Carl Wernicke: Are Numbers Confusing, Or What?

Jul 6, 2016

Credit IHMC

  Years ago I was at a snacks counter in a local mall to get some cashews. They were priced by the quarter pound, but I only wanted a taste. Seeing the electronic digital scale on the counter, I asked the clerk for a tenth of a pound.

The 20-something clerk looked blankly at me, then said, I don’t know what that is. Swallowing my shock, I pointed to the scale, said set it to point one, and enter the price per pound. She did, I got my nuts, and wandered off worrying about the fate of the Republic.

I’m starting to worry again.

Now, I’m a word person, and never was that good at math. But let’s set some definitions here. Most people define any curriculum involving numbers as math. Myself, I have always considered math to be the higher realms: geometry, algebra, calculus, etc. That is, higher math. Everything else is arithmetic. And I have always been a whiz at arithmetic. I can add, subtract, multiply and divide with the best.

I have always believed that developing good arithmetic skills is fundamental to a functioning society, applicable to a huge swath of everyday life. The inability to do simple computations creates all sorts of problems.

Higher math, meanwhile, is obviously important, and certainly students should be introduced to it. But I’m leaning toward those who argue, as noted recently in the New Yorker, that we’d be better off offering courses in arithmetic numeracy than pushing everyone through math courses they will never use.

That’s another debate. But we clearly need to do a better job teaching people how to do basic arithmetic.

Returning from a trip recently, I stopped in an upper-scale grocery store in Tallahassee. I asked the deli clerk for a third of pound of some lunchmeats, then wandered off to browse. Returning, I noticed a huge pile of sliced meats, with him still slicing. Excuse me, I said, I asked for a third of pound; How much are you giving me?

He said, "0.75."

I said that’s three-quarters of a pound; I asked for a third, .3. Turns out that in struggling to figure out my complex order, he had consulted with a colleague, and they agreed that .75 was one-third of a pound. So two college-age employees of a deli that sells products by weight brainstormed together to conclude that one-third equals .75.

My faith in the future of the Republic shaken, I hit the road for Pensacola.

A week later, I ordered a third of pound at a local grocery deli. As soon as I picked up the suspiciously fat-looking package, I knew civilization as we knew it was in trouble. The label said, .77.

Excuse me, I said. I asked for a third of a pound, and you have given me .77. Isn’t that it? He asked. No, I said, one-third is .3; you have given me three-fourths. Oh, he said, I must have figured it from the wrong end.

What really scares is that at this point I understood his logic.

I grabbed my package, staggered out of the store, and on my way home studiously avoided looking at any road sign with numbers on it. There’s no telling what people think they really mean.