Voices: Be honest – are you afraid of the ‘M-word’?

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Maths should not be characterised by the drudgery associated with learning the times tables (Getty)
Maths should not be characterised by the drudgery associated with learning the times tables (Getty)

Last Wednesday, on National Numeracy Day, the former chief economist at the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, suggested that “the important thing about numeracy is not to call it mathematics” – to make it less “academic and scary”.

There’s a degree to which I agree with him. There’s no doubt that the word puts people off. In hindsight, I wish I had not put it in the title of my book The Maths of Life and Death. I’m sure just the appearance of the word was enough to put many people off even picking the book up.

I worked hard to make sure the content was as accessible as possible to non-mathematicians – ensuring, for example, that there were no equations from start to finish. But I think a lot of that good work was undone by the title. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.

The M-word has negative connotations for so many. People remember maths at school as being boring or hard. When people find out I’m a mathematician, they often feel the need to confide that they hated the subject at school. I like to think this is because they didn’t have the most inspiring teachers, not because our subject is innately unpleasant.

That said, there is evidence to suggest that being asked to solve a maths problem can induce apprehension, tension, discomfort or anxiety. In some extreme cases, it gives people cold sweats and makes them feel physically unwell. Maths anxiety is a real phenomenon.

However, although I sympathise with some of Haldane’s views, I disagree with others. In the same interview he claimed: “Numbers are important not because of Pythagoras’s theorem but because it’s important that we can live our lives in a financially sustainable way, making choices about money and savings, spending and pensions and jobs.”

For me, this is an extremely reductive view of mathematics. Numbers and maths more generally are about so much more than pensions and savings. In fact, I would argue that these are amongst the most boring applications of our subject.

If we really want to engage people, then we need to be talking about the exciting things maths can do – launching astronauts into space or searching for missing submarines, leading the fight against cancer, and suggesting strategies to tackle a pandemic. And it needs to start at the earliest stages. Kids in primary school need to be inspired by how much of our modern world revolves around maths.

I also disagree with the idea that maths is only important because of its practical applications. In pure maths, we pursue knowledge for knowledge’s own sake, without a view to its potential future uses. When a young man studying under the Greek mathematician Euclid asked: “What do I gain by learning Geometry?” Euclid told his servant to “give him threepence, since he must make a gain out of what he learns” and promptly kicked him out of his academy.

While I find this attitude extreme, not everything that is studied must be done so with the profit of application in mind.

If you would seek to do away with pure mathematics on the basis that it has no immediate application, then you might also find it hard to defend the continued funding of the arts, which seems an extremely retrogressive point of view. In fact, it is sometimes the case that even seemingly abstract pieces of pure mathematics eventually become extremely useful. Prime numbers, which were studied for years just to unpick their inherent mysteries, are at the heart of many cryptography algorithms which keep our data safe on the internet.

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But the question remains. Would renaming our subject make it more palatable? While I think a rebrand might temporarily alleviate some of the anxiety associated with the word, I suggest we would quickly learn to associate those same feelings with “numeracy” or “mathz” or “numberwang” or whatever moniker replaced it – the mathematical equivalent of Juliet’s refrain: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

It seems to me that there is no quick fix to changing attitudes towards our subject. Instead, what is required is a long slow campaign, which must be waged from our earliest days in school. We must convince children that our subject is diverse, interesting, important, and perhaps even – a word that I would argue is seldom linked with maths – fun.

Maths should not be characterised by the drudgery associated with learning the times tables, but instead viewed as the best hope we have of answering the most fundamental questions about the enigmas of the cosmos and the mysteries of our own species.

Kit Yates is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath

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