Week 19: Learn some big and small numbers

Learn better math skills so that a few months from now you're not this mom. |  Wellcome Collection

Learn better math skills so that a few months from now you're not this mom. | Wellcome Collection

Part of being a better researcher is being a better reader. And better readers know that numbers tell stories just as often as words do. That’s why, for the next month and a half of this calendar, we’re going to math class.

Don’t click away! I have M&Ms!

Or organically sourced, naturally-colored ginger candies. Whatever.

During the next few weeks, we’ll dig into the major ways news reporting uses numbers to get your attention, and in the case of parenting, panics you into changing your behavior. Before we can dive into those topics, however, we all need to get a little more comfortable with numbers.

In Innumeracy, mathematician John Allen Paulos encourages readers to memorize a personalized set of numbers. For him, that’s the number of seats in the local stadium (1,000), the number of bricks on a wall in town (10,000), and the number of words in the average-length novel (100,000).

Memorizing numbers that mean something to you, Paulos argues, makes it easier for you to call upon those numbers when you see a scary-sounding statistic in the news. If Paulos reads a scary story about an illness affecting 1-in-1000 babies, he can visualize his local stadium and realize that scary statistic is much less scary than it sounds.

If you got a scary-sounding Down syndrome risk back in Week 13, you can use your personalized number set to make sense of it. If your risk was 1-in-32, that’s one out of a box of Thin Mints.* If your risk was 1-in-180, that’s just one cookie out of a case of Caramel DeLites.** If your risk was 1-in-15,499, that’s just one of the boxes sold by record-holding cookie seller Katie Francis in 2017.***

Another good way to compare numbers is to write them down. In Mathsemantics, Edward MacNeal relates his own childhood math lesson: his dad challenged him to start writing the numbers in order, and each time he reached a number starting with 1 and followed only by zeroes, he would get a dollar. The first dollar came at number 10, and was a breeze to earn. 100 wasn't too hard either. But MacNeal quickly learned how far away 1,000, 10,000, and 100,000 are. For MacNeal, this “vivid existential lesson” has stuck, helping him make sense of big numbers. If you’re dealing with insomnia, counting numbers can help get you back to sleep while teaching you an important math lesson.

*If you were ever a Girl Scout or bought cookies from one before 2009, you will note this is a cruel reduction in cookies from the original 40.

**Okay, technically also Samoas, but everyone knows that those Keebler-made cookies are just expensive Coconut Dreams. Takeaway: If you’re considering buying a house in a new town, check to make sure the local Girl Scout Council works with ABC Bakers.

***If you’re pregnant in a month when Girl Scout cookies aren’t sold, I’m sorry for bringing them up. But you can buy them on Amazon. Let these be a reminder to you that it’s worth your time to read footnotes.