January 19, 2009

Mathematical Ignorance is Unacceptable.

Posted in Numbers and what they tell you at 3:59 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

So today I know should have been a day for volunteering and reflecting on our country’s promise, etc. But I volunteer all the freakin’ time at school, to the point where I’m up to my eyeballs in it, and I’ll plan to think lofty thoughts tomorrow.

What to do instead was easy. I was following links this morning, checking out new blogs, considering the wisdom of putting myself out there in the form of sprinkling comments across the blogosphere like so much fairy dust, when I came across another Mommyblog that looked promising. The post I clicked on was perfectly amusing and she seemed to be worth reading.

Because (as we have already established) I am one to throw myself into intensive investigations of every promising new internet-related distraction, I followed a link on her sidebar to one of her archived posts; this one was on the topic of raising a family economically, something I’m always curious to investigate. You see, the only kind of economizing I seem to be consistently successful at practicing is False Economizing, so I figure I should learn what I can whenever possible. A lady with a passel of kids must have valuable lessons to teach me.

Her post began by referencing this government analysis on the costs of raising a child to age 18. In this study, the government made estimates based on the expenses of children in age increments of three years (i.e., 0-2, 3-5, 6-8, etc.) for families in both dual-parent and single-parent households, as well as households broken down by income levels, so there are five different “lifetime totals” where a person could fit into the picture. Factors such as housing, transportation, food, etc. are included; one notable omission which could take the numbers higher, in all probability, is health insurance costs (I don’t know anyone who can insure a child on $500/year, so I’m assuming the health category is for doctor visits and such). Also, higher education doesn’t come into it because the cutoff is age 18. In any event, the key thing to note is that the totals given by the government are not annual numbers, they are totals over the life of the child from birth through the day they reach legal adulthood. For dual-parent households earning greater than $65K/year, that number is estimated at $250K. And it is, as with all other numbers in any study of this kind, an average, so for those of us spiking the totals by shelling out crazy amounts for private education, for example, there are others who are spending less overall, evening out the numbers.

The blogger very clearly states that she thinks the government is saying it costs a quarter million dollars per year to raise a child; her entire rant about the study is rooted in this belief. Of course, the idea of spending $250K in a single year to raise a single child is without question completely insane, unless one is the star of one of those shallow rich-bitch mother reality TV shows set in one of the Conspicuous Consumption capitals of the United States. The patent ridiculousness of the idea could have prompted the blogger to take another look at how she was reading the study, but instead she goes into a great deal of detail showing how her personal budget disproves the numbers (when, actually, the housing numbers she offers support the study completely), disparages the people who wrote the study, and then offers several cute-funny ways to save a couple of bucks with promises that tiny sacrifices such as these will not warp children for life.

Well, I certainly agree on the sacrifices not warping children part (although I personally couldn’t live with her suggestion to buy a cheeseburger & fries separate from a Happy Meal at McDonalds—I am willing to pay for a Happy Meal where we will literally throw away the hamburger just to get the stinking toy for Unfocused Junior, because all he will eat is french fries; let me tell you, the days when we go to McDonald’s are days when we really need those toys), and I get that there are a lot of children today who have more than they need, and that in some cases there are kids/young adults who are going to have some serious problems of not knowing how to cope with no in the age of economic apocolypse. Heck, the New York Times’ Sunday Styles section is staying in business by reporting on the dilemma of the aggravated and disenfranchised previously-entitled.

But, still, the problem is that she was just totally and completely wrong (and inconsistent) in how she interpreted that study. Now, I’m thinking, “Surely someone else will have noticed that she completely misunderstood these numbers. My comments drawing this to her attention will be completely unnecessary, so I’ll escape my dilemma.” And there were a whole lot of comments, almost 40 of them, so it seemed I would be off the hook. But I read through the comments with increasing disappointment; every single one was something on the order of, “You Go, Girl! Tell it to those dumb academics!” And I’m sitting here thinking, “But, wait…um, maybe you need to go have another look…” and realizing that anything I could possibly say would make me look like a total know-it-all jerk. So I’m going to leave it alone on her blog, because I know there is no way for me to draw attention to her error reasonably—particularly since I’ve never commented on her blog before and this does not seem the appropriate way to introduce myself—and reserve my comments for my corner of cyberspace. Because if I don’t say anything at all my head will clearly explode.

Now, really, I can accept the initial mistake. Not everyone gets numbers and tables, and it can be easy to misread something the first time you look at it—I’ve made mistakes reading numbers too. She’s clearly a personable lady with a lot of readers and a very grounded perspective, which I can appreciate. She’s an entertaining blogger, so I’m sure I’ll go back and visit her blog again (although I don’t expect I’ll be commenting until I have about a hundred posts under my belt and this one is so deep in my archives as to be unfindable).

What makes me insanely crazy, though, is the hordes of women who weighed in with approving comments after reviewing the post and (presumably) the numbers. Dammit, why the hell do all of these women think it’s OK to be so math-ignorant? Was it playing with the Teen Talk Barbie doll that would say, “Math is hard!” while she was dressed in the latest outfit for high-fashion hookers?

I don’t know. Maybe the thought of how much money we spend to raise our kids, even when we’re not the type to go around giving them their own Platinum American Express cards, is uncomfortable. Kids have such unfathomable value to us that any price tag for them is too low; at the same time, we’re all aware that retirement will come eventually, and thinking about anything so intangible costing $250K can make a person squeamish.

But, come on, no one is saying that’s an annual number. I realize we have a massive and painful credit addiction in this country, but would anyone in the government actually suggest that a couple earning $65,800 would spend four times their annual income each year to raise a single child? Our government’s not that stupid, and neither should we be. So, to the women who commented on this blogger’s post I say: Wake up, ladies! Almost 40 of you did not merely let this interpretation stand uncorrected, as I did; you enthusiastically high-fived it and allowed it to become further anecdotal evidence of how scientific analysis is never reputable. Don’t be willing participants in your own ignorance! Look critically at what numbers tell you, yes, absolutely, amen! but while you’re at it, make sure you look at the actual numbers!

Oh, dear. I’m trying so hard, but if “play nicely” is one of the rules of the cyberplayground, I am so totally not gonna make it out here.

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11 Comments »

  1. Florinda said,

    I’m really dying to know whose blog that post was on, but I’ll rein in my curiosity. But considering how little some people’s lifestyles and income seem to coincide these days, maybe it just never occurred to her or her readers that those numbers made no sense on an annual basis?

    I’m just playing devil’s advocate, since I actually agree with your viewpoint on this one. But then, I’m an accountant – it’s my job to make sense of numbers.

    I’m also commenting for the first time here, so – hello! I found your blog via your husband’s, and have already put you on my blogroll. Keep it up!

  2. harri3tspy said,

    I will admit that at times it feels like it costs a quarter of a million (or more) a year. I’m not sure I’d label the failure to notice the problem as a female problem. It seems to be a more pervasive lack of attentiveness to detail that thrives in the blogosphere, where opinion, especially ranty opinion, is a better read than fact and the numbers be damned. I just read a great post about this somewhere, but I’m damned if I can remember where. If I track it down, I’ll let you know.

  3. Well, I understand your concerns about me leaping to conclusions about women having math issues in particular, but in this case it was quite clearly an all-female population, and they’re the individuals I’m yelling at. And I think that women really need to be empowered on this issue, if only because this stereotype does exist. We should not be adding to the evidence here. Now more than ever we need to think critically and have a handle on what numbers mean.

    Mr. Unfocused spotted something relevant to the discussion, and I’m grateful to him for forwarding it to me; I’ll add it to the bottom of the post. It sums up the tendency to generalize the problem from individual to group nicely.

    And Florinda, thanks for the encouragement!

  4. harri3tspy said,

    I agree with the math thing in principle. I have written fairly recently (within the last couple of months or so) about my dismay about the way the 2nd grade girls and boys are already approaching math differently. When I tutor math at AJ’s school, the girls are no worse than the boys at it — if anything they’re a little better. But the boys charge in and do it (rightly or wrongly), while the girls sit down, hesitate and apologize saying, “I’m not very good at math.” This is a message they’re already getting from somewhere. Probably from their mothers. And maybe their teachers. Maybe TV, maybe their friends. At least the “I hate math” Barbie is off the market.

    But my point was that as you’ve described it, it sounds like a critical thinking problem, not a math problem to me. And I think that is a much more pervasive problem. In the 10+ years I’ve been teaching on and off at your alma mater and elsewhere, I’ve seen a marked deterioration in critical thinking (and the articulation of that thinking) in general, to the point that I now have to spend a significant amount of class time laying out the ground rules for determining whether a source is reliable or not. Most of them used to come in knowing that. Moreover, most students don’t seem to understand the importance or purpose of checking your sources anymore. They are perfectly happy to cite Wikipedia as a primary source in a scholarly paper, without any thought to how the information that appears on it got there or whether there is any indication that the person who wrote a given article knew what he or she was talking about. These lengthy comment exchanges that are more about building consensus are not about thought or critique, mathematical or otherwise. To me, that is the much greater problem. And yes, I do think it is possible that it is more of a problem for women on sites dealing with “women’s subjects,” whatever that means. But rather than being a problem of negative messages about math, I’m inclined to think that it has to do with the way women socialize differently from men. And I do think it is a problem for both genders. Of course, I could be full of crap. And I haven’t seen the website you were talking about, so my thoughts are based solely on your description of it. Perhaps there is something I am missing.

  5. harri3tspy said,

    Oh, and I loved the cartoon. I’m glad you added it! AJ, however, saw it up on the screen and thought it was from Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

  6. OK, Harriet, I’ll buy it. That Wikipedia-as-primary-source business is totally frightening. And the idea that you have to explain that even at my alma mater is incredible.

    I guess there are two issues here: one, can you read a chart with numbers on it, which is a math-based skill; and, two, can you stop and think about what you’ve taken in, giving your interpretation a “smell test,” which is critical thinking.

  7. Unfocused Me said,

    I’m going to jump in on the gender difference Harriet raised, because I do think there’s a relevant difference in communication styles (not in critical thinking faculties).

    When you’re just commenting to be supportive, your first instinct isn’t going to be to ask “what’s wrong with this picture,” even if something seems out of whack. A difference between men and women (speaking very generally) is that a guy reading the same blog post would read it, think “stupid government bureaucrats,” and move on without commenting, while the female readers are commenting without giving it any more thought than the males who didn’t.

    In other words, the issue isn’t that the women commenting didn’t think critically about what they read in the post. It’s that no one thought critically about it and said anything.

    Okay, now that I’ve written this, I’m pretty sure I’ve been offensive somewhere, so I’ll just stop here.

  8. Jeanne said,

    Even with first-year college students who are PAYING MONEY to be in my class, I find that using critical reading techniques to evaluate their informal writing is received as rude. And it’s certainly not just a female reaction.

    So, like you, I worry about playing nicely in the cyberplayground. I think most commenters on blogs are there because they want to build community, rather than analyze anything that is said. But I’d welcome more analytical comments. (I already have a gadfly who criticizes much of what I say and when I misspell a word.)

  9. freshhell said,

    Not sure I can add anything new to this discussion except to underscore what Jeanne added. There are smart people and less-smart people writing blogs and they bring with them all their blind spots and shortcomings to the party. I’ve stopped seeking out “mom” blogs because many of them are just “the great unwashed” and discuss things that….well, there was a reason I never joined a sorority in college. I just don’t fit the stereotypical girly mold.

    I think it may be that the blogger didn’t think carefully enough about that figure because if she had, she’d have realized her mistake. As a full-time working (outside the home) mom of two girls who went to daycare/preschool part- and full-time at various times in their youngest years, it costs a hell of a lot to raise children. But, we all have to live within our means and our morals. One thing that helps our bottom line is never eating out, always cooking meals at home. Being vegetarians, my children have never been inside a McDonalds except to use the bathroom on a road trip.

    Children are expensive but that cost shouldn’t frighten people away from having them. $250k over the course of 18 years? Maybe, but I tend to scoff at studies like this in general because they never take people like me into account.

    So, I guess the bottom line is: find your group of like-minded bloggers and ignore the rest.

  10. Pickle Horwitz said,

    Ahhh… the art of critical thinking. It’s a miraculous ability. I don’t know if there is any research on a genetic link to it. Certainly some people have an inherent knack for it. Hubby is one of them. I lean towards the more lazy and gullible tribe. As far as math and girls, I don’t buy any of it. I loved math up until the time I went to a math and science high school (I could have been a contender!!). I think it all depends on the teacher.

    Thankfully we as parents can supplement what is lacking on the school front. Why just today my 4 year old daughter asked how big the moon was in the morning sky. I told her it was just a sliver. She asked, “Is it a half of a half of a half?” And I said, “Yes, exactly.” *

    *Not entirely true. I went further and told her it was an 1/8th but then she started yelling at me. Another story for another time.

    Breathe, girlfriend. BTW, love the cartoon. Who was the illustrator?

  11. trish said,

    I’m actually kind of speechless. That someone would think the government says it takes $250k PER YEAR to raise a child…that someone would write a whole post ripping this theory apart and never once think, Hmm…something’s just doesn’t seem right here…that someone would have so many readers who don’t look at the chart to see what she’s talking about…all of this blows my mind.


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