The trouble with numbers | Editorial

I got into an argument with a mathematician during my college years. I said math doesn’t exist and his mind nearly melted. What I meant was that math is a human construct, a method we use to describe the world. Since then I have learned other species can count and or seem to have some concept of numbers, so I may have been wrong and destroyed a good brain for nothing.

The truth is I’ve only appreciated numbers on one occasion, and that was when I discovered a book at my Grandmother’s (a mathematician) house. It told the history of the origin of modern numbers. If only I had that book in high school, I thought, I may have done better in Algebra. Let’s be real though, it was the stories I loved, not the numbers.

Communication and words are fluid. Meanings evolve over time, and tone and body language both affect the intent behind what is said. Although there are gaps and moments when the exact word can not be found, there are after all only 400,000 words in Webster’s dictionary, the fact we can be rendered speechless is precisely what I love about language. That moment gives us pause to process the information and space to invent new words and new ways of communicating.

Numbers are rigid, to the point of meaninglessness. While they are useful for illustrating the depth of an issue, they often don’t help people to grasp reality.

The earth has grown warmer by .14 degrees since the 1880s. There are 74 Southern Resident Orcas left. There have been over 200 mass shootings in America this year. Inflation is up eight percent, COVID has killed over a million Americans, and one in five women are raped.

I had a debate with a close relative about that last number. He didn’t believe it despite the fact I was reading it directly off the website for the National Sexual Violence Center. I suspect it was a number he could not fathom, the horror and trauma behind it that so many women and girls around the world endure – because remember that number reflects what occurs in the U.S alone.

And that is the issue with numbers. Despite their constant reliability, it is so easy for people to ignore them and say they are simply wrong and tell ourselves everything is fine, the house is not on fire as we continue with the status quo.

It takes a brave soul to stand up and tell their story. But by doing so they may turn those rigid numbers into something people can connect to and rally behind. By communicating we can not only inspire hope but come up with plans of action. Numbers have no hope or action plans. They form the foundation brick by brick outlining a problem. Numbers almost always come together in the form of a problem. With communication and understanding, we just might solve the equation and discover the true meaning of x and y.