Ellen Peters, "Innumeracy in the Wild: Misunderstanding and Misusing Numbers" (Oxford UP, 2020)


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To many mathematicians and math enthusiasts, the word "innumeracy" brings to mind popular writing like that of John Allen Paulos. But inequities in our quantitative reasoning skills have received considerable interest and attention from researchers lately, including in psychology, development, education, and public health. Innumeracy in the Wild: Misunderstanding and Misusing Numbers (Oxford University Press, 2020) is a unified treatment of these broad-ranging studies, from the ways more and less numerate people differ in our perceptions of risk and our number-based decisions to the roots of our numeric faculties and how we can make the best of them. Dr. Ellen Peters has made significant contributions to the subject and brings her expertise and an exceptional clarity to its presentation.

Precious little of the research surveyed in her book could fit into this interview! We discussed the three components of numeric ability—objective numeracy, subjective numeracy, and the innate number sense—and how they vary within and across populations. We talked through some key lessons from this literature, such as the importance of calibrating our self-efficacy to our real ability and an awareness of how our cultural allegiances can drive even our mathematical reasoning. And we identified some of the essential personal habits and policy levers (early childhood education!!) available to us in our efforts to improve our individual numeracy and our collective numeric decision-making. For a firm grounding in the state of knowledge and urgent open questions, there may be no better resource for many years to come.

Suggested companion works: Contributions from the labs of Isaac Lipkus, Angela Fagerlin, John Opfer, Edward Cokely, Rocio Garcia-Retamero, Jakub Traczyk, Agata Sobków, Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Keith Stanovich, and Valerie Reyna.

Ellen Peters, Ph.D., is the Philip H. Knight Chair, and Director of the Center for Science Communication Research, in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. As a decision psychologist, she studies the basic building blocks of human judgment and decision making and their links with effective communication techniques and has published more than 150 peer-reviewed papers on these topics. She is former President of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Experimental Social Psychology. She also works with federal agencies to advance decision and communication sciences in health and health policy, including having been Chair of FDA’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee and member of the NAS’s Science of Science Communication committee. She has been awarded the Jane Beattie Scientific Recognition Award and an NIH Group Merit Award. Finally, she has received extensive funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Cory Brunson is a Research Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data. He welcomes book suggestions, listener feedback, and transparent supply chains.

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