Why Basic Math Skills Are More Important Than Most People Think

Eugene Adams


Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

In the 1980s, McDonald's Quarter Pounder was one of the most popular burgers in the country. A&W decided to make a burger to compete with the Quarter Pounder.

The burger A&W came up with was a third-pound burger. A&W’s burger was priced similarly to the Quarter Pounder and even performed better in blind taste tests.

Despite its advantages, A&W’s burger was a complete failure. People did not seem to have any interest in it. A&W decided to run a focus group to find out why people did not like the burger. The results were downright embarrassing.

It turns out that people thought that 1/4 of a pound was bigger than 1/3. They thought A&W was selling a smaller burger for the same price.

Have America’s Math Skills Improved?

America’s math skills have improved since the 1980s. The internet has undoubtedly helped. Information is much easier to find today than it was then. I am sure schools help also. Our education system is not perfect, but it does a decent job of teaching kids the basics.

Even though things are better, America still has a math education problem. A big part of it, in my opinion, is the ridiculous mindset that being math-illiterate is acceptable. When someone says that they are not “a math person,” we as a society accept it as normal. If someone casually bragged about not knowing how to read, society would have a much different reaction.

You don’t need to be a mathematician, but you should know the basics. It is no different than reading, you don’t have to be a prolific reader, but you should know how to read.

Vaccine Debate

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine exposed another unfortunate misunderstanding of basic math.

Here is each vaccine’s effectiveness against symptomatic infection in U.S. trials.

Johnson & Johnson: 72%

Moderna: 94%

Pfizer: 95%

These numbers led many people to think that the J&J vaccine was 23% less effective than the Pfizer vaccine. This confusion could be avoided with the following two fundamentals of math.

1. Make Sure You Understand The Problem

Take a look at the following four problems.

1) 5+5=?
2) 1+1=?
3) 2+3=?
4) 2–1=?

We all know the answers to each of the four problems. But what if you were solving them on autopilot and mistakenly added instead of subtracting on #4? This is a silly example, but solving the wrong problem is surprisingly common.

Comparing vaccines’ effectiveness against symptomatic Covid infections is solving the wrong problem.

Remember, we don’t shut the world down for the flu. The reason we don’t is that the death rate of the flu is low enough that we are willing to take the risk. The goal of vaccines is not to eliminate Covid. The goal is to lower the risk of death to an acceptable level.

So far, all three of the vaccines tested have been 100% effective against death due to Covid. The J&J vaccine is only “less effective” if you attempt to solve the wrong problem.

2. Make Sure You Aren’t Comparing Apples To Oranges

Another common problem is people comparing apples to oranges.

Here is a simplified explanation of how vaccine trials are done.

Step 1: Get a large group of people.

Step 2: Give one group the vaccine and the other group a placebo.

Step 3: Analyze the difference in the outcomes between the two groups.

Comparing the placebo’s effectiveness to the vaccine’s would be an “apples to apples” comparison. You are comparing two things under the same conditions.

Comparing two different vaccines from two different trials would be an “apples to oranges” comparison. Because the vaccines were tested on two separate groups, comparing them introduces bias.

Covid variants are the biggest bias introduced when you compare different vaccines. Moderna and Pfizer conducted their trials when there were far fewer variants present. The J&J vaccine trials were conducted at a time with far more variants present.

If you want to compare the J&J vaccine to the others, you need to do a trial on the same group of people that includes all the vaccines. That would be a waste of time because we already know all three vaccines achieve the goal of limiting death.

Final Thought

To be clear, I am not suggesting you take the J&J vaccine or any other vaccine. First of all, I am not in any way qualified to give medical advice. Secondly, you are an adult, and you can make those kinds of decisions for yourself.

I hope that whatever decision you make is based on sound logic, not a misunderstanding of basic math.

I also hope you see the importance of math education. We don’t blindly accept that some people lack the ability to read. We should treat the idea that some people can’t do basic math the same way.

Sometimes math-illiteracy ends with something harmless like you buying the wrong burger. But, it can also lead to misunderstandings about things more important than fast food.

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Certified Personal Trainer | Certified ESL Teacher |I mostly write about all things Southern California, but I also cover national topics.

Los Angeles, CA

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