Why do I hate maths?

It's not *that* bad, Cambridge University's Bobby Seagull explained why.
27 March 2018





Why do I hate maths?


This question came in from one of our very own Naked Scientist, Katie. Chris Smith put this question to Mathematician Bobby Seagull, from Cambridge University. Turns out, Katie's not alone, as the rest of our panel showed: that's geneticist Giles Yeo, material scientist Rachel Oliver and insect expert, Chris Pull. 

Bobby - No. She’ll join armies of people, sadly. Actually, being a maths teacher and not an english teacher I consulted Wikipedia to see what “hate” means and let me read you definition of hate. “It’s deep and extreme dislike, especially in working feelings of anger or resentment.” So that’s a strong word. It’s not dislike or it makes me a little bit queasy, this is like an intense feeling.

Chris - But lots of people have had the “double maths” feeling. Who here had double maths at school? I bet you all had double maths and who really really looked forward to it?

Rachel - I liked it.

Chris - You’re a material scientist Rachel. Maths is at the heart of everything you did. Did you like maths Chris?

Chris P - No, I hated it.

Chris - Giles?

Giles - Awful at it.

Chris - There you go. All the bio people in here, the biologically focused people..

Giles - Fluffy science we called it.

Chris - Yeah, the fluffologists like me and Giles and Chris, we’re in Katie’s camp Bobby.

Bobby - Yeah. There are different types of mathematicians. I think everyone here is probably competent at maths, but I think there’s one startling fact. I work with a charity called National Numeracy and they said that 50% of working adults in the UK had the numeracy skills of an 11 year old. They asked them to work out a 10% increase in salary. With or without a calculator, half the working population can’t work do that so that’s a really daming statistic of  where maths is in this country.

Chris - So what are we going to do about it?

Bobby - I think partly it’s cultural, partly it’s reputational, so I think it’s easy to trash maths again. If you go with your friends to the pub and have a drink and you say that you do maths, everyone starts patting each other on the back saying I couldn’t do maths at school, I was terrible. But if you said you couldn’t read, people look at you like - “what, you’re a cultural philistine - you can’t read!”.

Chris - They say that about opera don’t they? I’ve noticed that if you admit to not liking art or sport or opera or something, people will look at you like you’re some kind of cultural pariah. But if you turn round and say, I don’t like science, then people do actually laugh. They say, oh well you know, it’s all a foreign language to me. It’s interesting how there is that distinction.

Bobby - Again, I do there are elements of cultural aspects to this. I’ve got cousins who are living and raised in India and I’m ethnically Indian. I compare my cousins attitudes in India to my cousins in the UK’s attitude to mathematics and in India. When people do well at maths they seem to say “oh, you’re doing well at maths because you're working hard”. Whereas in England, if kids do well they attribute it to talent and flair. And I think as a society, as soon as we attribute mathematical competence to flair, it’s easy for the rest of us to say “oh, I don’t have any flair so I can never be good at math”.

Chris - Do you think, to a certain extent though, it’s down to the teacher? Because someone like you who stands up in front of a class, does a rap, engages the class, gets their attention from the get go like you’ve got all of our attention in here. You may just laugh and then begin to think that’s the critical thing isn’t it, we need more good teachers?

Bobby - Yeah. I think teachers definitely play a role, but also parents play a role. Again, at parents evenings: every time a mum or a dad says to their child “don’t worry, you’re failing at maths - I failed too”. So, as a society we need to stop accepting that maths failure is a good thing. We need to start saying “well actually, it’s not a good thing; what can we do to turn it around?”

Chris - It’s like the social norm. It’s okay to be a little bit on the large size these days? Giles, you’re nodding. I’m not saying you’re a bit on the large side. You’re interested in people who gain a bit too much weight and people have shown that the social norm has crept up that it’s okay to not worry about your diet so much as perhaps we did historically, and it’s the same with this, isn’t it?

Giles - Yeah, I think so. It’s because it’s acceptable and I say it, I’m equally to blame to say I’m terrible at maths. I hated it at school. Now, am I terrible at maths? I hope not otherwise I wouldn’t be able to end up getting a PhD. But you’re absolutely right: just in what we said, we have immediately painted ourselves into a terrible at maths corner, even though I don’t think we’re going to be terrible at it.

Chris - It’s not just maths things people hate is it, Chris? Because insects have a bit of a bad wrap too don’t they?

Chris P - Yeah, definitely. This is also probably quite psychological; I know my sister was terrified of spiders and I think that comes from my mum being terrified of spiders. I think it is this inherited cultural phenomenon but, at the same time, I do think some spiders and other insects evolutionary might have posed a threat to us, and maybe there is…

Chris - Malaria: hundreds of millions of cases a year. Dengue: 50, 100 million cases a year of that. The mosquito spread diseases so I suppose we have a reason to hate these things?

Chris P - Yeah, definitely.

Giles - Plus they’re hairy and scary.


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