Why Do People Hate Math?

How does this topic fit into a blog on security? Because crypto is an important part of security and math is an important part of crypto.

Many people say, "I'm no good at math." And then there is the subset of those who go a bit further than simply saying, "I'm no good at math." They say it with pride. I think they see math as not particularly human.To them, people who are good at math are more machine than person. Maybe they have heard that the left brain is logical and the right brain is creative, so those who are good at math are not creative and being creative is a mark of a superior human.

It is true, of course, that there are people who believe that those who are good at math are superior humans. For example, Robert Heinlein wrote, "Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house."

So I'm not going to say that those who think creative people are better humans (more evolved, on a higher plane than the rest of us plebians) are doing anything worse than what some in the numerate community do. But I still don't think it's a good idea: that it is better to be bad at math than to be good at it, that those who do well at math are really the lower form.

Some people who are bad at math blame the schools. "It's the way they teach math. It's too boring." Or "They make it too confusing." Or "Some people just can't explain math, and that's who I had in school."

That's possible, there are bad teachers in the world. But I also think too many people view learning as a passive activity. They sit back while the teacher does all the work. It's the teacher's job to pour knowledge and skill into the student's brain. Something I read once illustrates this. A college student had gotten a bad grade in a class and had written a letter to the dean arguing that it was undeserved. One of his arguments was that he had earned good grades in all his classes for over two years, so he was smart and teachable, meaning that a bad grade from this teacher was proof the teacher was at fault.

I think part of the problem people have with math is that it moves from memorization to thinking. When you first learn math you memorize most of it, from formulas to times tables to division rules. But later on, you are required to actually think. It starts with word problems then moves on to geometry proofs and then algebra and trigonmetry. Before, students just had to do pattern recognition: this pattern means to apply that formula. But pattern recognition does not work when the solution requires thinking. I once tutored a high school student in math. When I explained the difference between pattern recognition and thinking, she went from C's and D's to B's.

When people say, "I'm no good at math," here's what I think is happening. "I'm no good at math, it's not my fault, I was just born that way. That means I don't have to work hard. If I stress myself over this, I still won't understand it and I'll be stressed. If I just give up, I won't understand it but I won't be stressed. Either way I don't understand it, but in one scenario there's no stress."

And there you go. They don't have to try, they don't have to do any work. Life is so much easier if you never do anything difficult.

There have been times when I've tutored or helped people who claimed, "I'm no good at math." I thought I could be successful by teaching some very simple things so that they could build confidence, so that they would see that they indeed could do math. However, I quickly learned that these people refused to learn. They steadfastly and absolutely refused to understand even simple concepts. My theory was that they knew (maybe only subconsciously) that if they admitted they understood something about math, that if they allowed themselves to understand even simple math concepts, their argument "I'm no good at math," would go away and they would have to try. They would then have no excuse for failing and would then be forced to do a little hard work or else fail for no good reason. It's much easier to refuse to learn.

This is not to say that all people have natural math ability. I firmly believe that for some people, math is going to be much harder. There are indeed people whose brains are wired in a way that makes seeing math connections more difficult. It's not just math, some people have difficulty learning foreign languages, or music, or map reading, or computer programming. Or conversely, some people have brains that immediately come up with a witty remark in any situation, others will be able to know the best technique to sell a product to person A and that they'll need a different pitch to sell to person B. Some people have brains that understand math easily. Brains are wired differently.

But that's no excuse for not trying. That's no excuse for not working a little harder. And besides, I suspect that very few of the people who claim, "I'm no good at math," really have brains that just cannot make the connections to understand the basic and even intermediate elements of math. It's probably the case that many people who claim their brains are just not wired for math are either lazy or believe that non-math people are superior.

By the way, as I understand it, this attitude tends to appear mostly in the US. From what I've read, in other parts of the world, being good at math is neither a mark of superiority or inferiority. Maybe it's part of US culture that allows or even rewards people who say, "I hate math." Maybe in other cultures, children are expected to learn math just like they're expected to read. Maybe in other cultures children do not go to school with an existing fear of math.

  • E.

    thank you for this post Steve. I’m definitely very “mathematically challenged” and to be honest I don’t feel superior than those aren’t. In fact, I feel quite the opposite–in adequate to say it outright. Math and mathematical concepts have accomplished so much not just for Americans or Europeans, but for all man kind. My biggest wish has alwAys been my desire to be an astrophysicist, but my sorrowful grasp of math has never given me anythong hire than a C+. I’m actually studying to join the U. S. Navy, but my math skills even for their exam are woefully underwhelming and it’s heartbreaking actually. So, believe me when I say not only do I NOT feel superior I feel without knowing math I might as well not know anything at all.
    I’m honesrly not trying to harp on with a sob story just stating how I feel on the matter. Sorry for any typos I’m typing from a mobile device.

    Reply

  • anon260

    people usually hate the things that constantly beat them. They aren’t sadists who get hit and then ask ‘Thank you can I please have another?’

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  • math tutor

    I really hate math that’s why I used to have a math tutor. I don’t see the relevance of the math problems but my tutor helped me realize the importance of Math in life.

    Reply

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