Scitech | Canadians and numerical literacy

Is numerical illiteracy impeding the environmental movement in Canada?

Last month, media outlets including the CBC and Macleans were quick to report that Canadians aged 16 to 65 scored significantly below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average on a standardized numeracy test. The OECD’s measurement of academic performance around the world allows policymakers to assess current educational policies.

While most of the discussion has revolved around how Canada can compete economically in international markets with a population scoring below average in standardized numeracy tests, there is a much more pressing discussion to be had: what has happened to the intrinsic worth of having a mathematically literate population, particularly in the context of global climate change?

In “Why Do We Teach Mathematics,”an article from The Mathematic Teacher, the author Dean Hendrickson explained that one purpose of teaching mathematics is to help future citizens identify and solve problems. However, according to researchers Margaret E. Brooks and Shuang-Yueh Pui from Bowling Green State University in “Are Individual Differences in Numeracy Unique from General Mental Ability? A Closer Look at a Common Measure of Numeracy” published in Individual Differences Research, without numeracy – the ability to process and interpret information from physical, social, and cultural situations – Canadians are unable to fully understand problems, never mind solve them.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, arguably one of the most conservative scientific bodies with respect to climate change, there is a 95 per cent probability that global warming is the result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, a 2012 Insightrix survey shows that although 98 per cent of Canadians have identified global climate change as a problem, only 32 per cent of Canadians believe that climate change is due to human activity while 54 per cent  thought it was partially due to human activity.  One undeniable cause of this discrepancy in opinions is that the average Canadian is unable to make an informed decision based on the numerical information available. As a result, the average Canadian does not take concrete actions to reduce their ecological impact.

One could argue that it is naive to reduce something as complex as general inaction toward climate change to  numerical illiteracy alone. Admittedly, not all citizens are going to participate in environmental mitigation efforts the second they understand the numerical evidence supporting anthropocentric climate change. In making such an argument, one would be making the wrongful assumption that citizens are exposed to as many educational resources as popular media outlets, some of which are known to undermine the science of climate change and influence public perceptions to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, one has to consider that mathematical, media, information, and digital literacy are intrinsically tied together. As such, a mathematically literate citizen will know how to make better informed media choices and how to critically consume media. Ultimately, this exposure to alternate media, paired with a good understanding of numerical data, might encourage behavioural changes.

Famous Brazilian educator Paulo Freire devoted a large portion of his life to eradicate illiteracy in the adult farmer population so that the oppressed could, for the first time in their lives, participate in the democratic process. Likewise, we are living in a country where our ability to participate in a discussion about climate change is hampered by our numerical illiteracy, and we cannot allow ignorance to stand in the way of change.

This op-ed is by Sabrina Langelier, a U3 Secondary Science and Technology Education student.

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