Everyone’s a number cruncher

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on why it ought to be a requirement for every person – and not just accountants – to be mathematically literate

True story. Some years ago, I bought HK$20 worth of bananas (ten at HK$2 each) at a fruit shop in Caine Road. The young saleswoman got out her calculator to work out what the total was. And got it wrong.

Since then, we have reached the present situation where pretty much everyone on earth thinks they are Euclid reincarnated – sifting through coronavirus statistics by themselves and gleefully sharing their findings to thousands on social media.

Accountants, business writers and other people who are actually numerate are, surely, watching with horror.

Example: One social media “friend” (who may actually be the banana shop girl) posted on her social media feed that 99.97 percent of people recover from COVID-19, so pretty much nobody dies. In fact, the case fatality rate in Hong Kong as of this month is 1.8 percent, and a quick bit of maths shows that if this city’s 7.55 million population get the disease, 135,900 people would die, which is not “nobody.”

Many people with poor mathematical thinking skills work for the media, so misconceptions multiply. The New York Times pushed a dramatic headline last year: “Total number of confirmed deaths in U.S. surpasses Italy.” But the United States has more than five times the population of Italy, so of course the number is higher. If it wasn’t, that would be news.

Journalists not only get numbers wrong, but foul up the facts. We also don’t understand people. In December 2020, the South China Morning Post reported that the government would not have to force people to take vaccines. “If the vaccines are good, people who long to travel and resume business will of course be happy to take them,” it wrote. Fast forward to the middle of this month, when only 23.5 percent of Hong Kong people have taken any vaccines, and the government has to find other ways to encourage more to follow suit, on top of the 300 taels of pure gold, diamond-studded Rolex, Tesla Model3 car, HK$10.8 million apartment and other cash incentives already offered by the private sector.

(Americans are boasting that 53 percent have taken the vaccine, forgetting that surveys last year indicated that 72 percent would take it.)

This may be an impractical idea, but I think a law should be passed stating that statistics about COVID-19 can only be distributed by careful, highly numerate people – like accountants, chief financial officers, maths teachers, and domestic helpers shopping on behalf of their employers. After all, if the Academy Awards have accountants from the Big Four in charge of the ballot counting process, surely a global pandemic deserves the same high standards of numeracy?

Although, life being as unpredictable as it is, one must admit that sometimes even the best number crunchers get it wrong. The legendary physicist Enrico Fermi once wrote a complex equation on the blackboard and stood in front of it to be photographed. The sum was wrong. But that was the picture that was turned into a postage stamp to celebrate his life, both in the U.S. and in Italy.

Still, taking mathematics seriously is particularly vital for a business hub like Hong Kong. Successful business ventures are largely maths plus psychology, after all. So, for example, no one would pay HK$600 for a jar of coffee powder. But put the coffee in a box of capsules and call it “Nespresso,” and your billion dollar profit awaits.

Yet, sad it is to admit this, numerate old fogies like the present writer are not in charge of the dominant media these days. Excitable younger folk are.

And the challenge will get harder. Education Week in the U.S. just published a report about falling math levels, headlined: “Kids are behind in maths because of COVID-19.

The banana girl problem could be just beginning. Panic now.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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