Why is it OK to be ‘bad at math’? [video]

numbersWhy is it socially acceptable to avoid simple math? We were out for dinner and at the next table, we heard one man say, ‘just tell me what I owe because I can’t do math’. The 10 year old with me was horrified and blurted out, ‘he can’t even do simple calculations?!? How embarrassing for him.’ She was amazed that he admitted this freely and she thought this man wouldn’t proudly announce that he couldn’t read.

To highlight our experience, we took advantage of her older sister’s creative talents and made this stop motion video:

Please note: all the awesomeness is from the young girls and all the mistakes are mine!

So why do people admit that they have limited math skills but would hide limited literacy skills? We had a great discussion but I don’t think I had any good answers. Do you? By the way, this is the same girl who asked if conservation efforts stop evolution so she is looking for some real answers.

I shared the following XKCD comic with her to show her that her question isn’t new.


So, what do you think? Why is it acceptable to be ‘bad at math’?


  1. Path2Math says

    It is acceptable to be bad at math because mathematics is viewed as difficult. Many people struggle with math, so it is understandable for someone to be inept with such a “challenging” subject. The popular viewpoint may be that being mathematically challenged is acceptable, but in reality it is not acceptable at all. Math is an integral part of science and technology and therefore opens the doors to innovations. As the once popular show Numb3rs pointed out, Math is EVERYWHERE! In the real world, math affects people every single day. The people that claim “I’ll never use this” don’t realize the practical applications of mathematics and how it impacts their lives. The very economy is dependent on math, and influences the lives of every American citizens. Furthermore, everyday products such as bathroom cleansers, glass cleaners, detergents, etc. are subject to quality control, which uses statistics, in order to ensure the product meets specific requirements. People use household cleansers everyday and don’t realize that the efficiency and safety of the product is a direct result of math. People may think its ok to be poor in math but the incompetence actually does more harm than good.

    • genegeek says

      I agree! It seems that people think that they’ll never use what they learned in math classes – but as my friend was pointing out, it is even acceptable to say that you can’t do simple math.

  2. Dawn says

    You are driving down the highway and see sign that says “Low bridge 3.5 m”. You have 3 s to determine if your 10 ft trailer will fit.

    Someone not good at Math may just have to park and measure! Math is everywhere.

    Or, get an additional 30% off. Everything is already 70% off. Does that mean it is free? ;-) I love these kinds of problems that appear in real life. Also check out 101qs.com for other cool picture based math.

    • genegeek says

      One of my friends who says that she ‘doesn’t get math’ is the best at figuring out the cost of something – yet I can’t convince her that she knows math

  3. Sandy says

    Interestingly, it is also acceptable to say “I can’t draw”, I think being “good at math” (or having a talent for sketching) is seen as vaguely freakish, so the “I can’t…” is really “I’m normal.” I have studied math and theoretical physics at a graduate level, and I think I’m “good at math”. But I am not especially quick at mental arithmetic – it seems to require a different kind of thinking for me.

    • genegeek says

      That’s a great point. I will often say “I can’t draw”. I guess the young girl really is asking why is it ‘normal’ to not do math.
      A further discussion was talking about how advanced math is different than simple math (splitting a bill) just how analyzing poetry is different than reading instructions.

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