Making Sense Out of Numbers

Numbers like words have meaning. We use numbers to quantify what we see in our world. Their significance is often attached to who we are. A year of kindergarten appears like eternity to a five-year old, but as we age and reach midlife, that one year becomes a small fraction. To a poor family, one thousand is a big number especially if the number is associated with money. To a struggling household, even a hundred is huge. On the other hand, to a well-to-do family in the Philippines that is used to spending daily at least a thousand pesos (20 US dollars), one hundred pesos appear miniscule. Number sense is indeed linked to who we are. Thus, when the vice president of the Philippines makes the mistake of multiplying 40 by 4, it speaks volume not so much about her arithmetic skills but more on who she is.

Above copied from Good News Network Philippines

Leni Robredo, in her attempt to discredit the Duterte administration, is simply trying to make the economic situation in the country appear especially dire. With inflation, prices of basic goods are indeed on the rise so she uses the price of the staple food of Filipinos as an example to drive her message. The price of a kilogram of rice has risen by four pesos so for a family that consumes ten kilos of rice per week, the additional cost is forty pesos per week. To make things look bigger, the vice president then proceeds to calculate the extra cost of rice for a month and this is where she makes a mistake. She multiplies 4 by 40 and ends up saying 1600. One thousand and six hundred is of course much bigger than the correct answer, one hundred and sixty. After all, one hundred and sixty pesos per month, about three US dollars per month, do not really look that ominous.

Making an arithmetic mistake is vastly different from cooking numbers just to prove a point. Numbers do provide information, but the mathematics must be sound, after all, numbers can also be used to deceive. Sometimes, numbers do tell the world who we are.


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