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How people who were not taught math can be gulled into believing implausible claims

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From Thomas P. Sheahen at American Thinker:

We all learned in elementary school that “you can’t divide by zero.” But what happens when you divide by a number very close to zero, a small fraction? The quotient shoots way up to a very large value.

There are several indices being cited these days that get people’s attention because of the big numbers displayed. But the reality is that those particular big numbers come entirely from having very small denominators when calculating a ratio. Three prominent examples of this mathematical artifact are the feedback effect in global warming models, the “Global Warming Potential,” and the “Happy Planet Index.” Each of these is afflicted by the enormous distortion that results when a denominator is small.

Consider the Happy Planet Index:

Using this index, Costa Rica with a score of 44.7 is number 1; Mexico with a score of 40.7 is number 2; Bangladesh with a score of 38.4 is number 8; Venezuela with a score of 33.6 is 29; and the USA with a score of 20.7 is number 108 – out of 140 countries considered.

Canada “achieves a Happy Planet Index Score of 23.9 and ranks 85th of all the countries analysed.” But that makes no sense, given the lineups of non-English-speaking people waiting to get into Canada who would not accept Venezuela or Mexico as an alternative—but would accept the United States.*

When in doubt, doubt. It turns out that there is a mathematical hitch in all this: the small denominator, in this case the “ecological footprint,” inflates the ranking:

Any country with a very low level of economic activity will have a low value of “ecological footprint.”More.

So a bad place to live can score high on the Happy Planet Index and a good place to live can score low.

Are we getting the picture? If algebra is racist and objectivity is sexist and engineering is about feelings, not facts, a population will graduate from school that is easily gulled by claims that better educated people might see through. Wonder who that’ll help?

Sheahen’s comments on how this affects global warming indexes are worth noting.

*Some don’t like to come right out and say that the United States was really their first choice but then a relative wrote them with a job offer in Canada so…

See also: The rigor mortis of science: The war on measurement itself has commenced

The math stigma is a secret plot by the lottery and casino cabal to keep their clientele. EricMH
Learning math isn't the problem, and learning math won't help to spot these scams. Math won't tell you that "ecological footprint" doesn't determine happiness. Math by itself won't spot the basic problem with "global warming", which is a lack of correlation between CO2 and climate patterns. You need common sense and an understanding of how things work. The best way to gather how things work is by working with things. If students are spending most of their time gardening and cooking and taking care of animals and repairing things, they will know how Nature works. A teacher can use the puzzles encountered in these activities to develop math and writing and reading. Learning starts with hands and heart. Head follows. polistra
The manipulation is more linguistic than mathematical. They're hoping you'll pay attention to certain words without reading the rest. The name of the index makes it sound like it's ranking the happiness of people, since only people can be really happy and answer a survey question. If you read the details, it's not even pretending that the "Happy Planet Index" ranks the happiness of people. It says Australia is 105th out of 140 even though they rank 12th in perceived wellness. The name of the index isn't actually related to what it measures. It combines two different statistics into one index and gives it a misleading name. You could replace "ecological footprint" with "haggis consumption" and then countries where they eat more haggis would be the happiest. It reminds me of the research papers people often cite as evidence that Darwinism is scientifically well-founded. The paper may include "Evolution" or "Natural Selection" in its title, but if you read the abstract it's not even about that. It might explain the genetic variations that result in a mouse having feet and a bat having wings, but it doesn't even make any claims regarding how that variation came about. It's not that it's wrong. It just doesn't say what people think it says. OldAndrew

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