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Verbal v. Mathematical
mandelbrot
rho
Disclaimer: Not aimed at any one person. Something that's been on my mind a while. Blah blah. You know the drill.

I've been thinking about the relative levels of prestige associated with verbal/written skills as opposed to mathematical skills, in the areas of the internet where I tend to hang out. I get the impression that it's the former that tend to be valued much more highly. I will say, though, before I go on that it's quite possible that this is only my perception because I'm primarily a mathematical person and am only seeing the bias in one direction, and that I'm actually quite wrong here.

The first thing that I notice is that the people who are given plaudits and marked as "really smart" tend to be those who write well; those who have large vocabularies and strong spelling and grammar, who can structure essays and make coherent and convincing arguments. In short, it's those who have strong verbal skills. Now, if we cast aside the question of whether or not smartness is something laudable, this is perfectly reasonable. We are, after all, communicating through a written medium, where our words are the main things that we see of each other. It's only natural that the most prominent form of intelligence should be the most recognised.

What's more concerning to me is the relative levels of stigma associated with poor skills in the two areas. People who can't spell can do all right for themselves on Usenet or LiveJournal or similar, where they can run everything through a spell checker (even though doing so is horribly tedious; I tend do so myself even though my spelling isn't too bad, partly because I consider it polite, and partly because I don't want the tedium of having my errors pointed out to me), but they tend to get hounded off the sort of IRC channel I tend to frequent. And God help the poor soul who has atrocious grammar.

In my experience, pointing out other people's spelling, grammatical and typographical errors is something which is considered to be "not cool" but it is recognised that a small amount of it is going to happen anyway. And of course, the more errors someone makes the more frequently they're likely to be corrected, and the more likely they are to get sick of it and up and leave.

Compare this with mathematical abilities. The ability to do basic mental arithmetic is not dissimilar to the ability to spell. Both are fairly simple. Both are learnable by most people, yet have some people with learning disabilities that makes it harder to do so. Both are first taught from a young age. Both get easier the more we practice them. And so on. In fact, the biggest difference that I can discern is that with spelling you just have to know, whereas with maths it's possible to work things out. If you don't know that "recommend" has one C and two Ms then you're stuck and the only way to spell it correctly is to look it up somewhere. If, on the other hand, you can't remember that 4*8=32 then you can add 8 to itself 4 times. And if you can't do that then you can start at 0, then count eight places, then another eight, then another eight, and then one final eight places, and you still end up at 32.

And yet there's no stigma attached to inability to do maths. On my current IRC channel of choice there is a bot who will do maths for you when you ask it. And people do ask it fairly frequently, in channel. Speaking to bots in channel when it's only of interest to yourself is another of those things which aren't cool but which get done anyway. And my sneaking suspicion is that it doesn't get frowned upon to a greater extent because "maths is hard" and it's only natural that people would need to get a computer to do it for them, even when it's very simple and basic.

This is completely the opposite of people's attitudes towards spelling. People "ought" to be able to spell, but it's natural and understandable that they can't do arithmetic? This makes no sense to me.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, or how I think things "ought" to be. I don't want to start stigmatising people who can't multiply 7 by 9, but equally I don't want to enter a world of txt spk with no attention to proper spelling at all. I guess just a bit more empathy and consideration all round might be a good thing.


(And for the record, I've just spell checked this, and had four spelling mistakes, one typo, and five instances which were marked as errors but were actually correct.)

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I use the bots for math because my mind isn't ready to do subtraction/multiplication/whatever at that point. (See my newest post on this topic. ;)

This may have something to do with the way 'our generation' were taught at school. I was certainly taught about grammar and spelling etc, but I escaped having to learn mental arthmatic by heart. Nowadays my mental maths ability isn't particularly bad, but 7 × 9 is one of those sums I have to think about (the process goes something like 7 × 7 = 49. All single figures multipled by 9 give an answer that adds up to 9 eg. 36, 45, 54, 63 and then I realise that 63 must be the right answer 'cos 49 + 14 = 63).

I'm not sure it's so much a difference in the way that the subjects are taught as it is in how much we practice them afterwards. I didn't learn the multiplication tables back when I was young. I knew bits of it, but beyond that I'd use similar sorts of methods to what you describe. It was probably around about my late teens or early twenties when it all finally started to sink in and become internalised, and at that point I would finally be able to tell you that 6 × 8 = 48 without having to think about it at all.

Likewise, back when I was first learning spelling, it was something that I had to think about to get right. Since then, I've written and read enough that most words I can now spell without having to think about it at all. I think that the vast majority of people read and write more than they do maths, so there's a lot more opportunity for spelling to be internalised.

And yet there's no stigma attached to inability to do maths.

Oh, certainly there is... when your mother is a calculus professor and refuses to believe that you really have dyscalculia, and therefore the eighth-grade algebra you are now attempting to pass is beyond what your brain can do, just as lifting a 747 with your mind would be. Not that this happened to anybody I know. Ahem.

Seriously, dyscalculia is full of examples of the stigma and other social consequences of being insanely bad at number-manipulation.

You're right. I mis-spoke, and I apologise. Of course, there is discrimination and there there is a stigma to it, and I shouldn't have suggested otherwise. What I meant to say was "amongst my peer groups, I observe a much greater stigma attached to poor verbal and written skills", which I think is true. Looking at it again now, I'd like to revise that further and add "while there are stigma attached to difficulties both with words and with numbers, these stigmas seem to manifest in very different ways, and many people have double standards, depending upon their own abilities." I'm rather hoping that I don't fall into that trap myself.

My case is weird. I was generally considered to have strong math and strong verbal skills. Illness affected both. The effects I find now that I have some issues with both is that well, actually, it sucks about equally, but I can pass off the lack of math ability a little bit more easily. Math comes up when I need to calculate a tip, or when the bill is passed around and we're each supposed to kick in our share. I don't want to put in too little as that would cause social problems. But I can get my lothario to do the math for me if he is there or I can ask someone else. When I mix up words, as I do now and then, people just get amused. If my words stumble and I have trouble communicating, people either get amused or confused. I can't get someone else to say the things I want to say for me.

I grew up in a very math/science-centric environment and I tend to be surrounded by people who consider basic math skills and less basic math understanding just part of what a standard person ought to have. But verbal skills are the ability to convince people about stuff, so you can compensate for a lot with good verbal skills - including explaining to people in a convincing manner why they shouldn't bug you over your poor math skills.

I'm a member of dyscalculia. I can never decide if it makes me feel better or worse.

Funnily, I can spew English out of my arse, yet I am in awe of all the maths people I know. I think they're far more intelligent than I am for being able to do all that stuff with numbers and, more to the point, understand what it is they're doing. Being able to use the written word efficiently just means that I'm able to communicate well (in theory), so it makes sense that people good at writing are considered clever, given that on the surface, the internet is all about written communication; that's how it works.

On the other hand, we mustn't forget one very important thing. The internet might be used by language geeks to its full advantage, but it was built by all those mathsy type people who grok coding. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be here pontificating about our arses on LiveJournal. We wouldn't be having flamewars on countless forums. We might all have homepages, but they wouldn't be pretty, they'd be eyesores built with angelfire.

In effect, the maths type geeks built the playground. They were nice enough to invite the language geeks, and the language geeks ought to remember that.

So far as real life goes, it's more socially acceptable to be utter shite at maths because it's not something everyone uses every day of their lives to communicate. If we communicated in numbers, it'd be a whole different story, but as it is, we use language, and if we can't use that, we're kind of buggered.

This said, maths should be better taught. I'm appalled at how little kids today seem to be able to do basic maths, because we do need it. There was that incident with the kid who couldn't subtract from 100 I LJed a couple of months back. At the age of 12, that should be simple. It's working in 10s, ffs! There's someone on kim's IRC channel who uses the bot calculator function all the time, to the point of absurdity. There's something wrong when you're using a calculator for sums that even I can do in my head.

My own fear of maths is related to discalculia. I just have problems with it. I'd love to be able to do maths, but I'm doomed unless I have an instruction sheet in front of me. Anyone who can do these complex equations in their head gets my complete respect.

Heh... I admit I do know who you were referring to, and I knew you would comment on that ;)

I agree with you totally - I could do all those sums myself, but when working through something, using the calculator a lot, I just dump the figures to the bot without thinking and actually grok the result. Sometimes a really easy calculation comes up (say 10 times 10) I just input the figures straight onto IRC without actually grokking the figures and when I press "enter" I realise I can actually do it myself and get really embarrassed and try and ignore the derision I deserve. Think of it as a direct link between my eyes and my fingers - the numbers goes along the link between the eyes and fingers without going into my brain at all. Of course I'm just making excuses, and I promise I am able to calculate most figures myself - I can do a test if you want - I am just being careless and lazy.

Changing the subject slightly - I used to really love maths - I lapped up GCSE maths (got a B, would have gotten an A* if I bothered to work) and was really looking forward to A-Levels maths, but for some reason I got totally disillusioned and did really poorly, and went on to do really rubbish at uni. Software engineering has a fair bit of maths in after all. But then again, you could say that I was (and still am) disillusioned in everything ;) Maths still excite me especially when I'm (well, I was) doing programming, trying to figure out a complex maths problem was muchos fun. Of course, I've not done programming for well over 3 years (no, HTML, shell scripting, or 2 introducer courses on C++ and J++ isn't programming as you know) and miss it in one way for the maths thing. Consequently, I've gone out of practice. No excuses for using a bot to work out multiplies of 10 though ;)

Also I've done a fair bit of spelling mistakes in this comment, probably a few grammatical ones, and I hope that doesn't mean I'm an imbecile in rho's eyes ;) Thank $DEITY for spelling checkers. But seriously, getting back to rho's intended point, I have to disagree with you (rho) here, but Red has already stated the main reason for my disagreement - you use English to interact with people daily, while maths is useful, you don't use it with people every day if you know what I mean. But Red has done a really good comment, so I'm not going to blather any more about this subject.

And yes, this comment is pretty useless, because it's just saying "Hey I can do maths! My excuse is $WEAK_EXCUSE" and "Me too!" ;)

Heh - yeah, you can do maths, and you're aware how dumb using a calculator for 10x10 is (and we actually find it amusing, really - not laughing AT you, but at the absurdity of the sums). Really, it's the fact that we KNOW you can do it that makes it bogglesome. I think my point is that it's kind of alarming how much we rely on calculators these days, to the point we automatically use them for the simple stuff we could do in our heads (probably faster, too - you get the answer to 10x10 in your head faster than you can type it).

One of the best things about degree level maths (not that I appreciated it at the time) was that they made us give up our calculators. Not that we actually did much with real numbers in those courses but it did break the habit. These days I do sums in my head if I can and on paper if I can't.

Computer programmers aren't maths people, I've witnessed just about every coder in my office use windows calculator to do ridiculously simple arithmatic (and so do I). My theory is that intelligent logically minded people who are crap at maths go into computing so they can write an algorithm to get the computer to do all the maths for them so they never have to think about it again, that's certainly what I did. The most complicated maths in computer science is counting :)

I actually had a long conversation on this topic a few nights ago with a friend who's studying math and another who's in the humanities. This came up because the mathematician is trying to decide between math and ethnomusicology for grad school, and he's leaning towards math because (among other reasons, of course) he thinks it's much more prestigious. I think the sciences and humanities are fundamentally different in that sciences get qualitatively different as you ascend the ranks; everyone hits the limits of their abilities at some point. In the humanities, you might specialize, but the exact same skills and tasks are required from kindergarten all the way up. Perhaps people are less tolerant of writing mistakes because of that.

For the past three years especially, I've had it beaten it into my head that linguistic ability is NOT the same as intelligence, but it's still really hard for me not to conflate the two.

You always write about such interesting things.

I think you're right that the stigma for people who can't spell is greater than the stigma for people who can't do math. But the upside is that people who are good at math tend to be seen as way smarter than people who are good at writing.

People used to ask me if I was good at maths or language stuff and I always wondered why they looked surprised when I said I was equally good at both. They both come naturally to me. I'm horribly out of practice with math and so I can really just follow things in theory now and no longer remember any of the rules of calculus and all that but when I'm panicking one of my first instincts is to sit myself down and write 992 = 9801. 982 = 9604. 972 = 9409 and go all the way down to 11 = 1.

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