There have been many campaigns, over the years, to improve literacy in Australia (and in other developed nations, too). It is well known that even with universal, compulsory education, a percentage of young people finish their schooling and really struggle with reading and writing. Finding ways to address this is a common and worthy cause among teachers, librarians and academics.
I wonder, however, if something has been forgotten in the desire to improve literacy. That something being numeracy. I say this because otherwise educated people make the most egregious mathematical and statistical errors, errors that – if they involved words – would invite public shaming.
Earlier this week, Germaine Greer – while speaking at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival – claimed that 47% of Queenslanders ‘couldn’t read a newspaper or instructions on a medicine bottle.‘ She stated that the figures came from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (one of the few government agencies for which I have unreserved respect, and for which I would increase funding. Yes, you read that right). Of course the claim was controversial, not only embarrassing the Festival organisers but also feeding into widespread stereotypes of Queenslanders as uneducated rednecks. Writer Nick Earls then weighed into the debate, backing Greer without, crucially, checking her figures:
Author Nick Earls has backed Greer, saying more Queenslanders should be aware of the grim figure.
“There are a significant number of adult Australians – far more than a lot of us thought, certainly far more than I thought – who don’t have reading skills that allow them to do moderately complex things,” he said.
“Not surprisingly, my personal style is not identical to Germaine’s … but she’s over the years highlighted a lot of issues in her own particular way.
“In terms of raising this statistic as a problem, I think we should do that any time we can.”
As is always the case, error breasts the winning tape before truth has had a chance to get out of the starting blocks. I must admit I suspected the figure was too high, but yesterday I was on my way back from London and had other things to do, including collating my notes from Steve Horwitz’s presentation at the IEA (blogpost to come) and sorting out work matters. Fortunately, the State Library of Queensland’s Jane Cowell did what librarians are renowned for doing. She looked it up:
Cowell says Greer has misquoted the data which has come from the 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey.
“It’s not 47 per cent of Queenslanders can’t read a newspaper or a medicine bottle but 14.7 per cent and another 32 per cent struggle with things like lease documents, tax advice and Centrelink forms,” she said.
“The survey measures four dimensions of literacy across different levels with level three considered to be the minimal level required to meet the complex demands of our daily lives.
“The survey found 46 per cent of Australians and 47 per cent of Queenslanders were below level three.”
I learned of Cowell’s intervention via Matthew Condon, a writer I admire greatly and one of the prime movers behind the new, privatised Queensland Literary Awards. Matthew observed:
Can we get our facts straight before igniting a public furore on a false premise? Be nice, wouldn’t it…
As soon as I saw the two component figures (the 14.7 and 32), I realised what Greer had done – she’d added two different data sets together, when the original ABS data had kept them separate. Although applied statistically here, the mathematics is very simple – consider what’s inside the brackets before mucking around with what’s outside the brackets. If I recall correctly, this is taught in about year 5.
Now I realise that Greer divides people, but there is no getting away from the fact that she is brilliantly educated, as is Nick Earls. Their mutual numerical screw-up is but one of many I have seen over the years, overwhelmingly from people in the arts and humanities. It is shameful because if applied in reverse – I was once castigated for pronouncing ‘enjambment‘ exactly as it is written, despite the fact that I clearly knew what it meant – the statistician, lawyer or economist in question is decried as a philistine and fool. And here we have an eminent literature scholar revealing that she is the sort of person who falls for sales that say ’50% off everything’.
Andrew Norton once observed that one of the reasons statisticians and economists (he could have added lawyers, too) fail to get their message across is that they (we?) are not ‘storytellers and moralists’. Based on Greer’s latest intervention (and others I have seen), it seems that storytellers and moralists can be wrong in every particular but still prevail over the economist or lawyer with whom they are arguing simply because the latter is often confined to numbers (or legislation, which is equally uninteresting for most people). Andrew’s concluding observation?
Though [social scientists] probably have more influence on policy than most of the 40 people on this list, their work is not easily accessible to the general public, even when it appears, as it often does, in newspapers. The human brain is surprisingly bad at remembering numbers, and struggles to recall or even understand the analytical arguments that flow from them. Narrative is our more natural mode of understanding, and people respond better to thinkers who use it to convey their message. Similarly, right and wrong in the moral sense is something that people sense and respond to from a very early age, while right and wrong in a mathematical sense is hard to acquire and rarely provides conclusions that resonate. As Stalin is reported to have said, in one of his rare moments of insight, ‘one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic’.
For aspiring public intellectuals, there are clear messages in all this: go for stories over statistics, and anecdotes over analysis.
As Matthew Condon and his fellow organisers at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival discovered this week, a story beats numbers every time. Unfortunately, we are all the poorer for that. Because numbers are just as important as words.
Note: I have shamelessly pinched a fine Scottish adult literacy organisation’s slogan for the headline to this post.