Big Data and Maths Literacy

“I was lousy at maths at school”. This is a self-deprecating claim that is highly acceptable in polite company in the UK. It’s a claim close to being a badge of honour – worn with pride.

In one sense therefore, this morning’s story “Top maths pupils ‘fail to keep up with world’s best’ is no surprise. I’m not sure that the ease with which we own up to maths illiteracy was ever OK, but it’s particularly noteworthy as we join the ‘big data’ revolution.

Some will argue that Big Data is about giving us access to number intelligence without the need for ‘being good with maths’ and, of course, I accept that mathematics and statistics and data are different things.

But our culture exhibits a discomfort with numbers – and THAT’S a problem.

As a nation we have to believe, in our guts, as part of our inner core, that numbers have something to tell us; that decision making based on data is better.

Big Data will not help us – in fact it will exacerbate our problem. This is because the results of Big Data analysis are not transparent and it’s all too easy to plead disbelief with them.

It boils down to how we approach our results. Do we approach them from a reasonable scepticism based on a basic comfort with the notion that data delivers, or a nervousness with numbers grown and nurtured at school and made acceptable by a culture that says it’s OK to plead ignorance of all things mathematical.

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