Business

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

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Image Credit: Flickr user MattysFlicks

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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