The Nations Numeracy …

… a lament.
Estimate the answer

May half term. And its raining. But never mind, I’m sat enjoying a leisurely breakfast of toast & marmite, and listening to Radio 5 – Live, a simple pleasure, but one that I enjoy in my hols.

Today’s discussion and phone in is about smoking, and whether the cost of a packet of cigarettes should be raised to £20 to discourage the habit.

The presenter, Nicky Campbell, is leading a lively discussion with members of the public who have phoned in to express their opinions. He asks the question:

Tot up 20 quid a day, 365 days a year, how much is that?

I do a quick calculation in my head: “365 days a year, lets call that 350, so 350 times 20. To times by 20, double it (times by 2) and add a nought on the end – Seven thousand, 20 quid a day for a year is roughly £7,000.”

But that’s not what I hear over the airways:

I’m sure I’ve got a calculator on my phone here

says Nicky.  One of the guests got their excuses in early:

I’m mathematically dyslexic

and the discussion moves on.

Five minutes later, and a calculator has obviously been found and the answer handed to Nicky:

A quick calculation, it’s £7300, actually

said with real surprise in his voice, before adding:

We’re not mathematicians here, we’re journalists.

No one would be expected to do 365 x 20 in their heads, live on radio, but the ability to estimate an answer to such a question is not a difficult skill, but it is a hugely important skill and it saddens me that it seems so difficult and causes panic amongst so many.

The ability to estimate a ball-park answer to a simple sum is a skill that can be learnt and will be useful throughout life. A year or so ago, I created my Estimate the Answer game to help me help teach my classes how to round to a significant figure and come up with a reasonable estimated answer.  Perhaps it also ought to be required training for BBC radio presenters, too!

Nicky Campbell – I love your show, and hope you don’t mind my little whinge, but it’s a bug-bear of mine, the need to reach for a calculator as soon as any numbers are mentioned.

We’re not mathematicians here, we’re journalists.

They don’t have to be mutually exclusive you know.

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One Comment

  1. Matthew
    Posted 30/05/2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    A year at £20 a day?
    365 x 10 = 3650
    3650 x 2 = 7300

    Not Vegan* science is it?
    *Substitute ‘Rocket’ if need be.

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