Sunday, March 7, 2010

Financial Illiteracy

This week's article has been written by my friend Jason Kelly. He is an intelligent, kind, and thoughtful human being who is well-versed in personal finance. He is the author of a great series of personal finance books called the Neatest Little... series. A list of his books (with Amazon links) are listed at the end of this article. His newest book is Financially Stupid People Are Everywhere: Don't Be One Of Them. It should be out very soon, so click on the name of the book and pre-order it. Not only are the books practical and easy to read, each one of them costs less than $15! The best bang-for-the-buck financial books anywhere.

Jason also has a great financial web site for the rest of us. He explains what is happening in the market each week, gives ideas for personal investing, and has a free financial planning newsletter. For a few dollars a month ($5.48 to be exact) you can get his invaluable weekly Kelly Letter. The purpose of this weekly email is...

To provide readers with clear investment guidance that maintains a long-term, steady growth path with the majority of the portfolio while taking advantage of medium-term trading opportunities with a minority of the portfolio.
Here's Jason:

Terry invited me to contribute the financial installment of his series on illiteracy. I've written about personal finance and investing for more than 15 years, so the angles I could take on this are numerous. The cloud of questions I've received over the years rose in my mind, with their attendant subjects: credit cards, bank rates, automobile financing, college tuition, budgets, mortgages, and so on.

You know what, though? That cloud itself is the problem. There's no lack of information, there's an overwhelming swirl of information. It's the endless details that make people think they can't possibly get their arms around this subject called finance. In that confusion lies opportunity for the shysters, which is why financial education will never take top priority in America. Ignorance is bliss — for those in the know. The ignorant themselves are fleeced.

Luckily, there's not a lot to the basics of finance.
I can tell you right here, right now the one rule that, if followed, will keep you out of financial trouble for the rest of your life. That's right: one rule. This is a blog about living free from worry, so we should aim for a simple rule that gets rid of a top source of worry in people's lives. Are you ready? Here's what I call The First Rule of Finance:

Spend less than 80 percent of your take-home pay.

That's it. Now, stop shaking your head and pooh-poohing this notion as overly simplistic, and consider how many of the common financial problems it solves. If you spend less than 80 percent of your take-home pay, you will never:
  • Pay too much for an automobile
  • Run up debt on credit cards
  • Collect more than one or two credit cards
  • Fall behind in household bills
  • Suffer buyer's remorse from impulsive spending
  • Commit to a mortgage payment you can't afford
  • Panic if you lose your job
The list is longer than that, actually, but you get the point. When you spend less than you earn, you save. When saving becomes a habit, your continued existence makes you financially better-off as time goes by. You'll be richer next month than you are this month, and you're richer this month than you were last month. It's easy to feel good about your finances when your net worth grows as long as you keep breathing.

Too many Americans, however, go in the opposite direction. They spend more than they earn, so each passing month finds them worse off than they were the month before. Time hurts them, because they're on the road to ruin. Steps ahead don't represent progress, they represent a countdown to collapse.

That's not hyperbole. Look at the subprime mortgage crisis. Sure, banks pulled a fast one on borrowers by offering loans with low payments up front and bigger ones later, zero-down deals, no-doc "liar's loans," and other such goofiness, but none of it would have hurt anybody if the population operated on the principle of spending less than they earn. They would have looked at the mortgage payment schedules, looked at their household spending, seen whether they could handle the payments, and made a decision. Instead, they just jumped in. Well, we've seen what happens when a whole population leaps before they look into murky financial waters. The economy swirls down the toilet.

Yet, I'll bet a good portion of people who find themselves unable to keep up with their credit card payments and mortgage schedule spent a lot of time finding the highest-interest-paying checking account in town, the best deal on frequent-flyer miles, and which gas station sells the cheapest gas (by a penny or two). Such tiny benefits against a backdrop of basic blow-ups are meaningless.
There's nothing wrong with choosing the best bank account, joining the best consumer programs, and saving money on gasoline, of course. Those are all good ideas, but they don't work unless they're part of a bigger strategy. The financially illiterate are tricked into thinking that "managing money" is a complex, multi-staged endeavor. Not really. It starts with spending no more than $8 of every $10 you earn.

There's more beyond that, but not much, and the returns on effort drop quickly. That first step, that first rule, is by far the most critical one. It alone is more important to your financial well-being, and certainly your financial peace-of-mind, than any sophisticated-looking credit card or surefire stock tip or consumer rewards program.

Notice that it's precisely the first rule that's most viciously attacked by corporate advertising and bank programs. That's no coincidence. They know that if they can get you in the habit of overspending, they can get you to open wide for all the other lures they've worked up over the years. Before you know it, you'll be chain-borrowing on cars that cost too much, buying everything you see advertised by using more credit on more cards, and signing on to mortgage loans that are sure to enslave you. Get the first step wrong, and that's the path in front of you. Get the first step right, and none of the other gimmicks will hook you.

Let's keep this easy. Financial literacy doesn't require lengthy explanations. It doesn't even require difficult math. All it really requires is knowing how to stop spending at 80 percent of your take-home pay.

Do that and you'll be a financial genius.

Thank you, Jason. If you want to stop being financially illiterate, you can check out each of his books by clicking on the link for each.
And don't forget to check out his forthcoming book mentioned above.
This finishes my series on illiteracy. I hope you have enjoyed it. Any comments you want to make about Jason's article will be forwarded to him promptly.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Psychological Illiteracy

True or False:
  1. Some people are right-brained, others are left-brained
  2. When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages.
  3. Individuals commonly repress the memories of traumatic experiences.
  4. Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles.
  5. Individuals can learn information, like new languages while asleep.
  6. A positive attitude can stave off cancer.
  7. It’s better to express anger to others than to hold it in.
  8. Most children who were sexually abused in childhood develop severe emotional disturbances in adulthood.
  9. Adult children of alcoholics display a distinct profile of symptoms.
  10. Criminal profiling is helpful in solving crimes.
  11. Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics.
Everybody is a psychologist. That is, if we define a psychologist as someone who is interested in human behavior, emotions, and thoughts. We, as humans, are continually talking about one another. We are interested in why people act the way they do. We want to know why we do the things that are not good for us and why we don’t do the things that are good for us.

Psychology is everywhere. It is talked about in all forms of media such as talk shows, movies, newspapers and news magazines. Friends talk about their psychologists, bookstores have entire sections devoted to the topic and it is splashed all over the Internet. A Google search for the word psychology returns more than ninety-four million hits.

Yet, as psychologist Keith Stanovich points out in his book, How to Think Straight About Psychology, the most important aspects of psychology are invisible to the public.

Few people are aware that the majority of the books they see in the "psychology" section of many book stores are written by individuals with absolutely no standing in the psychological community. Few are aware that many of the people to whom television applies the label "psychologist" would not be considered so by the American Psychological Association or the American Psychological Society.
Like a lot of scientific research, new knowledge in psychology can take a lot of time and effort. The public is generally aware of new psychological knowledge only when something exciting is reported by the mass media. Even then, the news may be based on unreplicated research, poor research, or an inaccurate description of the actual research.

The general belief is that if research was done by a psychologist and reported by a reputable media source, then it must be true. This perception can set up the public to be quite gullible. Dr. Stanovich lists a half dozen well-accepted claims routinely seen in the media that have been proven false by psychology: "astrology, psychic surgery, speed reading, biorhythms, subliminal weight loss, and psychic detectives." His book is meant not only for psychology students but also for the general public. It is a book that helps us all learn how to evaluate the abundance of psychology claims swirling around our real and virtual worlds.

Much of the public is confused between scientific psychology and popular psychology. Popular psychology (good or bad) emphasizes facts about human behavior; real psychology emphasizes a way of thinking about human behavior. Most (but not all) psychologists are trained to think critically about claims made by the public, so-called mental health experts, and even their own colleagues. Psychology no longer accepts claims merely because an expert said it is so. What is the evidence? This is the question psychologists are trained to ask in order to weed out the wheat from the chaff.

What about the non-psychologist who is not trained to tell the difference between psychology and pseudo-psychology? If one looks hard enough, there are several excellent resources for the lay person to help discover what really is and what really is not legitimate even though there may sometimes be an overlap between scientific psychology and popular psychology.

Often popular psychology has the backing of enormous amounts of money so that advertising can overrule critical thinking. A good example is what has been called the Mozart Effect. Simply put, this idea claims that if you play classical music to your baby, you can help your baby become smarter as she or he grows up. Richard Coff, founder and director of the Suzuki Music Academy has this to say about the Mozart Effect:
The buzzword, Mozart Effect, has been bandied about by popular print and broadcast media. It is featured in parenting, education, and music oriented publications, and in the mainstream general press. While it has renewed interest in classical music education and focused much deserved attention on the general field of childhood development, the phrase (and the popular notion of its meaning) has been used to sell music lessons, music products of all kinds, including Mozart Makes You Smarter product lines, and frankly, some music education snake-oil.
You can now check out claims for the Mozart Effect for yourself with a great new book that has just become available. Psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein have wirtten 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology in an attempt to look at psychological misconceptions. Even though the title says they examine 50 popular myths, they actually look at 300 "psychomythologies."

The beauty of this book is that the authors do not glibly dismiss outrageous claims. They carefully and thoughtfully look at the research regarding the myth in question rather than just giving their own opinions. For example, when they examine the claim that "there’s recently been a massive epidemic of infantile autism," they take six pages to investigate this claim and reveal the flaws and misconceptions about it.

As helpful as this book would be if the contents only dealt with looking at claims, the authors also teach us how to do this on our own. Some of you ask why myth-busting is so important. Three very important reasons are given for why the time and effort is important. Psychomyths can be harmful, cause indirect damage, and interfere with our critical thinking.

The reader also gets a mini-course in detecting false claims with ten tools called the Mythbusting Kit. Some of you may remember that Carl Sagan coined the phrase Baloney Detection Kit in his book, The Demon Haunted World. This idea is becoming more popular. Our friend, Google, gives us twenty thousand hits for the phrase "baloney detection kit."

As if this were not enough, the book’s postscript includes two more useful features. The first one, that I found truly enjoyable, was to take the book’s premise and turn it around 180 degrees. Three pages are devoted to "Ten Psychological Findings that Are Difficult to Believe, but True." Did you know that psychologists have taught pigeons to tell the difference between the music of Bach and that of Stravinsky? Yup, difficult to believe, but true. I know some people who can't do this.

This section is followed by a listing of twenty-two websites that are devoted to educating us for dealing with the ongoing onslaught of our society’s psychomythologies. And that’s not all. The reference section includes the books and research articles this book is based on. Although tracking this additional information down may seem tedious for some, reputable references are at the heart of mythbusting. These primary sources are all but absent in Internet articles, books, and news articles that promote common myths.

The fourteen pages in the index help to make this book a valuable resource for future reference when you need to check out specific claims. It’s like having your very own copy of the Snopes version for evaluating psychological myths and urban legends.

Maybe you want to know the answers to the eleven true-false statements at the beginning of this article. Here’s the condensed version. Get the book to get the full version. All eleven statements are false.
Gilovich, T. (1993). How we know what isn't so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. Washing, D.C.: Free Press.

Hines, T. (2003). Pseudoscience and the paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Kida, T. (2006). Don't believe everything you think: The 6 basic mistakes we make in thinking. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Lawson, T. (2006). Scientific perspectives on pseudoscience and the paranormal. New York: Prentice Hall.
Lilenfeld, S., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J. & Beyerstein, B. (2010). 59 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Randi, J. (1982). Flim-flam! Psychics, ESP, unicorns, and other delusions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sagan, C. (1997). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Shermer, M. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York: Holt.

Stanovich, K. E. (1998). How to think straight about psychology (9th edition). New York: Addison-Wesley.

Vyse, S. (2000). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Is Tiger A Sex Addict?

First of all, is there really such a thing as sexual addiction? If you Google the phrase you will get a million and a half hits. Google sex addict and you will find over two million references. These terms are definitely popular.

What is an addict? The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines it as "the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming." So why has society decided to describe habits as addictions? It all started when society accepted the notion that habits were a "disease" that needed to be cured by special programs, experts, or religion. This became official when the prestigious American Medical Association decided in 1956 that alcoholism was a disease. From this point onward addiction has had a complicated and controversial history.

And we all know diseases must be treated by experts. Well, not always. The medical community is well aware that many diseases automatically go away. This is called spontaneous remission. The basic problem with this perspective is that the vast majority of people who are addicted to something don’t change because of any treatment program. They give it up for other reasons of their choosing. Well over 75% of people with addictions quit on their own.

The concept of addictions began solely as an explanation for alcohol abuse. It caught the public’s fancy because it seemed like such a simple way to understand inexplicable behavior. Eventually, the term began to be used for any behavior that occurred outside some arbitrary social norm. If a person gambled more than others, she had a gambling addiction. If an individual spent too much time shopping, he had a shopping addiction. The same word is now used for any behavior a person spends a lot of time doing. The computer age has allowed the addiction vocabulary to grow like weeds in our lexicons.

Men of influence, money and power have always been on the prowl sexually since the beginning of time. Some societies accept the fact that their king, prime minister, president, or other head of state is going to have a mistress and several affairs. Other societies are appalled when this happens. People differ in their expectation and acceptance of multiple partners. As you know some countries even condone multiple wives as a sign of wealth and power.

Is there anyone alive today that hasn’t been told that Tiger Woods has a sexual addiction because he had sex with multiple partners? I wonder if he would have earned this label if he had not been married? Can you name a non-married male movie star who has had multiple sex partners. Are they thought of as sex addicts? Or do we refer to them as players, eligible bachelors? Are there any men who secretly or openly envy their behavior? Are there any women who dream of being one of those partners? Think George Clooney or Warren Beatty.

What do we gain by deciding that Tiger Woods is a sex addict? Actually, nothing. Maybe we feel comforted that there is a label for such behavior. Society loves labels because it simplifies things and helps us think we really understand something. In fact, labels often make us run in circles instead of giving us clarity. If the answer to the question "why is Tiger a sex addict?" is that he has had many sex partners, this seems perfectly clear. It gets a bit unclear when we ask another question, "Why has he had so many sex partners?" The answer is an unsatisfying, "because he’s a sex addict." Labels make us run in circles when we think are walking in a straight line.

How do we decide who does and who does not have an addiction? This is a murky question because there are few acceptable criteria for answering this question. Most people leave the answer to the "experts." Unfortunately some of these experts are self appointed with little expertise or background in understanding the controversy surrounding addictions. Many addiction experts are former addicts with little or no scientific training in medicine or psychology. It seems a bit like a social reprobate who gets religion and is immediately an expert on God and the bible.

Is it possible that addictions have gained such acceptance because money might be involved? After all, if any addiction is a "disease" then someone has to provide a "cure" — at a fee. The treatment for addictions is so popular that it has a special name, rehabilitation or "rehab" in popular parlance. Did I mention money? For the curious, you might be interested to know that the clinic Tiger has decided to use costs between twenty and forty thousand dollars for a mere six weeks. Unless you are wealthy, it is best not to become a sex addict.

Most psychologists who are scientifically trained in treating "addictive" behavior see it as a problem only if it interferes with normal functioning. This seems puzzling in the case of Tiger Woods. By all accounts, until his affairs became public, he was still the world’s greatest golfer. None of his liaisons kept him from winning tournaments. He was still loved by fans. His friends never left him. Where was the dysfunction? The only part of his life that really mattered was his relationship with his wife.

What is the problem here? The problem is a private one between he and his wife. In this country (not so in all countries) married men are not expected to have sex with other women even though at least a quarter of married men admit to having had an affair. This number could probably be doubled and still be accurate.

What are society’s expectations for famous people who get caught in an extramarital relationship. The drill has become fairly commonplace. Tiger is using the standard play book: Silence, then an acceptance of the "addiction," checking into a sex rehab clinic, and finally making a public apology.
Immediately after Tiger’s public apology on Friday, the reaction was mixed with 53% percent saying the apology was sincere while the rest didn’t think so. A local television station went to a golf course and asked golfers what they thought. The male golfer said he believed Tiger and people should now leave him alone. A female golfer thought the apology was phony and did not accept his apology. When asked what Tiger could have said that would convince here he was genuine, she said that nothing he could say would change her mind about him.

Could we as a public have lived without all the sordid details? Did we really have to insist that Tiger’s apology be broadcast for all the world to see and hear? Maybe the question is why we humans are so voyeuristic when it comes to celebrities. The answer is probably on an Internet blog somewhere.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Religious Illiteracy

According to the latest Pew Poll entitled U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 83% of Americans identify themselves as religious. This figure would make the United States the most religious nation in the developed world. Most religious people would be proud of this finding which proves how alive and vibrant religion is in this country. Religious conservatives never tire of reminding the rest of the nation that America is, and always has been, a “Christian nation.”

When we look more deeply into the details of this survey we find some interesting surprises. The number of people who claim "no organized religion" has doubled since 1990 (more men than women claim to have no religious affiliation). When age is taken into consideration, 25% of young adults say they have no religious affiliation.

From its founding, many Americans have insisted we are a “Christian” nation which has generally meant a Protestant nation. This Landscape Survey shows that Protestants are quickly losing ground. A mere 51% of Americans now call themselves Protestant. Since it appears this trend will continue, this country will very soon become a minority Protestant nation.

What Is Religious Literacy?

Before we go any further let’s decide what we mean by religious illiteracy. Of course, to be religiously literate is the opposite of being religiously illiterate. To be religiously literate has nothing to do with one’s faith. It has to do with a shared vocabulary and basic knowledge of what a specific religion is about. Professor Diane Moore, Religion Professor at Harvard Divinity School believes a person who is religiously literate should have an understanding of:

• the basic belief systems of world religions
• the diversity within each belief system
• how religion affects social events, culture, politics
• the role religion has played in history

You can see that Professor Moore makes a distinction between what she calls a “personal devotional practice and the academic study of religion.” Most scholars who study religion believe there is a difference between learning religion which is devotional and learning about religion which is more objective, cultural, and historical. One is not more important than the other.

The Scope of Religious Ignorance

I think religious illiteracy exists because there is a tendency today among religious people to put more emphasis on religious piety than on religious knowledge. There are about 4,200 religions in the world so it is understandable that most people cannot have much knowledge about all of these religions. However, you would think that most people would be conversant with their own religion. This assumption would be mistaken. American religion tends to be Bible-based — a Gallup poll in 2002 discovered that 93% of Americans own a Bible. But do they know what is in it? The answering is a resounding “No.”

The Christian Century magazine ran an article in November 2009 on Biblical illiteracy. The article referred to a survey in 2007 (Kelton Research) that was later captured in headlines across America: “More Americans Know Big Mac Ingredients Better Than Ten Commandments.”

A 1950 Time magazine article mentioned that Professor of Religion, R. Frederick West, had tested over 2,000 students in his years of teaching. Most of these students had religious backgrounds. In spite of this training, most of them could not even name the four Gospels or had the slightest idea what Jesus stressed as the two greatest commandments.

Another religion professor, Stephen Prothero, points out in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t that 67% of Americans admit to treating the Bible seriously in that they believe answers to all of life’s basic questions can be found in the Bible. In spite of this elevated view of the Bible, only half of these same Americans can name even one of the four gospels. More astounding is that most of them cannot name the first book of the Bible. This adult ignorance of the Bible holds true for young people. Half of all high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah are the names of a married couple in the Bible.

The irony here is that Christians want the rest of the world to honor the Bible. They, themselves, only honor it by picking and choosing what they pay attention to in the Bible. Religious illiteracy is even more pronounced when considering any knowledge outside one’s own religion.

Why is Religious Literacy So Important?

At this point, you may ask, “So what?” Why is everyone making such a fuss about religious literacy? Remember, religious literacy has nothing to do with one’s belief system, whether devout Christian or confirmed atheist. For better or worse, Biblical knowledge is imbedded within Western art, music, literature, philosophy and politics. To fully understand how religion relates to cultural interests is to better understand life in general. Professor Prothero believes that a well informed citizen of this country needs to have a minimal acquaintance of basic information in the Bible. But that is not enough because the world is quickly becoming a global village. This means we need to understand the “core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.”

Daily, we are exposured to global issues that are by shaped by religion. "If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they're both Muslim, and you've been told Islam is about peace, you won't understand what's happening in Iraq,” says Professor Prothero. He further adds, “If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it's so? If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda.”

Not only does religion affect politics and national decisions in all countries, understanding biblical allusions in Western literature is impossible without a basic knowledge of common bible stories. Think of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol and the reference the Ghost of Christmas Present makes to the nativity. What about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath where he uses the biblical story of the Hebrew people to highlight the struggle of the Joad family?

Even Hollywood gets into the act. If you saw the movie Mission Impossible you may remember the character Tom Cruise played who receives a strange email from Job@Job3:14 (never mind that this is not a possible email address). Biblical names pop up all the time in the movies: The spacecraft in Deep Impact that was destined to save earth is named Messiah. Matrix Reloaded is loaded with people who have biblical names: Trinity, Seraph, Cain, Abel and Malachi.

Religions of other cultures can shed light on current events. Most people see the Somali pirates as desperate men trying to “make a living” in an impoverished country. What few Americans know is that this behavior is grounded in the behavior of Muhammad and his friends after they moved from Mecca to Medina in 622. This migration from a thriving commercial center to a remote farming location left them without work or a means of supporting themselves. To avoid starvation and death Muhammad used an old Arabian tradition called ghazu which we would call kidnaping and ransom. They would attack caravans and capture the camels and their drivers. The owners of the caravans could get their property back of they paid the appropriate ransom. The Somali pirates are using a time-honored tradition for making money.

Why is it important to know this? It is possible that official denunciations of these pirates will have more impact if they come from Muslim leaders. It’s as if a foreign country would denounce the evils of subprime lending practices in America. Many people here would discount these condemnations as mere un-American rantings. Americans would pay more attention if their own leaders said the same thing. This is not to say, for example, that other non-Muslim countries should not be involved in dealing with Somali piracy. Understanding the historical setting of Arab piracy can help countries find more effective solutions to this problem.

Religious illiteracy can greatly contribute to increased human prejudice, misunderstanding, and violence. This is not to say religious literacy is the sole cause of these human frailties but it certainly hinders humankind’s attempts to offer “respect of pluralism, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas” says Professor Moore. She wants people to know that “religious illiteracy is often a contributing factor in fostering a climate whereby certain forms of bigotry and misrepresentation can emerge unchallenged and thus serve as one form of justification for violence and marginalization.”

Examples of these tensions belong to a very long list: anti-Semitism and the treatment of Muslims in countries where they are a minority. Perhaps even worse is the belief religious bigots of all religions share that declares "we are right and you are wrong." We see this in Christianity between Roman Catholics and Protestants. How many hundreds of years have Sunni Muslims and Shi’i Muslims been fighting?

Can Religious Illiteracy Be Converted to Religious Literacy?

Many religion professors believe the answer is "Yes" if this country will put religion back into standard education. This suggestion immediately raises concerns about the separation between church and state. However, the the U.S. Supreme Court has made a distinction between teaching religion in the schools and teaching about religion in the schools. The former is prohibited, the latter is encouraged.

In 1963 The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that schools could not require Bible reading in the classroom. The ruling stood even after an appeal was upheld which meant that the case went on to the Unites States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land also upheld the notion that teaching religion was prohibited (only one Justice dissented) even if it was done indirectly such as reciting the Lord’s Prayer or reading Bible verses without comment.

Nevertheless, the Justices made the point that knowing about religion should be part of every child’s education. The majority opinion was written by Tom Clark who said, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion … and its relationship to the advance of civilization."

Professor Prothero strongly supports teaching about religion in our public schools.
"Training in religious literacy provides citizens with the tools to better understand religion as a complex and sophisticated social/cultural phenomenon and individual religious traditions themselves as internally diverse and constantly evolving as opposed to uniform, absolute and ahistorical. Learning about religion as a social/cultural phenomenon also helps people recognize, understand and critically analyze how religion has been and will continue to be used to justify the full range of human agency from the heinous to the heroic."

Another advantage of religious literacy is the ability of people to think more critically about religious claims that constantly assail our sensibilities. Once people are trained in religious literacy they can learn to question the accuracy of universal claims such as "Islam is a religion of peace" or "Judaism and Islam are incompatible."

These religious scholars are all in agreement that our country should start teaching courses in world religions in middle-school followed by a required course in the Bible during high school and then making college students take at least one course in religious studies. These classes would avoid all faith-based teaching and religious dogma. Even though these types of classes could not guarantee the abuse of religion, they just might “make it more difficult for such bigotry and chauvinism to be unwittingly reproduced and promoted.”


Apczynski, J. (1982). Foundations of religious literacy. New York: University Press of America.

Bowker, J. (2006). World religions: The great faiths explored & explained. New York: DK Publishing.

Kurtz, L. (2006). Gods in the global village: The world's religions in sociological perspective. New York: Pine Forge Press.

Moore, D. (2007). Overcoming religious illiteracy: A cultural studies approach to the study of religion in secondary education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nash, R. & Bishop, P. (2009). Teaching adolescents religious literacy in a post-9/11 world. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing.

Prothero, S. (2008). Religious literacy: What every American needs to know--and doesn't. San Francisco: HarperOne.

Wright, A. (1993). Religious education in the secondary school: Prospects for religious literacy. New York: David Fulton Publishers.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Scientific Illiteracy

A few decades ago, Jon Miller who was the director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, discovered that 95% of Americans are scientifically illiterate. That’s a lot of people!

This means that only 5% percent of Americans were scientific literate. What did this mean? In his survey he tried to find out if people (1) understood the scientific method, (2) knew its common vocabulary, and (3) appreciated its social impact. Dr. Miller did not expect the average American to understand the minutiae of science but merely be conversant with its broader concepts and aims. But even this was difficult for many people who believed the earth is only ten thousand years old; even more people didn’t believe the universe began with a gigantic explosion.

Another poll a few years later found similar results but with different questions. Half the people in this survey said they had been in contact with someone who had died; two thirds admitted to some type of extrasensory perception (ESP) event; one third said they had visions or were clairvoyant. We would expect these results from people living in a time of superstition and ignorance such as the Middle Ages. However, we now live in an age of science.

These polls were twenty years ago. Perhaps Americans have become a bit more knowledgeable since then. I’m afraid not. A more recent poll was conducted in December 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Not much change. About a third of the respondents in this poll believed they had been touch with the dead; one-fifth had experienced a ghostly experience and one fourth believed in reincarnation.

Has science had no impact on our consciousness? There is almost nobody alive today who is not affected by science. We take for granted the innumerable advances of scientific without really understanding how hard scientists work to understand the universe and life within it. Because most people cannot fully understand the inner workings of science, we are ignorant of how laborious the quest for new knowledge really is.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, British scientist James Lovelock wrote in Science Magazine that people "take so much for granted, wholly forgetting how hard won was the scientific knowledge that gave us the comfortable and safe lives we enjoy. We are so ignorant of the facts upon which science and our scientific culture are established that we give equal place on our bookshelves to the nonsense of astrology, creationism, and junk science. At first, they were there to entertain, or to indulge our curiosity, and we did not take them seriously. Now they are too often accepted as fact."

Science has been too successful. It’s
contributions are legion. Scientists have become victims of their own successes. These successes are so stunning that the dividing line between fantasy and reality often becomes blurred to the average person. Many people think that if science can put a man on the moon, then it is reasonable to believe that people from other parts of our universe can visit us. The gap between what scientists know and what the layperson knows is diverging at an unbelievable pace. Because science is advanced by very smart people who use a tremendous amount of brain power to discover new knowledge, we lay people cannot hope to keep up, even marginally, with the scientific advance of knowledge.

As we can escape cultural and mathematical literacy by expanding our minds and learning new ways of thinking, so it is with scientific illiteracy. Yet, there are many forces holding us back from doing this. Some of these forces begin at an early age. For years, teenage girls have known that to be popular they had to hide their intelligence and interest in science and math. Until they became millionaires because of the Internet, Geeks were the marginalized arm of the youth culture.

Another force that fostered scientific illiteracy began in the universities in the 1990s among humanities scholars. They borrowed an idea from French intellectuals insisting that objectivity was a myth — merely a social ideal. In other words, students in non-science classes were being taught that the laws of physics were no more real than the beliefs of astrologers.

A major force for promoting scientific illiteracy has been television. Producers quickly discovered that illiteracy in matters scientific could make them wealthy if viewers were told they were merely being entertained. Pseudo-documentaries dealing with psychics and UFO conspiracies became popular fare for the American television audience. Even CNN’s Larry King got in on the act by promoting people who made money telling people they could communicate with the dead.

The politics of the Republican party, which had been hijacked by right-wing evangelicals, became another major force for spreading scientific illiteracy when it openly opposed mainstream science in areas such as global warming and stem cell research. These politicians got rid of the scientific advisory office for the legislature. Politicians then took aim at research budgets by under-funding projects and even doing away with some governmental science agencies.

Amid all this turmoil over science, the religious right decided they would try to convince people that evolution is "only a theory." What they didn’t say was that gravity is also a theory but evolution is a more solid scientific theory than the theory of gravity. They attempted to convince scientifically illiterate people that intelligent design was a scientific alternative to evolution. Curiously, they never promoted it as a science but as a media event. It was only when they had to prove their case in court before a conservative judge in Dover, Pennsylvania that their agenda was exposed for all to see. The verdict of the courts have consistently decided that Intelligent Design is a thinly disguised form of evangelical religion.

During this time, newspapers began trimming back and even dropping reports on what was happening in science. Movies jumped on the anti-science bandwagon and insisted on stereotyping scientists as social misfits who continually got in the way of non-scientists. Movie director, James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) has publically stated that the movies generally "show scientists as idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villains."

A survey several decades ago at
Northern Illinois University found that the general public perceived a scientist as "a person who neglects his family; pays no attention to his wife; never plays with his children; has no social life and no other intellectual interests; bores his wife, children and friends; is always running off to his laboratory; and [gasp!] may even force his children to become scientists!"
These perceptions were not from people who had never finished grade school but from mainstream, educated Americans. When Harvard University graduates (really smart people) were asked to fill out a scientific literacy survey half of the graduating seniors did not know the difference between an atom and a molecule.

Why is all this concern about scientific illiteracy such a big deal? In what way does science matter? It matters because as citizens of a democracy we are asked to make important decisions on issues that our ancestors never confronted. Carl Sagan expresses this concern in his book
The Demon-Haunted World: "I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before. It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about [what is happening around her]."

Asteroids have hit the earth for millions of years. Small ones continue to pelt us regularly. It is highly likely another big one will hit us again sometime in the future. The last big one was so destructive it wiped out the entire population of dinosaurs on our planet. The next one could wipe out the human race. Only scientists can find one in time and then have the means to prevent a catastrophe. If Americans don’t support funding for this kind of science, the result could be the end of humanity.

Other serious issues that can have a dramatic effect on the planet we live on include: tropical deforestation, overpopulation, airline safety, disease and genetic defects, radioactive waste. The list is almost limitless. Dr. Sagan continues by saying, "How can we affect national policy — or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives — if we don’t grasp the underlying issues."

This responsibility extends to those we have elected to run our country. Of all the members of the U.S. Congress in the last hundred years, less than one percent have had any significant background in science. Is it possible that the last scientifically literate President may have been Thomas Jefferson? Perhaps President Obama, though lacking scientific training does not appear to lack sympathy and support for science.

Science also matters because a democracy depends on its citizens being able to understand public issues. If we cannnot understand what is happening around us on a daily basis as it relates to science, then we will be unable to make informed decisions about emotionally charged topics such as global warming, homosexuality, stem cell research, and evolution. Scientific literacy is not about knowing the details about the inner workings of science. It is about understanding just enough to be engaged in public debate. In their book,
Science Matters, Robert Hazen and James Trefil say that "every citizen is faced with public issues whose discussion requires some scientific background, and therefore every citizen should have some level of scientific literacy.

Another reason Hazen and Trefoil give for scientific literacy is that we live in a universe that is based on only a few laws of nature. From the moment of birth until our deaths, everything we do is a result of these natural laws. They believe that we can enhance our lives by embracing the "exceedingly beautiful and elegant view" of how nature operates. "There is intellectual and esthetic satisfaction to be gained from seeing the unity between a pot of water on a stove and the slow march of the continents."

They remind us that our understanding of our world has moved from mythology to scientific discoveries. Intelligent and sincere people used to believe that the sun rose in the east and set in the west because it was being driven by a god who carried this fireball in his chariot pulled by magical horses. Humans can now appreciate the sun as a star that is one of billions upon billions of stars. Hazen and Trefil ask the question, "How . . . can anyone hope to appreciate the deep underlying threads of intellectual life in his or her own time without understanding the science that goes with it?" We are fortunate to live in a time where we have the capacity to see farther and deeper than our ancestors.

Since science has discovered so much in the last four centuries, how can we laypeople possibly hope to understand the bare essentials of science? This is possible because all of science is built upon basic and simple ideas. A limited number of natural laws can explain almost everything we experience in our lives.

Hazen and Trefil suggest there are only eighteen laws of nature that "bind all scientific knowledge together." They go on to say that "the things you need to know to be scientifically literate tend to be a somewhat mixed bag. You need to know a few facts, be familiar with some general concepts, know a little about how science works and how it comes to conclusions, and know a little about scientists as people." If you are interested in furthering your own scientific literacy, I’ve provided a list of books below that you can read.

Science is not merely something we have to put up with. In the last 400 years, it has allowed us to fulfill the dreams of ancient people by flying through the air, curing diseases, communicating with each other over enormous distances and even leaving the confines of our planet. We have begun to understand life in ways unimaginable to our forefathers. As non-scientists the rest of us must not only support science but be able in small ways to enter the public dialogue about its power and benefits to humankind.

American Association for the Advancement of Science A. A. (1994). Benchmarks for science literacy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Hatton, J. & Plouffe, P. (1996). Science and its ways of knowing. New York: Benjamin Cummings.

Hazen, R. & Trefil, R. (2009). Science matters: Achieving scientific literacy. New York: Anchor Paperback.

Mooney, C. & Mirshenbaum, S. (2009). Unscientific American; How scientific illiteracy threatens our future. New York: Basic Books.

Rutherford, F. (1991). Science of all Americans. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Sagan, C. (1997). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Trefil, R. (2007). Why science? New York: Teachers College Press.

Wynn, C. & Wiggins, A. (1996). The five biggest ideas in science. New York: Wiley.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cultural Illiteracy

In the last article, I wrote about numerical illiteracy which is called innumeracy. In continuing this series on illiteracy, we’ll focus on something called cultural illiteracy. As an aside, I want to make clear that I’m not using the term illiteracy in a negative sense. No person is completely literate in all fields of human knowledge. This series is meant for us, myself included, to understand those areas of our lives that can be changed to help us live a fuller life.

This next topic, cultural illiteracy, does not refer to being misinformed about other cultures but rather being misinformed about one's own culture. The concept of cultural illiteracy was first brought to our attention by English professor, E.D. Hirsch in his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. For Americans, culturally literacy includes a vast multitude of information from the mundane such as understanding street signs to the more remarkable works of Shakespeare.

To be literate as an American means being able to interact with these aspects of our culture and speak accurately about it. Cultural literacy doesn’t mean you are an expert on Shakespeare. It does mean you have a somewhat familiar understanding of who he was, what he did and some of his more famous quotes.

Many people think that cultural literacy means being fluent with literary classics that have historically been part of a liberal education. Not so, says Dr. Hirsch, because literacy can even embrace a wide range of trivia including current slang words and phrases. In our high tech culture this means we understand such words such as Twitter, blog, and smart phone -- alongside knowing who Julius Caesar was. Cultural literacy is not only knowing what a word means but also being able to use it correctly in conversation with others.

Not being aware of current events is one of the hallmarks of cultural illiteracy. If you have ever watched Jay Leno’s Jay Walk, you know that an astonishing number of people cannot recognize a picture of the Vice President of the United States. Some younger Americans are notorious for avoiding newspapers, weekly news magazines and books such as novels and biographies. It’s the avoidance of resources about the world around us that pushes us towards cultural illiteracy.

Dr. Hirsch believes that culturally literacy is the bedrock of a democratic society. A democracy depends on its citizens to make choices about how they want their country run and who is to run it. This means it is important for people in a democracy to effectively communicate with one another. As you know, communication is impossible without a shared body of knowledge. You have probably been frustrated by trying to talk with someone who had no background to understand what you were trying to say. The question arises, "How can we talk to one another without a shared background of basic information?" Because America has such a strong component of cultural illiteracy, we no longer talk to each other -- we yell, we call names, we instruct, but we don't listen.

The more people who are culturally illiterate, the more fragmented our society becomes. Maybe one of the reasons our country is so politically polarized is that so many people don’t know much, if anything, about our founding fathers. What were some of the issues Jefferson and Madison talked about? Why was John Adams so important in the production of our Constitution? If all our political information comes from talking heads whose only purpose is to promote a specific agenda (or as they say, to "entertain"), then we wind up basing our political decisions on someone else's biased opinions rather than facts.

Cultural literacy is about more than being able to read and write. It involves learning and having a fund of knowledge that is imbedded within out culture. For example to be a culturally literate person one might need to know about important documents such who wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail. What is important about the date 1776? What does the figure of speech "nose to the grindstone" mean? What is DNA? Who was John Brown?

By this time you might object that the search for cultural literacy is nothing more than mere rote learning of historical trivia and meaningless facts. This is something educators are trying to move away from, you say. Aren’t educators trying to use new teaching methods based on experiential learning and critical thinking? You would be correct to bring this up. However, I don’t think it has to be a forced choice.

Having new learning tools doesn’t automatically eliminate any old ones that are still of value. When Einstein introduced relativity to science, Newtonian science was and is still legitimate. When science then moved to using even newer tools such as quantum mechanics, it did not throw out the tools from Newton and Einstein.

Likewise, we should continue using experiential learning and critical thinking in the educational process. This does not mean we then need to become culturally ignorant. But doesn’t this mean there will be too much material for people to learn? Information has exploded so quickly, people have barely enough time to keep up. Wouldn’t teaching cultural literacy just take valuable time away from our other ongoing, personal educational goals (our personal education is never finished)? Why is cultural literacy so important?

Past president of the American Federation of Teachers,
Ed McElroy, says that if our society "made sure that all students, regardless of race, income, or neighborhood, were exposed to a rich, challenging, sequenced curriculum in important subjects, schools could make a much bigger difference than they already do."

In other words, we need to teach more than learning how to read (a "mechanical process", Dr. Hirsch calls it). Reading needs to be within a context that is "content-rich." A significant portion of people in our culture lives without a fund of basic knowledge. This keeps them from functioning more effectively because they do not understand what is often being said. For example, let’s say you are a sports fan and you hear someone tell you that the local team has risen phoenix-like from last place to taking the conference championship. Does this sentence have anything to do with the city of Phoenix, Arizona? Was the person talking about the graduating players going on to play for the University of Phoenix? Was a subtle reference being made about NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander? A basic understanding of Greek mythology would have immediately made sense of this comment. The phoenix was a mythical bird that died every thousand years by being burned to death and then reborn from the ashes. The reference to "phoenix-like" now obviously means the local team rose like the phoenix from the ashes of defeat to a new life of a winning championship.

Or take another example. A friend of yours says that a mutual friend is a woman who "doth protest too much." Why would a person use such strange language? Whatever does this mean? If one knew this was a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the meaning would become apparent. First of all, the word "protest" meant something different in Shakespeare’s day than it does ours. When we use the word today we are talking about denying or objecting to something. In Shakespeare’s day to protest meant to make a vow or make a solemn declaration. This expression in the play meant that when the Player Queen made vows or declarations, they were so over the top that she lost all credibility to her listeners.

Although many people may have heard the words
"phoenix" or "protest," understanding the meanings of these words requires that fund of basic knowledge we've been referring to, a "common point of reference." Only when we understand the meaning of the words that are used within our culture can we understand one another.

For some people, reading is difficult for a number of reasons. For others the skill is just unfamiliar and we know that most of us would rather not do unfamiliar things that make us uncomfortable. Yet, as we all know, the more we do something unfamiliar, the more familiar it becomes. We become more culturally literate by not only reading more but also by reading about things we don’t know much about. As we become more knowledgeable, reading will seem less like a chore and more like something that brings us pleasure.

If you are wondering how culturally literate you are, you can check this out at a website that allows you to test your cultural literacy. Testing your cultural literacy has nothing to do with your intelligence or education. It is a way of finding out the gaps in your cultural awareness. It is only when we become aware of our deficiencies can we begin to take action to improve ouselves. This website can open up new avenues of ideas and information for you to find out about. You can find out your cultural strengths and weaknesses privately at a website called
The Literacy Company.

If you are interested in helping children become more culturally literate, you can look at Dr. Hirsch’s
Core Knowledge Series of books that he began as a project in 1997. It includes books for all children between Kindergarten and Sixth Grade. Each book includes the knowledge that a child at a specific grade level needs to know as she or he begins their journey towards cultural literacy. My guess is that reading these books with your child will also help you fill in your own gaps. If you are a parent who home schools your children you will find these books an invaluable reference.

For adults who want to improve themselves in this area, Dr. Hirsch has written, with two colleagues,
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Each chapter in this dictionary is devoted to a specific topic such as "Idioms," "Technology," "Mythology and Folklore." Amusingly, Micky Mouse is an entry in the Mythology and Folklore chapter. This book can be used by all adults for increasing awareness of the culture in which they live and living that cultural richness on a daily basis.

To become culturally literate can mean more than being familiar with the now but also with our past. So much of who we are as a people and how we think can be easily traced to civilizations from thousands of years ago. Finding the connections between these ancient peoples and our world of today can be fascinating and mind-expanding. Most of us know that a thumbs up for a movie is meant to tell us that we would probably like that movie. However, in ancient Rome a thumbs up meant a gladiator was now condemned to death. Much of our language and thought patterns germinated in Greek and Roman culture. Finding these origins helps us to find our roots. Here are some books you can think about if you would like to expand your awareness of who you are and where you came from.

The next article in our illiteracy series will take a look at scientific illiteracy. This is important not only from a curiosity standpoint. We live in the age of science. In the long history of humanity, it was only "yesterday" that science began to change our ability to more fully understand our world. It also gave us the means to have more control over our world. It is a tool for satisfying our curiosity, tackling difficult problems, and letting us experience the awe and wonder of this strange and mysterious universe in which we live.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Innumeracy is "the mathematical counterpart of illiteracy," says computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter. It describes "a person’s inability to make sense of the numbers that run their lives." Although Dr. Hofstadter coined the term, mathematician John Allen Paulos made the word part of the common vocabulary with his book, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. Since its publication in 1989, it has been translated into thirteen languages.

Dr. Paulos is not saying that everyone needs to be a mathematician, but rather one must be able to understand the consequences in everyday life of how our society uses numbers. The consequences of innumeracy are not as visible or obvious as the consequences of illiteracy. Nonetheless, they can be just as profound when they contribute to "confused personal decisions, muddled governmental policies, and an increased susceptibility to pseudoscience." He wonders if this is why people would buy a home having a $2,000 monthly mortgage when they only make $4,000 a month? Or why a person might borrow money at thirty percent interest in order to buy a large screen plasma television?

The difference between illiteracy and innumeracy is that the former affects mostly uneducated people whereas the latter affects people who are both intelligent and well-educated Many people who are extremely competent in many fields of knowledge and can understand complicated issues may tremble when confronted with numbers or probability.

For example, some people won’t travel to other countries because they are afraid they might be killed by a terrorist attack. Yet, they continue to travel locally in their car. The odds? Your chances of dying overseas by a terrorist attack is about 1.6 chances out of a million, yet you have a 1 chance in 5,300 of dying in the family car.

Journalist, Chip Scanlan, tells about his innumeracy and what negative effects it had in his professional career as a writer. "In high school and college, I was a terrible math student. I flunked geometry, was totally bewildered by algebra. Trigonometry I ran from. I had trouble balancing a checkbook. As a reporter, I was painfully aware of my innumeracy every time a percentage appeared in my story. Budget stories made me cringe. Without math skills I was not as effective a journalist, and my readers weren't as well-served as they could have been. It wasn't just the mistakes I made or the agonies I went through trying to figure things out. As a reporter I regurgitated statistics without understanding them because I didn't feel capable of interpreting them. I'm sure I missed stories and screwed up others because of my weak math skills." He goes on to say his dilemma is not uncommon in the journalism business.

Sometimes, people can make numerical claims that are publicly embarrassing. Years ago when the speed limit debate was taking place in America, a Washington lobbyist, Clarence Ditlow, made a public, numerical goof. He published an article explaining why he believed raising the speed limit above 55 miles per hour would be dangerous.

His heart was in the right place because he was trying to educate people against driving too fast by explaining how far a car can travel in one second. He made the following calculation: "A vehicle traveling 55 mph covers 807 feet in one second, almost three football fields. At 70 mph, a vehicle covers 220 feet more or 1027 feet in one second." Anyone who has driven a car knows they are not going the length of three football fields each second. If you care to do the calculations, you will find that at seventy miles an hour you only travel 103 feet each second.

Innumeracy has many faces for many people. One such face is seen when people say that "there is no such thing as a coincidence" — a belief that philosopher Sigmund Freud held dearly to his heart. By underestimating the likelihood of coincidences, people believe that something strange or mystical must be afoot when a coincidence happens. For example, most people would consider it a coincidence that if in a room of only twenty-three people any two people would have the same birthday. "Common sense math" appears to support this notion. Most people would calculate it this way. Since we would need 367 (counting a leap year) people in a room to be absolutely certain of two people sharing the same birthday, then it seems "obvious" that there is only a 6% change of this happening with only 23 people in a room (23 divided by 367).

Innumeracy can also raise its head in financial matters. Assume your friend invested $1000 in the stock market and the next day her investment went up 60%. Yay! The next day the price dropped 40%. Your friend might shrug and say "Great, I’m still 20% ahead in my investment." "Wrong," you would say. You would tell her that she actually lost $40 of her original investment. Here’s how you would explain it to her. Her 60% gain the first day would leave her with $1600. The next day when this $1600 went down by 40% she was left with only $960. If this doesn’t make sense you can easily check it with a simple calculator.

Statistics is one of the fastest ways for innumeracy to come bubbling to the top in any conversation (if no mathematicians are present). Although developed in the eighteenth century mainly for the purpose of developing a theory of gambling games, statistics today are the mainstay of pollsters. Commonly, innumerate people decry the results of polls because they don’t understand how it is done. The statistics that comprise polling can be baffling because it seems impossible that enough people could be polled to account for a country’s entire population. How can asking a small group of people what they think of an issue be used to say that a certain percentage of all Americans believe something specific about that issue?

Additionally, we know that people are not honest all the time so how do we know that people being asked personal questions by pollsters are going to be honest? Mathematicians have come up with a clever solution to the problem of lying that could be used by pollsters to account for any lying from the people they question. Dr. Paulos gives an example in his book of how someone could estimate the number of people in this country who might engage in a potentially embarrassing sex act (use your imagination here). Suppose you randomly asked 1000 people whether or not they engaged in this unusual sex act. Just asking the question is useless because there obvious reasons why a person would avoid being honest about their sexual behavior.

However, let’s say that each person is asked to flip a coin of their choosing. Before the question is asked they are told to flip the coin and privately look at the result of the coin flip. If the coin lands on heads, they are supposed to answer "yes" to the question being asked even if they have to lie. If the coin shows tails, they are to answer truthfully. Now the person being polled knows that nobody will ever be able to know if he or she answered the question honestly or not.

Next, each person flips their coin and looks at it in secret prior to being asked the sex act question. Some say "yes ," others say "no." When we have finished asking the thousand people let’s say we find that 620 of them answered yes. So, how do we interpret the results? Simple. We know that 500 people answered yes because odds of getting heads is 50%. We throw out these answers. Now we know that of the 500 people left who answered truthfully, 120 people, or twenty-four percent, answered "yes"honestly about their sexual behavior.

One of the ways that statistics teachers teach numeracy in an introductory statistic course is to have their students solve the well-known Birthday Problem mentioned above. With simple math tools of probability, it can easily be shown that there is a 50% chance that a room of 23 people will have the same birthday. Gamblers have used this fact as a "bar bet" for years by betting someone with odds in their favor. The gambler would rig the odds so that even though they lost half the time, they would win more money when they won the bet than they would lose when they lost the bet. There are many variations of this non-obvious observation. Dr. Paulos notices that "at least two people living in Philadelphia must have the same number of hairs on their heads." Figure that one out.

There is an interesting stock market scam that is based on innumeracy but isn't legal so you may not run into it. It goes something like this. Let’s say you received an unsolicited email from a person claiming to be a financial advisor and he was predicting the direction a particular stock would take in the following week. The week goes by and the prediction comes true. Your next email explains his company can do this because of their just-developed proprietary computer model. This email also makes another prediction of the same stock. Surprisingly, they are also correct on this prediction. This happens six weeks in a row and by now you are becoming interesting in how they can do this and seeing mega-dollar signs in your eyes. You are hooked because now the "advisor" tells you that for a reasonable sum of money you can buy into their program and become wealthy in a matter of months. Most people would jump at the chance.

Here’s the problem. What you would not know is that this person sent out the same first letter to 32,000 people. Half of these letters told people the stock would rise, the other half are told the stock would drop. This means that 16,000 people would have gotten an email with the correct prediction. Which ever way the stock actual goes, these 16,000 people who got the correct prediction would get a second letter with a new prediction. The "advisor" would use the same principle: 8,000 people would be told the stock would go up while the other half that it would go down. This pattern continues until 500 people have been given six correct "predictions" in a row for the stock.

These are the "marks" for the scamer. They are all now sent the "if you pay a fee you will have untold wealth" letter. They are told that they only have to pay $500 in order to win big next week. They each figure they can easily get their $500 back in just a week. Since you don’t know 499 other people just got the same letter you send in your money and start planning for retirement. Since everyone sends in the money, the stock "advisor" is now $25,000 richer in just six weeks. Of course, nobody ever hears from this miraculous advisor again.

Belief in predictive dreaming and precognition is also enhanced through innumeracy. How many people have you heard say something like this? "I dreamed my brother, who lived in another country, died one night and when I awoke I received a phone call saying he had had a heart attack in the night and died." This experience can feel spooky to both the dreamer and people who hear the story.

Simple math can easily explain this precognition. I won’t bore you with the calculations but the numbers show that of all the people in the world who remember their dreams (we usually have more dreams than we can remember) about 3.6 percent of all the people will have a predictive dream on any given night. Although that number seems small it is significant because there are so many people in the world. We can expect that millions of people would have at least one precognitive dream every year while hundreds of thousands would do so each night.

When innumeracy and human emotions are combined (which invariably they are) we find that most people make many decisions that are wrong -- especially when it involves risk. It has been shown many times that people will avoid risks when seeking gains, but choose risks to avoid losses. This principle was co-discovered by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel prize winner in economics.

Let’s say you had the choice of winning $30,000 or making a bet that has an 80% chance of of winning $40,000 or a 20% of winning nothing. Most people would take the thirty grand even though the average gain from the second choice would be $32,000.

If the scenario were changed so that you it was certain you would lose $30,000 or given a second choice where there was an 80% of losing $40,000 or a 20% chance of losing nothing. In this case, most people would take the second choice even though it would be wiser to take the 80% change of losing $40,000.

Numbers are a part of who we are because we live in a world saturated by numbers. Technology, which is all about numbers, is advancing exponentially as is information from our technology. Thanks to the ubiquity of computers and the Internet, we are bombarded hourly with information and we have to decide whether to accept new information or reject it. Fortunately, we don’t have to make all the choices by ourselves.

We can make wise choices by using numerate people who understand numbers and know how to do legitimate research. One such example is the team of Barbara and David Mikkelson. They are excellent researchers and are experts at sniffing out rumors, urban legends and new myths. Their website, Snopes, often uses mathematics to find out the truth of dubious claims wending their way through cyberspace.

Numeracy is also required of all scientists since mathematics is the language of science. We need to listen to scientists for getting through the daily barrage of fluff, lies, and half truths poring forth from media outlets and their so-called experts. Even well-meaning and smart people can be propagators of nonsense by being innumerate. Scientists, mathematicians and engineers can help us get clarity on many issues. For example, Peter Aczel, is an audio engineer who has debunked nonsense in the world of high-end audio. His online magazine, The Audio Critic, is the place to head if you plan to spend any significant amount of money on new or even used high-end audio equipment. His back issues begin in 1991 (even though he began his magazine long before then) and well worth the read. His no-nonsense intelligence and sharp wit that does not suffer fools gladly will keep you entertained for hours.

Religion and innumeracy are common bed fellows. America is the most religious country in the world, yet for all its popularity, religion can promote certain myths as absolute truth. For instance, some religious people believe in a literal Flood as described in the book of Genesis. Fortunately, most religious people understand this story as a metaphor with much deeper meaning than can be had from a merely literal rendition.

Why is it difficult to accept this story literally? That is because the story is loaded with numbers — numbers that some people don’t take seriously or avoid even if they take the story seriously. The writer of this Genesis story says that ". . . all the hills that were under the whole heaven were covered . . ." Taken literally, this means the entire surface of the earth was covered by at least 20,000 feet of water which would make the water about four miles deep (the deepest part of our planet’s oceans in the Mariana Trench which is over 6.8 miles deep). That was a deep flood. Even worse, the Flood Story tells us that it rained steadily for 40 days and nights for a total of 960 hours. Doing the math tells us that the rainfall was at least 15 feet per hour! This is enough of a downpour to sink an aircraft carrier, let alone a small wooden ark with thousands of animals on board.

Mathematician John Allen Paulos wrote his book on innumeracy because, in his words, "I'm distressed by a society which depends so completely on mathematics and science and yet seems so indifferent to the innumeracy and scientific illiteracy of so many of its citizens."


Best, J. (2001). Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling numbers from the media, policians, and activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Paulos, J. (2001). Innumeracy: Mathematical illiteracy and its consequences. New York: Hill and Wang.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Webster's New Third International Dictionary defines "illiteracy" as "The inability to read or write, or the actual or perceived state of being uneducated or insufficiently educated."

When we think of illiteracy we immediately think of people in third world countries or the few dirt-poor areas of highly educated countries. Since the United States puts so much emphasis on education we don’t see illiteracy as a major problem in this country. We are leaders in research and educational opportunities. Our scientists have received over 130 Nobel prizes in the last hundred years. Americans have also received a number of Nobels for literature and economics.

Britain has some of the most prestigious universities in the world with Oxford and Cambridge. California has ten world-class campuses in its system — more than most countries have universities. This is not to mention the multitude of California State University campuses. Add to all this the multiple universities almost every state in America offers in addition to private universities in many states and you can begin to see why American is a leader in education and research. The University of California has produced 65 Nobel laureates with the Berkeley campus, alone, having twenty-five faculty who have won the prize.

So what does illiteracy have to do with America? Unbeknownst to many, we have forty-two million adults in our country who simply can’t read. That is a lot of people! Surveys have found that another fifty million people read no better than a 5th grade reading level. Is this just a passing problem? Not really. Twenty-five percent of all teenagers drop out of high school. Even sadder is that of those who do graduate, another twenty-five percent are at the same educational level as someone who stopped their education at the eighth grade. These numbers are huge. To illustrate the size of the problem, there were fewer people who voted in the 1980 presidential election than there are illiterate people in America. How few? Sixteen million fewer voters than those who cannot read or write.

Most of us don’t know about nor do we want to think about the appalling amount of illiteracy in this country. How can a society that is becoming more dependent on increased technology hope to find enough workers with these rates of illiteracy. One of the assumptions of our founding fathers was that a democratic society would be based on generally high levels of literacy.

In 1955 Rudolf Flesch stunned this country with his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. Time magazine called his book "the outstanding educational event of that year." Since then, experts have found out that American illiteracy is still growing at an unacceptable rate. We are told that every year 2,250,000 more adults are added to the rolls of functionally illiterate people in this country.

I am going to do a series of blog articles on illiteracy, but not the kind that has been identified above. There are other kinds of illiteracy that involve people who can read and write just fine. There are several types of illiteracy that apply to educated people. For the next several weeks, I’m going to write an article on each one of these.

One type is called" innumeracy." It is a word devised by a cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, who used to write a column for Scientific American. In the early 80's he used this word to describe the inability of anyone who could not understand the basic numbers that are used in our society. Then, in the late 80's, a mathematician, John Allen Paulos, wrote a book entitled Innumeracy. Is not knowing how to use numbers really a big deal? According to the experts the answer is "yes," because struggling with numbers has a high social cost such as wasted money, bad social policies, and unnecessary risks.

Somewhat related to this is another kind of illiteracy called scientific illiteracy. Mark Twain spotted this problem a century ago when he said, "The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so." We live in an age of science yet surveys have shown that many people have not shed the baggage of superstition. We are a people who have a very long list of things we believe in that "just aren’t so": lucky numbers; healing through pyramids, mind power, crystals, homeopathy, etc.; extrasensory perception; subliminal learning; biorhythms; astrology (55% of American teenagers believe in astrology; 75% of people in Great Britain believe it is scientific); UFOs. Much of scientific illiteracy occurs because people don’t understand what science is, what it is supposed to do, and how it is done.

Cultural illiteracy was a problem E.D. Hirsch identified about twenty years ago. Dr. Hirsch taught us that reading was not enough. We must also understand what we read and this can only be done if we have a basic fund of knowledge that we bring to our reading. Cultural literacy is only obtained when a society shares a basic knowledge of geography, history, literature, politics, and democratic principles. When Jay Leno finds random people on the street who cannot give him the name of the current Vice President of the United States, then something is wrong. Recently, we had the sad experience of someone who aspired to this office who had appalling gaps in her understanding of the world. She even relished in the idea of calling herself a "rogue." Perhaps she might have been more reluctant to do so if she knew the definition of the word. The dictionary says it means (1) a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel. (2) a scamp. (3) a tramp or vagabond. (4) in biology it refers to an usually inferior organism.

Have you ever heard of religious illiteracy? It has come to light that many religious people are not well-versed in their specific religion. For Christians to whom the Bible is the foundation of their faith, a recent survey discovered that only thirty-three percent of Evangelicals actually read the Bible; only twelve percent do so daily. Professor Stephen Prothero is chair of the religion department at Boston University. He has found that "Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about their religion." He gives examples:
  • Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels
  • Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments
  • Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses
His research has shown him that faith in American is "entirely devoid of content." His conclusion is that America is "one of the most religious countries on earth and also a nation of religious illiterates."

Although I may throw in a few more examples of different types illiteracy, the final blog will be on financial illiteracy and will be authored by a guest. He is Jason Kelly, whom I greatly admire as a person of substance and highly knowledgeable when it comes to understanding the market and other financial concerns. He is the best-selling author of five books on investing and personal finance. I think you will really enjoy his article on this blog. Prior to his blog article, you can check him out at