Business

Next time someone claims they’re ‘bad at math,’ show them this study

Our lackluster education system is to blame for an entire generation of talented Americans who think they suck at math. Now, a new study proves that people who are good at reading are also quite naturally talented at math.

Using a unique dataset comparing the learning prowess of identical and fraternal twins, a team of researchers discovered that young people tend to either be naturally gifted in both reading and math or neither.

Fraternal and identical twins provide scientists with a delightfully natural experimental condition. Fraternal twins are raised in the same environment but are genetically dissimilar to identical twins. If there’s a large unexplained difference between fraternal and identical twins’ cognitive abilities, it’s a strong clue that genetics alone is the key factor.

So, for those who think they’re good at social sciences and humanities but bad at math, “You might think you’re a little less good at math, but compared to everybody in the world, you’re pretty good at math,” explained Timothy Bates, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not part of the research team.

After looking at the correlation of math and reading abilities between both types of twins, the study found that 62 percent of the correlation were explained by genetic factors. The researchers surmise that there is some unknown general learning gene that makes someone good (or bad) at both subjects.

In truth, in the real world, the challenges of humanities and mathematics are not terribly different from one another. Both humanities and mathematics deal with problems that have a right and wrong answer, but can be solved in an infinite number of ways.

For instance, designing an charity Facebook page that gets more people to donate money has a right and a wrong answer: Either the beauty of the graphics will lead people to give more cash, or it won’t.

Indeed, It was Steve Jobs who probably gave the best explanation for why math and humanities need each other:

Thinking back on the calligraphy classes he audited in college, Jobs recalls that typography “was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

It’s imperative that our schools start combining both subjects to reflect a business world that increasingly demands math and social science skills. In my own field, the hot new trend in journalism combines statistics with narrative story telling (so-called “data-driven journalism”).

In Silicon Valley, designers are the hottest (and most difficult to find) job candidates. Tech companies need people that can write code for human usability.

The study, of course, will irk those who don’t believe that skills are genetically determined, but that’s an entirely different discussion. The findings are important regardless: people who are good at the humanities also have a natural gift for math — they just don’t know it.


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22 comments
Melanie Silver
Melanie Silver

I am bad at math. I found out as an adult I have a learning disability for math. I am getting a masters in communications design so I don't deal with it as much

Natasha Alicia Elliott
Natasha Alicia Elliott

Doesn't look at the variety of maths. I am terrible at all maths apart from statistics. I have lower than average reading and writing skills according to my DSA assessment. Turn out to be dyslexic. Yet achieve A grades in English a level, psychology and overall B in biology. Fuck the system.

Victor B. Xb
Victor B. Xb

Heidi Twee people who are good at the humanities also have a natural gift for math — they just don’t know it.

Nate Hermes
Nate Hermes

 I love this.  But one thing I think people need to stop focusing on is how different skill sets or educational backgrounds or experiences will help them be better or more productive or more visionary workers and start focusing on how different skill sets or educational backgrounds or experiences will enrich and expand the boundaries of their own lives as human beings.  Life is not just about thinking and doing, it's also equally or more about feeling and being.  We need to push the boundaries of our human existence, not just our existence as workers or achievers.  

Mike Morgan
Mike Morgan

Percentages have a high probability of being made up.

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher

I don't think everyone is bad at math I just think we hate it. I never hated math more than when I had to do it in college, but then again my college had the worst set up for basic math classes ever.

Jacob Hood
Jacob Hood

Its nice to know that the fact hat I suck at math is because my teacher cant teach the right way... but its sucks that im stuck sucking at math, even though I can read a 700 page novel in 2 days.

Will Smith
Will Smith

I'm good at math I just hate doing it lol.

Alan Peters
Alan Peters

Statistically speaking, 5 out of 4 people are bad at math.

Greg Collins
Greg Collins

I felt the same way and I love science, mechanics, electronics. I don't remember the score but I was in the 99.5 percentile in science and 75 for math yet science is based on mathematics. You made me chuckle a bit but 30 years ago struggling in college algebra with a horrible teacher and yet able to get 100% on any science, physics, electronics etc. test was extremely frustrating.


You would think teachers would come up with some system that gives students motivation to learn since the entire technological revolution and scientific revolution is based on math rather than tradition and trial and error so obviously there is a huge benefit.


30 years after college I regret not applying myself perhaps not harder as this can cause more frustration I certainly did know it was useful but to enjoy the challenge and benefit. I'm not your teacher, parent or boss so my motive is that you don't have the same regret and of course drag on your GPA. 

Perhaps think of something that you really want or need to do that uses math and then think of the most efficient and enjoyable way to accomplish it, just like getting a job done you can think about how much you hate it and all the things you could be doing instead of the monotony a task you don't want to do or just plain get as much enjoyment and experience out of it as possible look at it as an opportunity.