How It Feels to be Mathematically Literate in a World of Overblown Fears

Readers, This blog, Math tfyzsdyafi
With Bad Drawings,
 says something I’m always trying to say — but adds bad drawings! Here are a few gems from the post, “Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World.”

Our World: One Dead in Shark Attack; See Tips for Shark Safety Inside
Mathematically Literate World: One Dead in Tragic, Highly Unlikely Event; See Tips for Something Useful Inside


Our World: Rates of Cancer Approach Historic High
Mathematically Literate World: Rates of Surviving Long Enough to Develop Cancer Approach Historic High

So when, for instance, you read this (real) headline, that ran in the New York Post a few months back:

Oasis of fear: Crime spiking in Central Park

And the story begins: 

Staying safe in this part of town is no walk in the park.

And goes on to say that:

Six rapes have been reported in the park so far this year. This time last year, that number was zero.

Burglaries also are up, with six this year versus one for the same period last year.

You can TRY to put that in perspective by doing the REAL math: Central Park gets 38,000,000 visitors/year. So one’s chances of being burglarized, for instance, appear to be 1 in 6,000,000+. Same with rape. So while this is truly awful for those involved, it is also — thank God — unbelievably rare. And yet, of course, the reporter quotes a woman saying:

“It is very concerning,” Cotto said.

Which it is. For anyone trying to stay sane in a mathematically illiterate, fear-drenched, headline-hollering world. – L.

Don't these poor people know they are DOOMED here in crime-escalating Central Park?

Don’t these poor people know they are DOOMED here in crime-escalating Central Park?


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20 Responses to How It Feels to be Mathematically Literate in a World of Overblown Fears

  1. QuicoT January 28, 2014 at 9:25 am #

    Very small(/big) numbers are hurd.

  2. Bert January 28, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    Excellent point! The same goes for gun control. Your chances of experiencing a mass shooting is astronomically low. If we were truly interested in saving lives we’d outlaw cars, not guns.

  3. Craig January 28, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Well, while we are being mathmatically literate, the 1 in 6,000,000+ odds aren’t correct, because the 38,000,000 million visitors are for a whole year, not the first three weeks of january (assuming the article is recent).

    So while the point is still legit for sure, if we are being statistically literate, lets also be accurate.

  4. Martin January 28, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    In response to Bert’s comment, while your chances of being involved in a mass shooting are indeed very low, having a firearm in your home drastically increases the chances that a family member will be victim of an accidental shooting, domestic violence or suicide.

  5. Warren January 28, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    To be competely accurate, Lenore stated above that this article was from a few months back, and provided the link. With the link you will see the date of the article to be Sept.

  6. Donna January 28, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    Craig – If we are being statistically accurate, the article Lenore is referencing was written in September of last year, so while it doesn’t quite cover the whole year, it covers a helluva lot more than just 3 weeks.

  7. Mark Roulo January 28, 2014 at 10:45 am #

    There can be more than just mathematical literacy. Sometimes there is “establishing a baseline”. In this case, maybe the number the year before was unusually low? We can’t tell from the data presented in the article.

    Then there is also “digging for more details.” Like this:

    “In the case of this year’s sexual assaults, Inspector Corey said, the biggest difference is that four of the six crimes occurred after the park closed at 1 a.m., and in all four cases, the victim had entered the park with the perpetrator.”

    Which suggests that folks who are in the park during “normal” hours haven’t seen much of an increase (1 -> 2).

    Time to panic!

  8. Ann in L.A. January 28, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    I work in the medical marketing field, and my boss is always looking for a hook to write about. We’ll find some article saying more people are dying from XYZ than ever before! I just roll my eyes and point out that it’s because fewer people are dying from ABC, and you have to die of something!

  9. anonymous this time January 28, 2014 at 11:45 am #

    I was raised by mathematically literate parents. My dad was a statistics professor, among other things.

    Thanks, Mom and Dad, for inoculating me against the madness-inducing 21st Century North American media.

  10. anonymous this time January 28, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    Oh, and it looks like that article confirms the fact about most crime: the victim and the perp knew each other beforehand.

    So much for strangers jumping out of the bushes to rape women at the park.

  11. BL January 28, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    I wonder how many people who think a walk in the park is terrible dangerous think that buying a lottery ticket is a great way to get rich.

    Hey. It could happen.

  12. Christine Hancock January 28, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    I hate sitting in a pediatrician’s waiting room. The walls are frequently lined with posters that advertise the latest vaccines. Whoever writes those is an emotionally manipulative fear mongerer. I am not anti-vaccine by any means, but I like facts. Risk/benefit ratio, please. Thankyou doctor.

    When I read the latest admonishment against children and “unsafe” normal childhood activities, I always wonder. What’s more dangerous? Riding bicycles to and from school, playing outside with minimal supervision, and building forts from scrap; or obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes?

  13. lollipoplover January 28, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    @anonymous this time-
    I remember the lecture we received about college campus safety in the 80’s. Women were told to call the escort service and not to walk alone at night to stay safe…even though most of the rapes reported were date rapes at frats and private residences/dorms.
    Common sense would be to avoid frat parties and going home with people you don’t trust.

  14. anonymous this time January 28, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    lollipoplover: I remember those escort services in college in the 80s, and the whole “take back the night” movement, to empower women to go about freely, even in the dark, alone.

    It was this memory that had me, six years ago, wanting to start a movement to emancipate fear-oppressed kids (parents), a sort of “Take Back the Day” thing, empowering kids to go places on their own and play outside unsupervised.

    Thank God, Lenore did it for me.

  15. W January 28, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    Assume half of the visitors are kids and that doubles your odds. Another roughly half are men so that doubles your odds again. Take into account that locals probably visit a lot more often than once a year… Then as one of the comments above points out most of them were after hours, so that changes your odds again. And 4 of the 6 were raped by people that came with them…

    So hopefully you can see that the math is a little more complex than you’re making it out.

  16. Papilio January 28, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    @Martin: YES! Thank you.

    @lollipoplover: “Women were told to call the escort service”
    …!!! With nice, handsome young men, for a boyfriend experience? 😛

  17. Reziac January 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    Want to play with some crime stats? Here’s a cities comparison tool that spits up real numbers:

    One that was particularly fun … two otherwise-similar small cities (both about 75,000 pop. in their metro area), but one had something like *gasp* six times the risk of CrimeX (I’ve forgotten which, but some sort of major theft).

    Well… the truth was, one city had ONE CrimeX incident, and the other had SIX. Which at that level is just statistical noise. Even so, one is 600% more risky, just ask the stats!!

  18. V January 28, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    I live in Chicago and yesterday a headlining story on the news was about a plane that had to be evacuated via chutes after landing. Nobody was hurt. The plane was fine (evacuation was due to a faulty warning light that came on.) the people had to evacuate IN THE COLD! Gasp! It was on every network. How is that newsworthy?!?!? The media just grabs anything to sensationalize and nobody thinks to put it in perspective before just believing it and becoming more fearful. Luckily I have a math background too (and common sense) and just don’t buy into it.

  19. delurking January 29, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Pot, Kettle, Black.

  20. Dave January 29, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    Brilliant post. Thanks Lenore. I have this conversation often. What is really going on? What are the percentages related to what you are telling me not just raw numbers. If only people could understand this there would be less anxiety in the world.