ICYMI: There will be math

mathMy latest op-ed, title above, appeared in The Virginian-Pilot Thursday. I ran across an article – “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” –  the other day that mentioned an old story about 1/3 versus 1/4 hamburgers. (Apparently, some folks thought the anecdote was made up – but marketing students have been hearing about it for years.) U.S. students perform poorly in math when compared to their global counterparts, even those from educated homes,which isn’t really a surprise since U.S. adults are pretty bad at math, too.

(An ODU professor has done a video of common algebra errors – worth a look if for no other reason than to remind yourself of what you don’t remember about the subject, especially if you don’t use it every day. Accountants tend to use the basics – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – much of the time, which leaves me with rusty algebra skills when I need them.)

But math is an important part of our everyday life – numbers are thrown at us on a regular basis. And followers of politics really need a better handle on math than others, because that is often the data that is put out.

And that’s why I found the PolitiFact Virginia report on Mark Warner’s voting record troubling. First, saying that Warner “votes with President Obama” is misleading. The president is not a member of the legislative branch – so he doesn’t get a vote. (And if we think people are bad at math, our knowledge of civics is even worse. But that’s a topic for another day.) This alone should have been sufficient for PFV to rule the statement false.

But let’s set that aside and look at the bigger picture (emphasis mine):

There’s a few things that should be understood about presidential support statistics.

For starters, they deal with only a fraction of the votes Warner has cast. CQ found that Obama staked out a “clear position” on only 419 of 1,473 roll call votes in the Senate — or 28 percent — since Warner became a member in 2009.

Warner voted with the president’s position on 406 of those 419 votes. More than half of them, 226, were to confirm presidential nominations for federal posts.

So really, we are looking at 97% of 28%, based on the total roll call votes, which aren’t even all of the votes a senator casts.

By their own admission, more than half of the votes that they are counting – remember, 28% of the roll call votes – were to confirm presidential nominations. The link on the PFV site to comments by Sen. Chuck Grassley is broken but a search of the Republican senator’s website brought up the link where he said in November 2013:

In total, the Senate will have confirmed 207 lower court Article III judges.  We have voted against three nominees.   207 – 3 is a success rate of 99 percent.  I think that is a pretty outstanding record for any President.

So the entire Senate votes with the president – at least on judges – 99 percent of the time. I haven’t seen any campaign statements on that anywhere.

When this whole “Elected official _____ votes with President ____ XX% of the time” started years ago, I thought is was BS. It’s even more so now. But as our country’s math skills are so poor, it’s easy shorthand.

Don’t buy it. Bone up on your own math skills and draw your own conclusions.

My column appears in The Virginian-Pilot every week, usually on Thursdays. You can see the columns as they are published here, or navigate to them from the PilotOnline.com homepage by clicking on Opinion and then choosing my name at the bottom of the dropdown list. You can also see the columns by liking my Facebook page. Although my column appears weekly, I am not and have never been an employee of The Virginian-Pilot nor am I paid for my contributions to the paper.


4 thoughts on “ICYMI: There will be math

  1. I’ve always been competent at math. But am starting to realize that math is, indeed, another language. And, like all languages, it’s best learned at an early age. That said, I think it’s important to get our children past the stigma. I used to tell my kids, “It’s only ‘math.’ Don’t freak out.” But we won’t be a competitive nation if we don’t fix this.

  2. The only way I made it through math in high school was by writing programs for my TI-83 to do all the work for me. I couldn’t do calculus by hand if my life depended on it, but I could write dozens of lines of code from scratch after getting my calculator cleared before a test and still manage to finish on time. I’d venture to say knowing how to write a computer program to do math for you might be more useful today than being able to do it by hand.

    1. Exactly the problem. If you can pass Calculus with a calculator, it’s not being taught for understanding, but just to pass a standardized test.

  3. Now YOU’RE doing it, Vivian: “So the entire Senate votes with the president – at least on judges – 99 percent of the time.”

    No — only a MAJORITY of the Senate is required to confirm a judge, not the ENTIRE Senate.

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