Book of the Month :: Why Numbers are Scary, and Other Stories.

Freakonomics is, undoubtedly, a brilliant book of essays which almost effortlessly uses causality to knit together seemingly disparate truths. However, for me at times it was a hard set of scenarios to grasp. The problem is not the details, but numbers. Economics, as is the case with so many branches of the sciences, relies on a strong mathematical base: understanding how figures interact and create the foundations of this and other scientific disciplines is pretty much essential. I have always struggled with maths, for as long as memory exists: words are natural, almost fluid but the same has never been true with calculations or equations.

In fact, I have nightmares sometimes over the basic inability to cope with mental arithmetic. If there is homework that involves the discipline, I’ll politely remind either son or daughter that dad’s the better person to ask. ‘In mathematics, something must be invested before anything is gained,’ writes David Berlinski in his book ‘One, Two Three’, a study of the basics of mathematical principle: ‘what is gained is never quite so palpable as what has been invested.’ Once I realised that my mind was the problem and not complexity of equations, it began a train of thought that seemed worth sharing.

When asking the question ‘Why am I terrible at maths?’ there were a lot of possible solutions, including the possibility that I might suffer from dyscalculia, which is a form of dyslexia. It is considered a specific developmental disorder, with an estimate that up to 6% of the population could suffer from some form of number ‘blindness.’ This ties in with the inability to read musical notation (despite having been taught to) and my total inability to remember people’s names, which has caused me issues for decades.

However, over time, and with practice, mathematical competence has improved. What normally tends to happen, and this was most definitely the case whenever Levitt and Dubner used numbers to make a point, I’d simply switch off and skip the sections which asked for specific concentration. This had become the way I dealt with other issues too, even when sitting and listening to mathematical discussions. Was it really my brain at fault? In the spirit of using causality to look beyond the obvious, I sought answers from my past. When did the issues with maths truly begin, and could a mental disorder be the cause?

1091849

In the early 1960’s Sir James Pitman (grandson of Sir Isaac Pitman, inventor of a shorthand system) created the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or ITA for short) which was meant to help children learn to read. It meant that, as a child, I was taught two alphabets for basic comprehension and not one: for instance, I will when tired still spell like as liek (with that middle vowel sound part of the ITA ‘phonics’ system, as you can see on the end of the third line of the picture above.) This same confusion remains after decades: I’d not linked this with possible mathematical shortcomings until very recently.

Enter RadioLab, ‘where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.’ This WNYC podcast is much beloved by my husband, and I’ve begun to become a fan myself over time. In this case, Season 6 Episode 5 [Numbers] was the causal link required to jump from one point in a personal chronology to another. In the segment ‘Innate Numbers’ comes explanation and understanding that, as children, we have no concept of numbers whatsoever, and the strict linear progression from 1-10 has to be quite vigorously reinforced before cognition occurs.

radiolab

Suddenly, I appear to have discovered a causal connection that not only makes sense, but that feels innately correct. However, thoughts are not facts, and if I want to know the real truth over whether my struggles with ITA as a child really have contributed to a disconnect with maths in subsequent decades, there are other possibilities to consider. I won’t win prizes for mental arithmetic speed any time soon: however from these initial issues, a fear and general lack of interest in mathematics no longer exists.

As I push myself into learning more about my own body, challenging how problems are dealt with, comes a deeper awareness of how reaction to stimulus occurs, using the mental tools I wield with most comfort. It is why, I suspect, poetry rhyming feels far more comfortable than the dissonance of imagery and metaphor: those things work better as prose, and poems are more fluid and natural when flowing almost as music. Then, looking at how my mind now reacts to music, there is no longer simply the enjoyment of lyrics or melody, but a rediscovery of how numbers dictate rhythm.

In this regard, mathematics is the most natural thing in the world: chord progressions and key changes are inherently built into my make-up: at 10 I was a fairly prodigious recorder player, and it was suggested I might take up the clarinet or oboe as a way not only to help with asthma, but to develop the ability… yet issues reading music effectively scuppered the dream. The bigger problem however wasn’t a technical glitch in processes, but a deeper set issue, which only now is being actively addressed.

My biggest single issue with an inability to grasp mathematics is fear.

For a very long time, exercise was the same. Intimidated by others, there was no desire to make an effort, coupled with the belief I simply wasn’t good enough. That changed when knees began to hurt not because of exertion, but simply lack of use. An exercise regime then began with thirty minutes of walking a day, and would extend after taking daughter to school, just around the corner. As the walks got longer I used maths to measure progress, thanks to the Fitbit tracker on my wrist.

That journey now means my own body weight can be lifted, that stamina and strength have been built where none existed before. I’ve lost six inches around my waist, yet weight has remained pretty much static in the last ten months. Here’s another mathematical conundrum: counting calories since the start of the year, I am undoubtedly fitter and slimmer than was the case when this began, yet the numbers say I should be thinner. If I’m being accurate with the reporting of calorie intake, who is to blame?

Well, that’s simple. All those cups of tea have a calorific content. Each snack that wasn’t recorded eventually adds up. Food dropped on the floor and then eaten does not have no calorific value, despite what your brain might try and argue as otherwise. I might be able to fool myself, but the truth remains constant and intractable. Mathematics relies on everybody playing by a very specific set of unmalleable rules. You cannot be creative and hope nobody notices. Even high profile politicians can’t do that and expect to escape scot free.

b9744851ac1465260ed23f49a6b9c445254ecbb55db601ff8ff7a9371b059c39_4101909.jpg

Understanding yourself is an exercise in causality. What Freakonomics has done for me is open the door into a world I knew existed, but was too afraid to explore in detail. The final piece in that puzzle has been a course in Mindfulness that was begun (and abandoned) earlier in the year, but restarted a few weeks ago. Thanks to meditation there is now an ability to quieten my mind sufficiently to eliminate everything except coping with the moment. This has busted that door to my mind off its hinges, forcing the reassessment of a ton of stuff that has tumbled out.

Only by putting all the pieces of a puzzle together will one be able to understand the picture presented. For me, mathematics was always boring, pointless and ultimately something little cared for. After reading Freakonomics, there’s no instant desire to go solve complex equations, but I did make myself go back and read anything again I glossed over due to complexity. There’s now an enthusiasm to grasp the stuff that doesn’t make sense on the first read, rather than walking away and this is most definitely a step in the right direction.

When I began the Internet of Words project, this was one of the overriding objectives: make people think. What is now apparent is that it wasn’t just a desire that could benefit other people: this is becoming a deeply personal journey into past, present and future. By challenging our shortcomings, there can often come revelations about the reasons why individuals think and act as they do. It is often the most difficult task to do so, because of the fear of so many things: rejection, disappointment and unhappiness. Except, sometimes by embracing these feelings, comes a deeper understanding of what matters most.

Mathematics no longer scares me, and its comprehension is a shortcoming I’ll work to improve upon. Like everything else, it forms a complex and unique part of what is my whole. Understanding that is never likely to happen overnight, and becomes as much a part of life as clothing choices and dinner contents. However, if there’s never the desire to think past the basic life decisions made, true development as a person is a long way off. In this regard I am more than grateful to Messrs Levitt and Dubner, for helping me take a step into a far more interesting and challenging Universe.

Book of the Month :: The Hidden Side of Everything

Book of the Month

It is a truly brave commentator who’d consider comparing the Ku Klux Klan with a bunch of Estate Agents, but that is exactly what Levitt and Dubner decide to do in Chapter 2 of Freakonomics. This section of the 2005 book is particularly apposite in light of current events, with the alt-right very much front and centre in public consciousness. To understand why this juxtaposition works as well as it does, one must grasp a number of underpinning principles, the most significant of which is causality. This is how selling houses can be connected to lynch mobs without breaking stride: more significantly understanding the principle breaks down a lot of the mystery around what truly goes on in our World.

All of us are familiar with the concept of ‘things happen for a reason’ but the practicalities often depend on how much we think about these things to begin with. It is a basic human reaction to consider what is presented at face value when thrown into unfamiliar situations: two cars hit each other on a busy street, and the relative physical positioning of one to the other will allow us to make certain assumptions over the circumstances by which the accident occurred. However, only by digging deeper does the true nature of these series of events become apparent: who is to blame is often far more difficult to discern than at first appears.

The key to causality is grasping that more than one event can be responsible for an action: a man arrives in A&E with chest pains after our accident in the previous paragraph, and the assumption might be that the impact and pressure of seatbelt across the chest has caused an issue with his heart. However, on discussion with the patient these issues began months ago, without real awareness of cause, and it is only the accident which has highlighted a true risk to his longterm health. Only by making an intuition leap based on the available hospital data does it become apparent that a moment in time has exposed a long term set of relationships between disparate factors.

Once one grasps the fundamentals of causality, it becomes apparent that information also matters a very great deal in our understanding of the World around us:

Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent – all depending on who wields it and how. Information is so powerful that the assumption of information, even if the information does not actually exist, can have a sobering effect.’

Freakonomics, Chapter 2 Page 63.

If all one does in life is assume that what one sees and hears is all there is, there’s a blinkering of so many potential possibilities as to beggar belief. However, on the flip side, one can then easily invent circumstances and possibilities that simply don’t exist, and that is where the science of economics (in Freakonomics’ case) becomes the vital anchor. It doesn’t have to be economics either: history, biology, sociology all have parts to play in illuminating events and connecting the disparate.

In the case of the Ku Klux Clan—it was making private information public knowledge after the Second World war, by giving (of all fictional people) Superman a new force of evil to confront, that helped to contribute to the destruction of the organisation’s mystique. Understanding the market forces estate agents work under and how they use language to create the illusion of a saleable property, by altering information to present a different version of reality… both groups understand the significance of what happens when someone else exposes their ‘theatre’ and shows the truth behind communications used to sell services, or recruit followers.

However, there’s a more potent thread winding these two units together, and that’s fear. Information can be used for many things, after all: if you smoke too much you’re at greater risk of cancer is undoubtedly rooted in scientific fact, but plenty of heavy smokers outlive peers and carry on puffing away to the end. Yes, being overweight may expose you to multiple health risks, but it does not preclude you from physical fitness, or the ability to do anything a ‘thin’ person is capable of. How you use the tools at your disposal (language, information, argument) to either calm or create tension is as significant as the action itself: this transforms the simplest of statements into either a potent threat, or a persuasive admission.

Creating fear to fuel personal belief is corrupting: your way of life is being compromised by immigrants; you should sell the house because tomorrow, that offer may not exist… both play on basic human instinct to create first conflict, and then offer an obvious and easily provided resolution. They might seem a world apart, but causality tells us how much a roof over our heads matters. We grasp why xenophobia is a potent weapon simply by looking at current world events, and why keeping home safe matters, not simply because if there’s a Hurricane tomorrow everything could be taken away regardless. Challenging individuals by threatening what they stand for and what has allowed them to be happy will result more often than not in a predictable reaction. People can become incredibly susceptible to suggestion, if a canny orator knows the buttons to press.

It is why charismatic individuals such as Donald Trump can become President of the United States: many of you will undoubtedly call issue with the use of ‘charismatic’ in that last sentence, but for others that is what they see. It is the veneer of successful business, of a man who is happy to sacrifice his own desires and ambition (with the exception of golf) to, as he reminds us almost daily, ‘Make America Great Again.’ This is no different to the estate agent’s well-worn sales patter, after all. Trump’s allure to the alt-right comes with more complex baggage however, but they know full well the benefit of snaring the support of disaffected or unhappy white men and women who are also registered voters. In that regard at least, everyone can see how causality allowed the events of the 2016 Election to play out, even if many still fail to grasp the result as valid.

The reason why I urge people to consider Freakonomics as an important part of their cognitive arsenal begins with the acknowledgement of causality’s importance. It can take many years to understand the complexities of modern life, and I doubt there’s anyone who’d view themselves an expert, but these philosophical concepts begin to allow the individual a measure of freedom and autonomy. We may all feel helpless and trapped, but individual acts of rebellion can and do add up over time. Causality matters far more than many people might realise.

It is not simply the understanding of interrelation that is important: ideas such as metaphysics (which examines the fundamental nature of reality) are going to become increasingly significant as science itself reveals more to the Universe than has currently been visible via the naked eye. We will consider the significance of mathematics in the modern world in next week’s essay but for now, Freakonomics asks a basic question of any reader: how much information are you prepared to accept as possible explanation?

With the prevalence of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ in current society, it is becoming increasingly apparent that individuals would often simply pretend something is right if it allows them a measure of emotional security, even if that is not the case. Watching compassion fatigue on social media after months of disparate economic, political and environmental disaster is a reminder that after a while, everybody just stops caring and gives up wanting change. However, if more of us were able to escape the oppressive gravity of information overload, see beyond what is presented to us at face value, many circumstances could and would affect real progress.

In the case of the increase of natural disasters that are inevitable as a consequence of global warming, proactive donations to charities and organisations ought to become de rigeur, not money after the fact. Increased production of pointless material goods should be tempered against the economic impact of their manufacture. Refusing to listen to contrary viewpoints, turning your social media into an echo chamber should be balanced against allowing companies more and more personal data so they can sell items to you that really aren’t necessary.

Picking and choosing what to listen to and believe matter, but so does ignoring bigger pictures for the sake of a quiet life. The next part of the century will put personal security and information freedom front and centre, and at the heart of it all will remain the individual. There has never been a better time to learn, and to educate yourself on how the World is never as black and white as it might appear. Correlation is not causality, however, and that may be the most important lesson to take from the entire Freakonomics concept.

The only true means by which one is able to understand complexities around us comes from embracing the facts: often it can take time and effort to find them, or uncover the real truths behind circumstance. A solid grounding in scientific principle (whether they be pure, applied or social) is the best foundation anyone will find to truly understand our planet and the people on it. Freakonomics simply takes the building blocks of an accepted world, pulls them apart, then rebuilds the structures in another way. It is a life skill we can all learn from, with considerable and positive consequences long term.

Book of the Month :: When Steven met Stephen…

It is the summer of 2003. Europe is sweltering under the worst heatwave for 500 years as Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland all vote to join the European Union. In the US, it is less than six months since US forces invaded Iraq and liberated Baghdad, as intellectual fights rage as to the validity of this action. In the midst of all this, writer and journalist Stephen J. Dubner is asked by the New York Times to go and interview a man who is causing quite a stir in the world of Economics. So, he goes to Chicago, and for the first time meets Steven D. Levitt.

These were the days when social media meant MySpace and Friendster plus very little else: Skype had only just launched and no-one had even heard of Twitter or Facebook. Podcasting only began in this year: if you had an original idea to expound, there was literally nowhere to go other than magazines or newspapers for any radical thinker to find an audience who might be interested. In the case of Levitt, he’d already made a name for himself proposing fairly unconventional theories in a very conventional discipline.

His latest work, ‘The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime’ had aroused interest after publication in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Levitt argued that a crime wave that had swept the US in the 1990’s had not been arrested by any of the means by which politicians, commentators or indeed sociologists had stated were responsible. In fact, the rapid drop in teenage perpetrators was a direct result of the landmark Roe v Wade legal case in 1971 which legalised abortion and effectively prevented a very specific demographic of potential criminals from ever existing.

This assertion was, understandably, met with a fair deal of academic scepticism (which continued for many years after publication) but Levitt’s work was based not only in fact, but considerable background research. Here was a man who looked at Economics not simply as a series of empirical concepts, but was acutely aware of the interconnectivity of other World events in relation to basic economic theory. Dubner, very much the epitome of the street-smart New Yorker, saw potential for the two of them, but it was his literary agent who can be credited with the inspired notion of getting the pair to write a book.

Freakonomics was published in 2005, the same year as a blog of the same name was launched. The latter tapped into an important, emerging means to capitalise on a new and previously unexplored group of critical thinkers riding a wave of Internet freedom. William Morrow and Company, who distributed the book in the US, sent 100 ‘preview’ copies to specialist bloggers in the hope they’d give favourable reviews. Many people subsequently credit the initial success of publication to the influence of the ‘blogosphere’: as of late 2009 (according to Wikipedia) the book had sold over 4 million copies worldwide. Then came a number of (probably inevitable) challenges to the original concepts covered in the book, a 2006 defamation case, which forced a revised version of the original manuscript to be published in the same year.

The success of the Freakonomics brand wasn’t just in the hands of independent internet writers or thanks to publicity over legal challenges: 2007 saw the blog become so popular it was absorbed by the New York Times, who continued to host it until 2011. By then there’d been a second book, documentary film made about the concept and the establishment of a podcast, Freakonomics Radio. However, more significant was the foundation in 2009 of the Freakonomics Consulting Group, soon changed to The Greater Good or TGG. With a number of Nobel laureates, this rapidly emerging commercial juggernaut attempting to maintain largely ethical status made perfect sense.

In a decade plus, Freakonomics has become big business, the epitome of Internet Brand Awareness. There’s now four books, a bi-weekly podcast and, if you have the cash, the original instigators of the lifestyle are available to come speak at your event. Their publicity blurb joyfully celebrates 600k followers on Twitter and a now fully independent blog that receives two million hits a month. This duo effecively and smartly rode the wave of emerging social networks and established the concept of out of the box thinking as a buzz-phrase for a generation.

However, there are critics, especially when it comes to their assessment of certain subjects (climate change most notably) combined with this peculiar deconstruction of what an American academic can do with enough disparate data to work from. Their joint success has generated the kind of grumpy annoyance that inevitable follows anyone who’s able to be hugely successful at the task in hand: there are imitators of Levitt and Dubner’s partnership all over the World, inevitably including those who resent not having had the ‘idea’ first.

However, this pair have effectively redefined an area of academia, giving the -onomics suffix an entirely new lease of life, and allowing people like me to believe that there is more to explaining why the World works as it does than simply spouting statistics and claiming academic superiority. In fact, I’d not be here today with a Patreon were it not for the belief that acceptable explanations do not simply have to involve one discipline’s set of particulars and no others. Allowing disciplines to overlap and merge, reading data from multiple (and often unexpected) sources means that literature has much to thank science for, history can look to economics to help explain actions… it may be considered by some as homogenisation, but it is a logical reaction to the means by which we now both absorb and react to the vast amount of (often contrary) stimuli available.

Looking for the unexpected answer to a question often allows us the ability to grasp the larger, more fundamental principles at play. In the introduction to Freakonomics, the perfect example of this is the US ‘real estate’ agent who you’d like to sell your house… but does she have your best interests at heart? Not according to the data, say Levitt and Dubner. If you look at the behaviour of Real Estate agents when selling their own houses, they’ll always try and angle for more money themselves, whilst looking for clients to take the first good deal that comes along.

What this pair are asking their readers to do is not necessarily agree with their principles, or indeed subscribe to this way of thinking. They are providing a valid alternative to what is presented as ‘conventional’ thinking. The definition of our individual truth, undoubtedly, is a complex combination of many factors. Sometimes, it is apparent that groups of people aren’t necessarily interested in the scientific facts presented. What they crave is their own, personal comfort away from actual reality.

If you want a perfect example of this in action, spend a moment reading around the subject of clean eating which has rapidly and significantly altered both what we consume and what is considered as healthy in the last decade. This movement owes more than a little to internet evangelicals: often women who have sought to transform themselves, creating a particular lifestyle of foods and detoxes before selling the concept to others via platforms such as Instagram. In many cases, conventional wisdom and scientific fact has been completely ignored in preference to ‘feeling good’ regardless of how this actually takes place.

However, in the last few years, academics and others have been at pains to debunk the transformative properties of certain foods, and that in many cases prolonged exposure can cause long term harm. Many cite this as yet another example of a ‘post truth’ environment many people now choose to inhabit. They would rather be wrong and happy than right and miserable. With the current state of world news right now, it really is not difficult to grasp the appeal.

The truth for most of us should be a combination of acquired knowledge, influence and personal consideration: looking outside what has been your accepted norm and thinking differently is never a bad thing. Challenging what is presented as fact is, after all, never a bad thing. What is increasingly apparent is that the real truth can not only be painful, but potentially damaging to people who refuse to accept that science and mathematics can only be ignored for so long.

Freakonomics challenges us to look at the World in a different way. It uses often disparate facts and examples to present a reality where everything truly is interconnected with everything else. Science’s constant reassessment of the Universe is now showing this to true on a molecular level, with rapid advances pointing the way towards a number of major re-examinations of matter, existence and even the history of mankind itself. As our very perception of reality is both reassessed and altered, it is time to look to the ordinary in order to find answers we can grasp on a personal level.

Now you appreciate the concept, it is time to examine evidence…

September’s Book of the Month

If you’re new here, please take a moment
to read our Mission Statement

This Month's Content

September’s featured text is ‘Freakonomics’ by
Steven D. Levitt and & Stephen J. Dubner

You can buy it here.

Each month, the Internet of Words presents a selection of content: fiction, essays, poetry and non-fiction, inspired and directly influenced by our Book of the Month.

To learn more about what you can expect, please read this.


Available This Month:

6th September

When Steven Met Stephen: One was a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, the other an award winning journalist and media personality. After the latter was asked to write a profile of the former in the summer of 2003, the phenomena of Freakonomics was born…

13th September

The Hidden side of Everything: You don’t need a degree to understand the interconnected nature of the Universe, but what is required is a means to unpick conventional thinking and grasp the bigger picture. Freakonomics demands its readers reconsider everything they know in order to redefine the World around them…

20th September

Why Numbers are Scary, and Other Stories: I’ve lived with an economist for thirty years and his understanding of the World has become a vital part of my life, even though I’m a self-confessed number hater. We grasp why maths does matter, and how we should all use it to better understand our existence….

27th September

Roll Six to Start: How much of gambling is luck, and how much luck can one man create when his entire existence is on the line?


Patreon Only Content

This month’s exclusive Patreon content will consist of four weekly acrostic poems plus at least one extra non-fiction essay. Please check the Patreon website (see below) for details.

Pledges for the site begin at only $2, which grants you full access to all exclusive material.

Click here to become a Patreon