“Do the Math”

Have you noticed that those most likely to use the expression “Do the math” are least likely to be mathematicians? And have you wondered why that is?

One answer is that, just as in high school, those who talk about it the most are doing it the least.

Another answer, of course, is to inflate the significance and loftiness of their own claims.

It’s a rhetorical strategy that relies as much on the ignorance as it does the reticence of others to challenge the assertion. (“Do you really mean math? And not arithmetic, right?”)

We don’t like challenges, as you know. Unless, that is, we can use them as a way to, again, inflate our own importance. Overcoming the “challenge” of shoelace tying, for instance, is plainly a medal-worthy activity: First you make the bunny ears, then . . . . Or at least a certificate. Issued by someone themselves certified in some mysterious way and thereby empowered to certify others.

A late-night TV ad for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation place offers an interesting example of arithmetic alchemy.

An incongruously pubescent-looking male decked out with a stethoscope casually draped around his neck and, even more oddly, a beard, claims that 13 people die from drugs or alcohol every hour.

Take off your socks and get ready for high-level work.

Thirteen people an hour times 24 hours a day is 312 dead people daily. To compute the annual number of deaths due to alcohol and drugs, multiply 312 dead people daily by 365 days a year. The multiplicative result is 113,880 dead people.

This is an example of the “startling statistic” technique often used in public speaking. One hundred fourteen thousand people gets your attention, doesn’t it? In fact, 13 deaths an hour is pretty startling.

In fact, the CDC reports 47,055 drug deaths in 2014, a number that includes legal and illegal drugs. Alcohol-induced deaths are 29,001.

Again, taking off your socks, add those two numbers. The sum is not insignificant – and it also is not 114,000. “Do the math.”

Now, who remembers the Abbott and Costello routine where Lou demonstrates and proves to Bud that 28 divided by 7 is 13? It’s very convincing and Lou runs the proof in three different ways: division, multiplication and addition.

Watch the video and you, too, can become a math whiz. Or at least arithmetic.

And now you’re also better positioned to appreciate the real (and really meaningful) math in Hidden Figures.

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