Adding Up Our Fatal Losses on the Calculator

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), February 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

Adding Up Our Fatal Losses on the Calculator


Byline: PETER DOBBIE

WE are all terrorised by numbers.

The dice which falls with each month's salary slip tells us how little we are worth. The lottery tumblers confirm the truth that lunch is not free.

The politicians grasp the poll percentages the way Navy Wrens grab tribunal payouts for a grope on the bridge by some rating.

But we are no longer masters of maths. As a child I learned maths at school and at the racecourse, where bookies' eyes wore joyless hoods as they met occasional but confident demands for payment.

Now we go unarmed. Our stupidity in mathematics is remarkable in a country where the governing party boasts the most buoyant economy in Europe.

In our supermarkets we are lambs with special-offer pesto to the slaughter.

As we push and shove to spend more and more we have less and less idea how we are doing it. We have deserted the basics of mental arithmetic to a point where we stand unquestioning and watch a three-figure bill being punched out by a boy or girl we would not let babysit the dog.

Try offering them the loose change to help out a calculation and they Kevinise - going into a state of torpor, reaching for a bell which summons a half-wit manager.

Last week I read a letter from Professor Herbert MacGregor, head of zoology at the University of Leicester. In the letter he lamented how a doctor had caused the death of a young baby by miscalculating a drugs dose.

She had checked it using a calculator, putting the decimal point in the wrong place.

MacGregor went on to explain how each year he asked 150 first-year science undergraduates to do a series of basic tests involving simple arithmetic.

These youngsters have their sights set higher than the till aisle at Asda. Theirs is a world of calculi and theory. But when it comes to basic mental arithmetic they are like rabbits caught in a headlight.

MacGregor's test is based on the need to calculate how many blood cells there are in a living organism containing a certain amount of blood. To simplify this he tells his flock to compare it with the problem of working out how many glasses of wine of a certain size you get from a full bottle.

There are many people I know who can do this in their sleep. But, that aside, the doctor's five-second test sends his students into a state of panic. Only five per cent reach the correct result without a calculator - and even with a calculator the students get lost in the noughts. The professor describes the situation as `precarious'. …

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