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Junk Food Mathematics

December 11, 2007
Categorized as: Education, Mathematics

As an undergraduate one of the rites of passage for seniors was taking Bruce Johnston's Junk Food Theology course. The idea arose out of the observation that during the 20th century in America there was on one hand a decline in attendance at weekly religious services but on the other, an increase in those who believe in some version of God. How could such an event occur was the question raised by Prof. Johnston in the first class. His theory is that societies religious and spiritual needs are being met and supported by popular culture. More specifically, by movies. Seeing a movie such as Star Wars, and the subsequent near cult (or dare I say religious) following it's not hard to see the parallels to more traditional religious stories. If one were to accept this theoretical framework then it stands to reason that popular culture significantly influences individual beliefs, and core beliefs at that. In what other ways is popular culture influencing our beliefs? In a recent study I conducted regarding math anxiety, one of the results was that 66% of pre-service teachers identified as having math anxiety. Moreover, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 2003) the United States ranked 14th in mathematics ability in eight grade. I was also stuck by how readily participants admitted, and even bolstered, about their dislike and lack of ability in mathematics. It would appear that it is socially acceptable to be poor in mathematics. Now thinking about Johnston's course I began to wonder if perhaps popular culture is in some way supporting this culture of math ambiguity. True to Johnston's form, I began thinking about how mathematicians are portrayed in movies. Here are some recent movies containing a mathematician: The characteristic common to the mathematicians portrayed in each of this movies is that they are at minimum eccentric, or at worst crazy. We can't underestimate the influence popular culture has over one's beliefs. I'll admit, I find each of these movies very entertaining. But I also approach them from a very different point of view given my mathematics background. But for many this is probably their only exposure to mathematicians outside of their high school teachers. However, according to my results, 44% have already experienced at least one significant negative math experience before even entering high school. Research suggests that parents and teachers are a significant correlate to children who develop math anxiety (Norwood, 1994; Tobias, 1995; Williams, 1988; Greenwood, 1984; Handler, 1990). Clearly there is a chicken and egg problem, but at this juncture answering this question is academic. We must begin to attempt to counter the culture of math ambiguity. That is not to say this hasn't already begun. The CBS show Numb3rs is portraying mathematics in a much more positive light. One of the shows advisers and faculty member at Williams College, Edward Burger, has written an excellent book Chaos, Coincidences, and all that Math Jazz that attempts to present relatively complex mathematical concepts in a form that anyone can understand. John Allen Paulos with his books regarding innumeracy provide insight into the consequences of poor mathematical understanding. And if you fin yourself grappling with math anxiety, Sheila Tobias' book Overcoming Math Anxiety is a must read. With the continued technological advances and statistical studies (both political and otherwise) it is critical that everyone have some basic level of mathematical literacy. Though I wouldn't suggest that great storier as those in the movies mentioned above not be told, we need to get to a point where they have an unfortunate consequence of perpetuating a culture of math ambiguity, or what Paulos would call, innumeracy.
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