that wan’t based in some sort of math would have the same affect. Probably.

      It also likely had to do with mental exhaustion. I was jazzed about presenting and then listed to quite a few talks.

      My cup was full.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. As a guy who has often done statistics for money (right out in public where people can see) but struggles with math beyond basic calculus, I think it’s almost an accident that math and stats are taught in the same departments or thought to be the same thing. Modern statistics doesn’t even begin till the Renaissance, really, compared to so far back in time we really don’t know for math. I really think that the statistical mind is different from the mathematical one, and that on some level either you see numbers as fuzzy, comet-like balls with possible hard centers you’re trying to attach a probability to, or as the hard edged gems that mathematicians seem to think in.

    One of my favorite stats professors once said, casually but seriously, that “1.4 is a good enough square root of 2 for small values of 2.” Made perfect sense to me.

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