I find myself using the word innumerate more and more. Anything to do with climate change is about the numbers — how much will the planet warm? How much will it cost to change the weather? How much useful electricity do wind turbines produce? The arguments of everyone from trolls to Naomi Klein, to Sir Paul Nurse avoid the numbers. And the only time Greenpeace discuss numbers, they seem to pick the wrong kind — dollars instead of degrees. Then they miss the biggest dollars in this debate anyway (but only by a factor of 3,000). Numbers are just not their strong point.
Some people avoid the numbers strategically, — because it’s a debate they can’t win. Sir Paul Nurse hopes we don’t notice that he doesn’t even make an argument, he just declares his side “won”. He tosses a red herring about CO2 being a greenhouse gas. (Which is not what the debate is about. Perhaps he’s heard of feedbacks? He doesn’t say.) Otherwise, he declares the majority “know the cost benefits are worth it”, which is a/ a logical fallacy, b/ a lot like a car advert, and c/ completely wrong. The last UK poll I saw, showed more than 60% of Brits didn’t even believe in a man-made climate, let alone approve the cost of trying to “fix” it. Now Sir Paul is probably very numerate (being a Nobel in Medicine, and President of The Royal Society), which begs the question of why he seems so scared of talking about climate numbers? Perhaps he’s anxious?
Apparently some people are at greater risk “to fear math” not just because they did badly at it, or had nasty teachers and mean gloating friends. But genetically they might be the anxious kind of person, and not be too hot with math skills. About 40% of the differences in math anxiety, as it is called, is possibly due to genes.
Math anxiety it seems, is a hot field of study. It was a new term for me. A different study using brain scans reckons that when people worry about maths, their brain feels real pain. It’s not something we hear about much on skeptical blogs. Probably since more than half the readers of skeptical blogs had a maths, physics or engineering background. Likewise most geoscientists and engineers are skeptics (and also not too scared of math).
Since maths anxiety seems so common among climate activists, perhaps it’s time we asked if climate-anxiety causes maths anxiety? Or rather whether maths anxiety causes the climate kind…
Who’s afraid of math? Study finds some genetic factors
The study, which examined how fraternal and identical twins differ on measures of math anxiety, provides a revised view on why some children — and adults — may develop a fear of math that makes it more difficult for them to solve math problems and succeed in school.
“We found that math anxiety taps into genetic predispositions in two ways: people’s cognitive performance on math and their tendency toward anxiety,” said Zhe Wang, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University.
The results don’t mean that math anxiety can be blamed solely or even mostly on genetic factors, the researchers emphasized. In this study, genetic factors explained about 40 percent of the individual differences in math anxiety. Much of the rest was explained by the different environments — in the school, in the home and elsewhere — that the twins experienced.
But the findings do suggest that we can’t say that classroom quality, aspects of the home, or other environmental factors are the only reasons why people differ in how they experience math
“Genetic factors may exacerbate or reduce the risk of doing poorly at math,” said Stephen Petrill, professor of psychology at Ohio State, and the principal investigator of the study.
“If you have these genetic risk factors for math anxiety and then you have negative experiences in math classes, it may make learning that much harder. It is something we need to account for when we’re considering interventions for those who need help in math.”
The study appears online in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and will be published in a future print edition.
The study included 216 identical twins and 298 same-sex fraternal twins who participated in the Western Reserve Reading and Math Projects, an ongoing long-term study of twins in Ohio.
Children entered the project in kindergarten or first grade and were assessed in up to eight home visits. This study included data from the last two home visits, when the twins were between about 9 and 15 years old.
All of the twins completed assessments of math anxiety, general anxiety, math problem solving and reading comprehension. The researchers used statistical tools to see how these various measures of anxiety and math and reading ability were related between fraternal twins and between identical twins. That allowed them to make conclusions about how differences in math anxiety could be explained by genetic factors and how much could be explained by differences in the environments the twins encountered at home, at school and elsewhere.
Petrill said it is important to study anxiety as it applies to how well children learn math.
“You say the word ‘math’ and some people actually cringe,” he said. “It is not like learning how to read, in which people don’t normally have any general anxiety unless they have some kind of difficulty.”
And anxiety can have a profound effect on learning, Wang added. Fear can make it difficult for people to further develop even the math skills that they already have.
“If you’re anxious, it is often harder to solve problems. The anxiety response actually inhibits some people’s ability. We have to help children learn to regulate their emotions so that the anxiety doesn’t keep them from achieving their best in math,” Wang said.
But one issue was that, before this study, researchers didn’t have a clear idea of how important the genetic component of math anxiety is in children and how it originates: Is it because of a lack of actual math skills — such as problem solving and ability to do calculations — or is it related to a person’s predisposition to anxiety?
“We found here that it is both: Math anxiety is related to both the cognitive side and the affective side of general anxiety,” Petrill said.
This may result in a downward spiraling process in which these genetic risks to anxiety and poor math performance work with environmental influences to lead to math anxiety. This may leads to further problems in math performance, which exacerbates the math anxiety symptoms.
Petrill said interventions to help people suffering from math anxiety may have to account for both genetic and environmental factors.
He said his research group is currently using EEGs to measure real-time brain activity associated with the anxiety responses during math and non-math problem solving.
Zhe Wang, et al . Who is afraid of math? Two sources of genetic variance for mathematical anxiety. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12224