Numbers can daunt, numb and distract


Numbers, meaningless by themselves, can be endowed with meaning and the power to influence our emotions and our thinking. For example, 38-21 probably cast a gloomy pall over those disappointed at a season just short of perfection. While, 5, 16, 22, 23, 29 together with 6 provided a Michigan family great elation as the winners of half of a US$588 million ($713,467 million) jackpot.

But there's another slant to these numbers.

Just as the loss to England seeps in, we can be reminded that a 12 wins, one loss season is damn good after all.

The chance of winning that lottery was estimated at 175.2 million to one.

What you need to know in thinking about buying a ticket is simply this: The odds of winning are not improved by buying more tickets, because it's the same odds for each ticket.

Most of us are subject to a bit of innumeracy, a deficit of understanding of mathematical concepts and operations that leaves us vulnerable to our emotions at the presentation of numbers that give the appearance of certainty in the face of complexity.

In his 1988 book, Innumeracy the mathematician John Allen Paulos gave a wonderful example of the way in which correlation is easily confused with causation.

Spelling ability in children, he points out, is highly correlated with shoe size - bigger shoes, better spelling.

That's because as kids grow older they learn to spell better.

It's development in their brains, not their feet, that's responsible.

If you operate from the wrong assumptions it's easy to get lost in the wrong metrics.

In healthcare, once you operate from a strictly business perspective, then the important primary consideration is given to cost containment.

Our district health board (DHB) operates on that basis and proudly announced that it has met its financial targets.

Only afterwards does the DHB articulate its record on meeting numerical targets for health care.

We are told that the time spent in emergency services is being shortened.

That's good for the concept of moving patients along but tells nothing about the quality of care received.

The more telling statistics are the risk assessments for cardiovascular events and diabetes.

Nationally, about 52 per cent of eligible people are being assessed within five years. Locally, the rate is 59 per cent and 46 per cent in Palmerston North.

What those numbers tell us is that a lot of people out there (roughly 50 per cent of eligibles) are possibly at risk and going without assessment.

That's a recipe for future trouble and it reflects on quality of care in a more powerful way than any financial statistics.

Likewise the government's plans for education reform are heavily burdened with quantitative assumptions that have a questionable bearing on the quality of learning.

The notion that standardised tests in lower grades will reflect on teacher capability, along with movement toward privatisation through charter schools is freighted with a particular view as to the purpose of education.

It is that the purpose of educating children is ultimately employment as opposed, to say, education as an end in itself or to promote critical thinking and a more participant citizenry.

Even granting an employment purpose, the question still exists whether testing is a valid way of assuring such preparedness.

The US experience in the "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to The Top" programmes is a cautionary tale.

In many districts testing promoted teaching to the test, hollowing out curricula with respect to the untestable -music, art - yet failed to demonstrate convincing improvement even in test scores.

Charter schools, while dear to the hearts of those who distrust public education, have been a disappointment with only 17 per cent of them showing better results and 42 per cent worse results, despite advantages in funding and choice of students.

We should learn from others' mistakes, not repeat them.

What was that Einstein called it, about making the same mistake over and over expecting a better result? Oh, yes: Insanity.

What if it's someone else's mistake?

That's insanity by proxy.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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