'Do you have trouble with reading, writing, and numbers?'

By skepticlawyer

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.


  1. Posted September 7, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    “lies, damn lies, and statistics” – How to Lie with Statistics is a book written by Darrell Huff in 1954 presenting an introduction to statistics for the general reader.

    I do know personally of two adults in Victoria who are illiterate. One had a life in foster care, and the other a boarding school ‘education’. Poor things. I cannot imagine not being able to read all the good stuff there is in print.

  2. Mel
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Greer is 73 years old and I think that might explain why she makes so many mistakes these days. I enjoyed listening to Greer 20 years ago, but not now. It is a bit depressing actually, we don’t really live that long and the peak of our mental powers happens early and then it’s all down hill. I’ve noticed the drop off myself in memory etc since hitting 40 so I hate to think what I’ll be like at 73.

    We should have evolved from a longer living species, like those Galapagos tortoises that make it easily to 100 😉

  3. Posted September 7, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    This is just what is now becoming a customary apology because the blog is not working properly (I see it has caused Mel to double post, not something he would do deliberately).

    Jacques is working on it now himself, in part because the people who are supposed to be supporting Ozblogistan are fifty shades of shite.

  4. Derek Sheppard
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps it’s because we have universal, compulsory education that we have young people emerging from schools who are functionally innumerate and illiterate. A statistic I heard in the last couple of days was that over 40% of new apprentices were illiterate. Why? After years and years of schooling and so-called testing, it seems that too many young people still are not ready for the real world, that other world outside the school gates.

  5. Posted September 7, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], people will develop the skills that enable them to pursue the easiest way to satisfy their desires within the environment they’re in. In the political context, it seems that the ability to present or rally behind a narrative is better able to facilitate social status or power than a stalwart defence of the statistical truth. In the modern educational context. even those children who have a desire for cognitive stimulation will be able to get in it a way that doesn’t foster literacy or even rational thought.

  6. Posted September 9, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Statistics I can cope with (just as well, a certain government organisation employed me as a statistical resource for 5 years). The more complex mathematics, not so much; which is a sadness for me.

  7. Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    …widespread stereotypes of Queenslanders as uneducated rednecks.

    Perhaps it is the circles I mix in, perhaps it is my physique, but such alleged stereotype isn’t widespread enough to be mentioned in my presence.
    Then again, Queenslanders are hardly going to run around accusing ourselves of being “backward hicks”, not in the middle of the state.

    Extra trivia snippet: Experience has taught me that people educated in NSW are to the nth degree more hopeless at simple arithmetic (i.e. addition) than people educated in Qld.

  8. kvd
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    82% of people who sling off at the minor deficiencies of 73 year olds will themselves live to receive similar comments about their own declining mental powers.

    And Steve, perhaps if you allowed us to occasionally reach double figures in State of Origin you would assist the improvement of the mexicans’ numeracy 😉

  9. Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    On alleged declining intellectual powers with age, consider this interview with Ronald Coase, then 100 years old.

    He has just published a book on China.

  10. Jonathan D
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid that both Greer and Cowell (or their sources) have possibly instead failed to demonstrate the level of document literacy skills considered the mininum required.

    The 14.7% and 32% (why differing precision?) are actually the numbers for the two lower levels of prose literacy (including medicine bootles and newpapers) in Queensland, and it’s quite reasonable to add the underlying figures together to get 46.4% below level three. Suggesting this is any different from the nationwide figure (16.7%+29.7%) is quite bizarre.

    Centrelink forms and so on would be part of document literacy, where the below level three percentage for Queensland was indeed 47%, but marginally lower than the Australian average.

    Sloppy reading all round.

  11. kvd
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Yes – what Jonathan just said, but further:

    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.‘

    – SL’s ‘quote’ comes from her news.com.au link, and Nick Earls’ from brisbanetimes.com.au, however yet another newspaper source (this time actually “quoting” Ms Greer) reported that she actually said

    “The ABS reports that 47 per cent of Queenslanders can not read a newspaper, follow a recipe, make sense of time tables or understand instructions on a medicine bottle,”

    And then somehow into that mix we move from what she said about Queensland to how the Queensland figures compare to the national averages? (Answer: insignificantly different) Talk about running down someone by jumping to conclusions.

  12. Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Had a chat with an ABS mate on this, and his view was that:

    I suspect the scale used sets level 3 more like ‘minimum required for university’

    which means that

    while Greer’s examples overstate the severity of the issue we shouldn’t forget (being numeracy level 5s obviously) that 47% below minimum standards is still shockingly high (and perhaps reason to revisit the survey instrument)

    which suggests that we are over-egging the pudding rather. The bands are set too rigidly.

  13. kvd
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Well it’s a slow day, and parts of this post and ensuing comments bother me, so fwiw I’d like to make a couple of further comments:

    – Ms Greer seems to have been misquoted, then castigated, by people who a) did not go to source for what she actually said, and b) failed to check the facts she seems to have basically correctly cited.

    – I do not find it ‘shocking’ at all that 47% of Queenslanders would fail a university entrance exam; I more find it ‘disturbing’ that university entrance levels are apparently pitched so low.

    – the ABS has done a sterling job of dissecting, slicing, dicing raw data – to the point where the conclusions being drawn are woefully inappropriate. For instance if one accepts the 47% QLD figure then for any meaningful action to flow from that in terms of education policy, at the very least you would need those figures to reference exactly where the (said paltry) education was gained. QLD has seen a net influx of population for a number of years, so as the joke quoted on another thread put it, perhaps the other states have in fact lowered the QLD result? The ABS does not seem to have addressed this basic point.

    – the ABS report makes mention of Canadian methodology – part of a wider international effort – and digging a little further I believe that what is being reported is the result of ‘subjective self-assessment’ provided by participants.

    – ‘medicine bottles’ gets one single mention (as a footnote example) in the ABS report. I can’t find it in the Canadian papers – no doubt I am wrong on this, but my point is made hereunder:

    – Ms Greer is provocative; but that’s exactly why she is of interest, and should remain of enduring interest. SL’s final point about the “storytellers” is very valid. People react to vivid, pithy summaries much more than to dry old statistics which, as I understand it, even then she correctly cited. I hope this is not anywhere near the last we hear from her.

  14. kvd
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    And I must mention another priceless quote contained in the Courier Mail article:

    She said festival organisers needed to understand their audience.

    “The backbone of your audience is middle aged women and over,” she said.

    “It’s because they don’t know how to have fun. Men can go down to the river bank and sit there for eight hours and not have a bite and be perfectly happy but no woman can do that so she goes to a literary festival.

    “She is the supporter of culture.”

    I just nodded and smiled when I read that 😉

  15. Jonathan D
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    In terms of where the bands are set, it’s worth noting that the quote in the ABS document actually says Level 3 is the “minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of
    everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy”.

    kvd, I think self-assessment only comes into it for some of the categories that the literacy level results are plotted against. The medicine bottles are only mentioned in that context, but an example at the site for the US version gives one a a sample document for prose literacy. I don’t see anything to suggest that level three is required to understand the instructions though!

    Generally, I have for a while acknowledged that there is some nonzero value in provocative statements like this, but I still struggle to reconcile this with the the thought that they often discourage the sort of literacy that this survey tries to measure.

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