Dot Physics

Does everyone need math?

This is a question that comes up every now in then. But I would like to ask a few similar questions with my first order approximation answers. I would love to hear some other ideas on these questions.

Do people need a functional understanding of math to function in this world?

I say no. Maybe this is not a popular answer, but this is my first answer. Let me give my reasons. What percent of people in this world have a functional understanding of math? (let me just say functional understanding means they can do basic word problems and understand what is going on) If I estimate this percent of people at 50%, you might argue that this is too high, but that is my estimate. What percent of people are able to get along in this world? Is 98% a good guess? Most people seem to be mostly fine. So, from this I would say you don’t need to be able to do word problems to get along just fine.

Now compare this to the ability to read and write. I think that in this society you really need to know how to read and write to get along (but you don’t need to know how to tie your shoes – you know, because of all those velcro-shoes).

Would the world be a better place if everyone understood math?

I think so. Dan Meyer posted a link on twitter to this article on the Chronicle of Higher Education – “Make math a gateway, not a gatekeeper”. The main point is that math is currently a big barrier to students in college. Dan, in particular, likes this quote:

“Statistical reasoning supports decision making under conditions of uncertainty, an inescapable condition of modern life. This is math that will help these students understand the world around them, and it’s the math they can use right now.”

I agree that if everyone understood statistics, politics would make more sense and people would make better decisions (like not playing the lottery).

Should you study math?

Absolutely yes. Not only is it important in many fields, it is helps you with critical thinking skills. Even if those were not true, I would say everyone should study math because that is what makes us human (along with literature, art, music, science, and beer).

Just a note, if you changed the above questions to be about art instead of math, my answers would be essentially the same.

I would love to hear what you think about math. Primarily, do you need to understand math to have a normal life (functional understanding)?


  1. #1 zeno
    May 10, 2010

    People can survive without math, but it’s difficult to thrive without it. Innumerate people are routinely being fooled and taken advantage of because they don’t understand basic math. Innumeracy may not be as great a handicap as illiteracy, but it is a serious weakness of greater significance than most people realize. A decent grasp of basic math — including percentages, proportions, and probabilities — is empowering.

    Of course, I just finished grading a prealgebra exam and I’m seeing how clueless some people are about what 25% of something is — and I fear what happens to these folks when they go shopping.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    May 10, 2010

    I agree with Zeno: knowing math is not essential to survival, but it does make you more resistant to certain kinds of scams.

    To take one example: You may have heard from the news in the last few years that there was a real estate price bubble in large parts of the country (I understand Louisiana was one of the less affected areas). Much of that bubble, especially in the later stages, was supported by people taking out negatively amortizing mortgages; i.e., their monthly payments did not cover the interest, and the shortage was added to the principal. Those of us who can do math recognize this as a self-evidently stupid loan for everybody involved (except for the broker, who was paid a hefty percentage up front to close the loan). But lots of suckers^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hhomebuyers went for this kind of loan because of the artificially low monthly payments, and lots of other suckers^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hinvestors were willing to buy these loans by the bucketload.

  3. #3 Torah
    May 10, 2010

    Yes, people need math. Maybe not calculus or advanced linear algebra but fundamentals in mathematics are crucial for anyone. Even bargain shoppers at the grocer.

    However, I have found that people that don’t have any math education can, in fact, invent their own ways of solving mathematical problems that are somewhat accurate and allow them to function. But math education is arguably one of the most useful subjects in schools – hence the r/r/r – reading writing and arithmetic.

    Also – an appreciation for math lets you appreciate the humor and genius of this guy:

  4. #4 Rhett Allain
    May 10, 2010


    You say you need math to be a bargain shopper – true. But do you need to be a bargain shopper? Don’t a lot of people just not spend money efficiently, but they still get along fine?

  5. #5 CalcDave
    May 10, 2010

    I agree with all of what is being said here, I think. I don’t really know all the physics and chemistry and materials science etc. that go into creating and making my car work, but I can drive one just fine. Now, I really appreciate that there are people out there who do understand this stuff so they can design newer, cooler cars and/or fix mine when it breaks, but it’s not a skill set or knowledge base I need to function really well in society.

    On the other hand, it depends on what you mean by “math.” eg. is counting math? is addition/subtraction math? is solving for an unknown a la high school algebra math? I know you say “solving word problems,” but I bet a large majority of people could estimate answers to most “realistic” word problems (in the sense of Dan Meyer’s stuff). Anyhow, I agree that 90% of the stuff presented in school “math classes” is non-essential for functioning.

  6. #6 Rhett Allain
    May 10, 2010


    I think I would call math anything above counting (although technically, that is also math).

  7. #7 Dave
    May 10, 2010

    I agree with your basic concept but I have a little quibble about your concept of getting along in the world or having a normal life.

    I think there is a lot of stress, unhappiness, and lost satisfaction in the world caused by innumeracy with regards to money. Is a single mother of 3 stuck with a dead end job and an underwater mortgage she ended up with after a divorce due to fights over money getting along in the world? How about the college student racking up huge loans to pay for a primary education degree at Vanderbilt or some other private college?

    At some point it becomes hard to separate a lack of mathematical reasoning skills from a lack of other skills for success.

  8. #8 Claire C Smith
    May 10, 2010

    Everday math is quite important in life in general, like calculating a cafe bill. Most day jobs seem to require it too. If studying physics, then for sure it’s important because the equations, formulas and units are what make up the product of its reasoning – in this sense it’s mainly applied math within a very practical science. Being less good at mental arithmetic, although not something to be proud of, doesn’t stop a reasonble grasp of physics and science, but it can be more difficult to get on in life without it, however that doesn’t mean you cannot get on in life at all. Sometimes a good grasp of conceptual math is quite usefull. Math is important – lots of other skills also, where it is so, is within context. Not so sure about art being the same – it’s more fuzzy and not really taken to be as a functional skill as math and that’s usually by most employers, although it appears the world does seem to thrive on variety. Forget the beer!

  9. #9 Rhett Allain
    May 10, 2010


    I do not agree with your example of the cafe bill. How many people just pay what the bill says? What about the people working at the cafe? They just punch in some numbers into the machine and it prints the bill.

    Again, I think people SHOULD be able to calculate a bill (but even that is just simple adding).

  10. #10 HP
    May 10, 2010

    It depends on what you mean by “math.” I mean, I’m pretty conversant with arithmetic, euclidean geometry, and linear algebra, but that’s about it. I suppose that would put me in your 50% with functional understanding.

    But to me, the foundations of math are things like number theory, set theory, the construction of proofs, and so on, none of which I understand beyond knowing that they exist. By that standard, I doubt that even one in 50,000 thousand people understand math.

    There was a lot of discussion among linguists a few years ago about an Amazonian tribe whose language only has number words for “one,” “two,” and “many.” There was a lot of pontification about whether they had even the vaguest conceptions about math, quantities, counting, etc.

    Then, IIRC, someone had the idea of giving them problems to solve using tokens. (For example, you might give seven tribal members 35 nuts and tell them to share them equally.*) They were able to accomplish these tasks as easily as any formally educated person. So, do they “understand” basic math? Or does “understanding math” necessarily entail being able to verbalize it?

    (* They each get five. I did the math.)

  11. #11 Tony P
    May 10, 2010

    I’ve had Algebra I, Algebra II & Trig, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, Linear Algebra, College Algebra, Statistics and Calculus.

    The ones I use most, what I learned in Algebra I & II.

    As to word problems – I’m pretty good at those. Last one was figuring out UPC check digits.

    You have to sum all the digits. E.g. UPC code 59199 42390 = 51. The check digit is the difference between the next tens unit and the 51. So in this case next tens is 60 so the check digit is 9.

    I had it down to a nice little function in Access VBA that used the integer and modulus functions.

  12. #12 Jody Bowie (fzzxtchr)
    May 10, 2010

    I love that you used math to answer the questions. That makes this post several orders of magnitude more awesome than it was initially!

    I wasn’t pushed as a student towards math and didn’t really find out how much I enjoyed it until later in life. I’m trying to give my students a different perspective than I got.

  13. #13 Claire C Smith
    May 10, 2010

    Rhett, you say, “I do not agree with your example of the cafe bill. How many people just pay what the bill says?”

    Yeah, I see where you are coming from. I suppose it’s a bit wrong to suggest that people sould know how to calculate even with the use of an automated method available – sad fact of today. Also thought of another example, scientific calculators, how many students use them now in physics? I used mine – ten years ago now though – very sparingly, wasn’t because I wanted to but because the tutor said we had to!

    “even that is just simple adding”- eww now! Not for me it isn’t! 😉

  14. #14 Rhett Allain
    May 10, 2010


    Wow, I didn’t even realize I used math – but you are right.

  15. #15 Torah
    May 11, 2010

    Rhett, of course people don’t *need* to be bargain shoppers. But I would argue that people who aren’t able to spend money efficiently are not “getting along fine,” particularly now. Credit card interest rates, adjustable rate mortgages, and pretty much any other math related item you might find in the fine print are causing an incredible amount of suffering, especially outside the confines of the classroom. Who’s to say a better understanding of simple fractions and percentages might not have led to even the slightest increase in better decision making?

  16. #16 Rhett Allain
    May 11, 2010


    I agree that people would be better off dealing with financial issues if they understood basic algebra. However, I still say that people can function just fine without this.

    How about this analogy – can you get along just fine if you are not healthy? Yes. You will do much better if you are healthy though.

  17. #17 rob
    May 11, 2010

    we are not living in a pre technological agrarian society.

    as such, everyone ought to have some minimal basic understanding of math, science, literature, history etc.

    hey, kinda like the high school graduation requirements.

    but do you really need all that book learnin?

    no, as long as you are okay with subsistence farming or a career at a minimum wage job.

  18. #18 Rhett Allain
    May 11, 2010


    I completely agree with you “ought to…” – however, do they NEED to? I still say no.

  19. #19 Dave McLaughlin
    May 12, 2010

    I pretty much agree with you. What do you think of Arthur Benjamin’s idea that the way math(s) is taught is wrong? Instead of the syllabus being a steady accumulation of the tools needed to understand calculus, it would better serve the needs of most people if it was targeted more towards statistics. Check out his TED talk.

  20. #20 Rhett Allain
    May 12, 2010


    I will check out that TED talk. Interesting idea. I do think the general population is more likely to get some benefit out of understanding statistics rather than calculus.

  21. #21 Torah
    May 12, 2010

    Well Rhett, I think we might be in agreement. No, you will not die without a basic understanding of math. Yes, you can still function in the world. But will it be of assistance in your day-to-day life? Will you be *better off* with math? Could it possibly help you make “much better” decisions? Well… yes ; )

  22. #22 Siddharth
    July 7, 2010

    what advice would you give to a non-maths high school student who wants to study physics at undergraduate level?

    how can one improve at maths?

  23. #23 clovis simard
    October 19, 2010


    Le seul commentaire :

    Description : Mon Blog, présente le développement mathématique de la conscience c’est-à-dire la présentation de la théorie du Fermaton.La liste des questions mathématiques les plus importantes pour le siècle à venir, le No-18 sur la liste de Smale est; Quelles sont les limites de l’intelligence tant qu’humaine et artificielle


    Clovis Simard

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