The Math Myth
Bryan Caplan at the Library of Economics and Liberty, has an essay by math professor David Simon:
The math myth is the myth that the future of the American economy is dependent upon the masses having higher mathematics skills. This myth goes back to at least Sputnik, when the Russians were going to surpass us because they were better in math and science. It returned in the late 80’s when the Germans and Japanese were going to surpass us because they were better in math and science. It’s occurring again now because the Indians and Chinese are better than us in math and science.
I find it difficult to find anyone who uses more than Excel and eighth grade level mathematics (=arithmetic, and a little bit of algebra, statistics and programming). In the summer of 2007 I taught an advanced geometry course and had two students in the class who had been engineers and one who had been an actuary. They claimed never to have used anything beyond Excel and eighth grade level mathematics; never a trig function or even a log or exponential function! There is in fact a deskilling going on in our economy, where even the ability to make change is about to disappear as an important skill.
Vivek Wadhwa has described how there’s no shortage of scientists and engineers. I’ve been concerned with what skills those who are working as scientists and engineers actually use. I find that the vast majority of scientists, engineers and actuaries only use Excel and eighth grade level mathematics. This suggests that most jobs that currently require advanced technical degrees are using that requirement simply as a filter. In particular, I’m working on documenting the following:
Math Myth Conjecture: If one restricts one’s attention to the hardest cases, namely, graduates of top engineering schools such as MIT, RPI, Cal. Tech., Georgia Tech., etc., then the percent of such individuals holding engineering as opposed to management, financial or other positions, and using more than Excel and eighth grade level mathematics (arithmetic, a little bit of algebra, a little bit of statistics, and a little bit of programming) is less than 25% and possibly less than 10%.
This is a conjecture that desperately needs resolving with solid statistics and in-depth interviews.
Actually, I’m already totally convinced of the veracity of the conjecture. This conviction is based upon the numerous scientists, engineers, and professors of science, engineering and math education that I’ve communicated with. In particular, Prof. Warren Seering, an engineering professor at MIT, who does surveys of their graduates, agreed with the conjecture. As did Prof. Julie Gainsburg, an ethnographer of mathematics in the workplace, whose done on-site work with structural engineers.
The following story also confirms the conjecture. . .