Unfortunately for the mathophobes amongst us, the world is rapidly changing into a place where a certain level of mathematical and scientific literacy is absolutely essential. Global trends in population, resource availability, and communication will require that we make decisions as a society that are highly technical, while access to sound science and real information becomes more and more difficult due to the sheer volume of information available on the internet, a large portion of which is of dubious quality and authenticity. Without a technically literate population, that can sort through the nonsense and distinguish the science, the issues that affect us all may well be decided by individuals willing to do whatever damage necessary to the planet to promote their own personal financial gain. The uneducated are these peoples lawful prey.
Most estimates of population growth in the near future indicate that there will be about nine billion people alive by 2050. That is the equivalent of adding two more China’s to the number alive today. The largest percentage of this increase will come in the developing parts of the world. These people will place greater and greater demands on increasingly limited resources. We are already seeing the problems caused by carbon pollution, overfishing, deforestation, and the degradation of groundwater caused by industries responding to a natural human desire for a better life. Decisions we make over the next few decades in response may either cause or avert disasters.
Scientific literacy, and the required mathematical literacy necessary to acquire it, becomes even more critical with the availability of the internet. Without even taking sides on the issue, a quick search of the words “global warming” will produce millions of sites offering information on the subject. They present sides of the argument that are diametric opposites, some claiming it is a serious , man made problem that will lead to serious economic and environmental dislocation if ignored, and others claiming it is nothing more than an elaborate hoax that will lead to economic devastation if addressed. If it is addressed, what is the answer? Is it solar, wind, or nuclear? There are serious technical problems with each. If it is ignored, what happens if the climate predictions come true? What sort of geo-engineering or mitigation steps can prevent catastrophe? The answers won’t just be questions for the scientists and engineers to resolve. It will require a scientifically literate population to have the political will to understand the problem and implement the solution. The same problems affect every other issue where the sheer number of humans and the ability they have developed to use and abuse finite resources means that decisions made a long way away from us geographically will ultimately impact us directly. It is no longer a reasonable position to believe that math and science are things you don’t need outside of the classroom. These issues will affect everyone directly. You have to be able to decide how to vote.
Aside from the requirement that every person have a basic mathematical and scientific literacy there is the consideration of career choice. Any high school graduate without some exposure to upper level math has all but shut themselves out of the top 15 jobs with the highest starting salaries. Every one of the top 15, from engineering to actuarial science, has mathematics as its principle component. The starting salary of a petroleum engineer is over $83,000.00. Even if, at age fifteen, the idea of becoming an engineer is not exciting, it is irresponsible to allow students to foreclose the opportunity down the road. They are not ready to make those decisions. Even college students don’t usually declare a major until their junior year.
These are the practical concerns, but there are also aesthetic considerations. A general understanding of the “how” and the “why” is life enriching. An understanding of the exponential function permits an appreciation of how money compounds. An understanding of statistics may help with the realization that money spent on the lottery is wasted. Awareness of basic math and science finds its own applications for those willing to put them to use.