The New American Math is Dealing with Curves

The New Math is making people stupid.

A lot of us are still working from home or live with restrictions on movements, shopping, access to preferred pastimes, etc.

Have you seen some of the reporting and information provided to the public by new outlets, TV reports, and other online media?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the “word of the year 2020” will be “flattening the curve”.

The idea behind it in the case of the current crisis makes total sense. If we don’t do anything the pandemic will keep spreading to many many more people until it reaches an extreme peak and then starts falling. If we take measures like most of us have over the last few months, the number of cases will still increase, then plateau and ultimately begin to fall.

I like the analogy of the new tires some car manufacturers have come out with. When you had a flat tire in the past, the air would get out of the tire very quickly – you could call it “peak flatness” and you could no longer drive. If you don’t stop quickly, the flat tire literally rips apart and you are stuck by the side of the road, probably with a damaged rim. You need an ambulance – sorry, tow truck – to rescue you and get you to a dealership to replace the bad tire (and sometimes the rim

The new tires are built in such a way that the pressure still goes down, the tire is still broken, but it remains in shape and if you slow down it allows you to find a repair shop within the next 20-30 miles. Your rim will not get damaged and the tire doesn’t rip apart. No tow truck needed. Damage reduced, time lost probably much less. Limited stress – all much better.

What does that have to do with the new American math?

Maybe you have noticed in the past that a lot of people struggle with even the simplest math problems. I am no wizard by any means but 10% of $20 should not require digging out the calculator on your cell phone. Sadly, it appears to me that we not only jump to convenient solutions, so we don’t need to use our brains. We actually seem to have lost the ability to think in ways that are required when solving any math problem.

Here is the sequence that most math teachers prescribe (as I recall it):

  1. Identify what the issue is – i.e. death from a pandemic, the number of people unemployed, the number of tires destroyed when going flat.
  2. Review the information provided – i.e. what can I learn when I hear “flatten the term”.
  3. What does that information mean to me – how can I interpret the data and come to a result?

I totally understand that we are all looking for positive news. What we are being fed in the media lately is horrible. And most importantly the first step when looking at any math problem has been forgotten by most reporters of news about flattened curves and statistics in general.

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Just look at what is being discussed about investment markets. We have a horrible stock index number followed by a less horrible number, so we have positive news that triggers people to spend money on stocks.

Just look at the pandemic news. We have 2000 death per day last week followed by 1500 death per day next week, so the curve is flattened. That is great but the fact remains that 1500 people are dying. It’s not a statistic that we should see as good news or interpret as a reason to take off our masks and go to the beach.

We have 6 million newly unemployed two weeks ago and 3.1 million this week. Yes, that is a downward trend.

The problem is that we have lost the perspective of what is good and what is bad. A number is not good just because it is lower than the number we had a day or a week or a month before.

Reducing something that is bad by lowering the number is desirable. What I see and am really concerned about it the reaction the public has to the reports.

As soon as a number is reported to be lower than before, people take actions that are not good for them and they don’t even realize it.

A highly contagious virus does not disappear, especially without a vaccine or treatment, just because the number of newly infected people is reported lower than a week ago. It is still highly contagious.

When you have lost pressure in your tire and you keep driving as if nothing happened, ignoring that indicator on your dashboard, the tire will not heal itself. It will ultimately rip apart and you will be stranded – and probably have a more expensive repair that you needed to have

When the number of newly registered unemployed people is lower than the week before, all the people from the previous weeks are typically still unemployed and the economy is not in recovery. It is just getting worse at a slower rate.

Flattening the curve and reducing the cases in a trend is a good thing. I just wish that we stop coming up with a new form of American math where we tell ourselves that things are better now and we can do things we did before the problem started.

Let’s all do real math. Go through the three steps when you hear or read news and be clear and conscious about the actions that make sense for you. Don’t do stuff just because a talking head in the media makes things sound like “everything is so much better now – your worries can stop, and it is time to go back to normal”.

They are selling you a type of math that isn’t real and can harm you.

Be well and be safe

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