Is everyone scared of maths?

A few days ago I saw Complicite’s new production at the Barbican, A Disappearing Number. I knew nothing about it other than Chris’s comments. Until he mentioned maths it hadn’t occurred to me it might feature in the show, despite the title. But it does, a lot.

CompliciteI won’t recount the plot here — you should go see it — but, although I enjoyed it I did find myself getting annoyed a few times. Chris said, “why do they see ignorance of maths as as a funny thing,” and I think I know what he means. The play starts with a woman giving a mathematics lecture, writing equations on a whiteboard, with the audience as the students. It goes on for a while before a man comes on and pretty much apologises: “I bet you were worried the whole play would be like this.” Well, no, I wasn’t worried. I was enjoying it: the enthusiasm of the lecturer, her slight awkwardness, her fluency with scribbling down the — to me — impenetrable equations.

I was annoyed that Complicite felt the need to apologise for the maths. Thankfully much of the rest of the maths in the play isn’t apologised for and some of it is explained simply and unpatronisingly. But it’s frustrating that in plays, TV and films anything science-related is generally seen as, at best, a necessary evil.

A couple of nights ago I caught the end of Alan Titchmarsh’s new TV programme on gardening while he was talking about acid and alkaline soils. “The levels of acidity and alkalinity are measured using the pH index,” he said, before pausing dramatically. “Wait, don’t glaze over, stay with me on this, it’s important,” he said. What followed was a nice simple explanation of how to measure the pH level of soil using a little kit from a garden centre. Nothing complicated or scary about it, so why the need to apologise beforehand?

But, as I said, at least Complicite only seemed apologetic at one point, and the rest of the play they featured mathematics unashamedly. In a discussion afterwards the actors admitted to not knowing much about maths, but had become more interested during the ten week rehearsal process, during which mathematicians were on hand to explain things to the actors.

Hopefully, after the show, some of the audience would have felt similarly enthused. It’s not just the apologising about something being potentially “difficult” that annoys me; it’s how many people throw up their hands at the mere mention of anything scientific and proclaim their utter ignorance. From this post at The Stage it looks like several of the press’s theatre critics shared an “ooh, no, I can’t do maths, this sounds scary,” frame of mind.

Yes, it’s fair enough, if disappointing, that few people seem to have a decent grasp of maths. But what annoys me is how this “maths is scary” attitude suggests more than that. It suggests “not only can I not do maths, I don’t believe there’s any way I could ever understand any of it, and I have no intention of trying. Anything with maths in will be boring and only sad, geeky people could possibly enjoy it.” Why is this? Is maths education so appalling that most of the population have been scared off from doing anything other than basic adding and subtracting? I admit, I did ‘A’ Level maths, but there are plenty of subjects, scientific or otherwise, which I’ve never studied, or have an even more minimal understanding of, which I’d be happy to learn more about. Or, at least, see a play about without being worried over my lack of knowledge. Either I’ll learn something new or I won’t understand it — if the play’s any good my lack of understanding of scientific details won’t hinder my enjoyment of the story (as in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen).

Part of my reaction is possibly intellectual snobbery. Early on in A Disappearing Number an actor asks the audience to think of a number, double it, etc, before revealing that everyone in the audience is thinking of the number seven. I suppose that for many people this moment somehow brought the audience members closer together. But when the numerical revelation resulted in not only audible gasps from around the auditorium but a round of applause I felt completely aliented from everyone. I couldn’t believe it — I thought this was a hackneyed old party trick, a staple of fun trivia games to amuse children. I was annoyed that not only had so many people apparently never heard of such a feat, but that they could barely believe it possible without some kind of magic or telepathy. After the play some teenagers behind me spent as much time trying to agree how this feat was achieved as they did discussing the rest of the play.

Being stunned that the majority of the audience were amazed by something I’d known about for years could be snobbery. But I don’t think it’s snobbery to be disappointed at how unadventurous and incurious most people are. I imagine theatre-goers tend to be well educated, being mostly middle-class (at least at the Barbican) so there would probably be even more of an “I can’t do maths, so I won’t enjoy this play” attitude among a representative audience. Although I suppose it’s possible there’s some Two Cultures thing going on and the Barbican audience is even less scientifically-inclined than a randomly-selected audience would be. But that would be no less depressing.

The problem for a playwright or theatre company is to know how to cope with this. There’s a danger that they anticipate this knee-jerk audience reaction and water down the scientific content of a play in an effort not to scare people off in the first scene. A Disappearing Number did pretty well — it handled some complicated maths unashamedly, and going straight into a mathematics lecture shows a confidence that isn’t worried about scaring people off. Although this was deflated somewhat by the aforementioned “apology” which implied “Don’t worry, we’ll have some story about normal people soon.” But maybe there would have been even more maths in the story. Maybe Complicite held back on some of the maths for fear of alienating a nervous audience and that would be a shame. And it would be a shame if other productions hadn’t happened, or were watered down, for the same reason, because I’d like to see more, whether I understand the maths or not.

(For my more general, and shorter, review of the play, see the photo on Flickr.)


  • If I may dare make a huge generalization and say the difference between American and British cultures, is that while the Americans are afraid of ambiguity, the British are afraid of learning/education.

    Now, obviously that is not the case in real life, but as you observe, this is prevalent in the TV, film, and stage culture.

    Maybe I just haven't seen such an example here, but I can't imagine the acid and alkaline apology taking place on a gardening show in the States. We like our experts.

    On the other hand, the US media has a great fear of "intellectuals" as those are the ones who bring in ambiguity and question power. In Right Wing coded language, "intellectual" has the faint whiff of anti-Semitism too.

    The British fear of education is linked to its problems with class and the worry about getting above one's station. So apologies all round!

    As an American I should close with "That's my opinion, and I'm stickin' with it!" But really, I might be wrong.

  • To me, mathematics (beyond arithmetic) is a language I don't speak, with a grammar I don't understand. But even I know about that 'number 7' party trick; it's logic. So I don't think this situation so much illustrates intellectual snobbery on your part as it does the fact that ignorance is regarded as something of a virtue by the masses.

  • I think it's more reflective of the black-box society we now live in. Alarmingly few people have any idea how anything around them works, let alone see how maths plays a part in everything they touch.

    Everything is "indistinguishable from magic" these days, never mind the technology.

    My friends who stayed in academia to teach astrophysics recount many stories that the new 1st year students don't even know what a logarithm is, and end up spending the the year getting the maths up so they can start teaching the physics...

    You'd be amazed (and demoralised) by who I've had to teach binary to...

    Try this for a straw poll: "how does radio work" (never mind digital, just do "normal radio"). Make it easy for people to admit they don't know the difference between sound waves and e-m waves and you'll uncover a gold-mine.

  • A bit of a non-sequitur but another thing you may enjoy if you're looking for entertainment which unashamedly deals with maths as a basis (and has everything explained within - it won't leave you feeling scared of maths or geeky when you understand it) is the Darren Aronofsky film 'Pi'. I'd never realised the importance of Fibonacci numbers (admittedly taken to the nth degree in the film) beforehand or indeed known what one is. A fascinating movie.

  • I've been pondering one particular aspect of the Two Cultures thing you refer to : the clear separation between "mathematics" and "creativity".

    How many of the "creative" people in the audience know about the maths thaat underpins their own creative behaviour.

    I haven't got very far yet but I am trying to compile the material for a pamphlet (book?) provisionally entitle "The Mathematics of Creativity" in an attempt to get a bit of a dialogue going between the two cultures.

    There are a few example chapters dotted around my blog.

  • At some point the media decided that the public were afraid of maths and science. Titchmarsh's apology is nothing uncommon - I've often seem television presenters frantically preface anything remotely technical with similar desperate reassurements, as if they're convinced that at the drop of a number viewers will desert them in hordes.

    I think this change in attitude toward the viewers happened some time in the mid-1990s. It was some time around the point when shampoo adverts became so clichéd that they began to tell you "here comes the science bit", as if they expected us to tune out for the next few seconds - missing entirely the irony of warning us of the approach of something that wasn't even science in the first place.

    I'd like to believe that the change of attitude was spurred by a realisation that the public were becoming more and more stupid, but that isn't the case, because I don't believe they are. I see it as having come originally from a cynical, advertising revenue-motivated fear of the possibility of losing viewers at the appearance of material that forces them to think. The change began at the commercial networks, but spread outwards, even to the BBC. And the public has now been bombarded with "you are stupid" messages for long enough that they're beginning to believe it, and the presenters are genuinely having to warn them about the approach of technical material. The prophecy has fulfilled itself.

    There has definitely been a decline in the quality of programming in the last ten years. I don't think this is a case of "in my day..." earlier-generation thinking on my part; a few weeks ago I watched an episode of Panorama and was shocked at how dumbed-down it was. Of late, I've found a place on the Internet where I can obtain copies of documentaries and factual strand programmes broadcast over ten years ago (thanks to enterprising do-gooders resurrecting them from contemporary VHS recordings). The quality and broad scope of the programmes is really something to behold. What passes for documentary now is largely carnival side-shows and burlesque reenactment of tragic real-life events.

    The solution is for the media to start treating the public like adults again, but I'm not holding my breath.

  • Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Gavin: I don't think I had more the lightest of acquaintances with logarithms during O and A Level maths classes twenty years ago, so I'm surprised this is a new problem.

    I know what you mean about the "black box" society though -- I guess it goes along with the separation of supermarket food from its place of production, the inability to tinker with modern car engines, etc.

    I couldn't tell you how radio works, to my shame. There must be a good book or two that describe how lots of fundamental technologies work...?

    Kit: Yes, I like Pi a lot, but it's been a while since I watched, so I must do so again! It also brings to mind Primer which is a fantastic low budget, "realistic" time travel film -- it ended up so complicated that I couldn't fully understand what was happening when, but that didn't matter to me.

    Jon: You say "How many of the 'creative' people in the audience know about the maths thaat underpins their own creative behaviour." I'm not sure what kind of maths you mean... what kind of maths does underpin creative behaviour?

Commenting is disabled on posts once they’re 30 days old.

Sunday 23 September 2007, 5:23pm

< PreviousIn all of WritingNext >

23 Sep 2007 at Twitter

  • 11:00pm: A bit broken after 'Atonement'. Watching the South Bank Show on Joan Didion isn't cheering me up any.
  • 3:47pm: Before: cleaning old bike. Now: Pottering and eating cake. Later: 'Atonement' in Islington.

On this day I was reading