math is your superpower

Today was my last class of the semester before the final. In most of my courses, I give a fun talk about what professors really do outside of the classroom. I also go over my one (or seven) things that I want students to learn from me every semester. At the end of the talk, I tell students that while our world is becoming more complex and quantitative, math is often underused. Math is a superpower.

I once heard that the world runs on eighth grade math. I don’t think that is true for many industries (especially the ones that hire operations research graduates!), but a study compiled in a Northeastern University study shows that few Americans use advanced mathematics on the job [Link to the Jordan Weissman article in The Atlantic].

I remain optimistic about the need for advanced math. First, it’s possible that few workers use math because few workers are proficient in math. In fact, “Upper Blue Collar” workers are the most likely to use math. This should motivate us to teach math better, not to conclude that it isn’t needed. Second, it’s worth noting that the Northeastern study data is summarized across the workers surveyed (not across industries or companies). It’s certainly possible that nearly all companies perform statistics but that relatively few workers actually do the statistics (22% of upper white collar workers in the figure above) and that the average worker isn’t always aware of it.

The bottom line is that the survey suggests that relatively few workers do the hard number crunching, so there is a competitive advantage for those who are willing and able to do it. Math may not really be a super power, but it’s something that most workers do not get to enjoy on a regular basis.


3 responses to “math is your superpower

  • InvisibleHand

    Interesting. Although the need to understand the complex math, statistics, and so on might be quite a bit higher than the percentage that actually does the number crunching.

    Are engineers “upper blue collar” workers?

  • JF Puget

    I guess it all depend on the meaning of “use”. I assume that it was meant as direct use, conscious use, in the above.

    I bet that indirect use is much higher, mainly through software that includes some advanced mathematics under the hood.

  • isomorphismes

    Wait … doesn’t that make it like the opposite of a superpower?

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