Add Nonsense Math to the list of number-induced anxieties and incompetencies plaguing not only the nation's school children but people who should know better. A recent study shows even highly educated professionals appear to be unduly impressed by irrelevant math thereby demonstrating what's been dubbed the Nonsense Math Effect

Kimmo Eriksson, a Swedish social psychologist and mathematician couldn't help but notice some of his peers in academia exhibited an extra special regard for math and science. He suspected people with advanced degrees but without hard-core math and science savvy might be swayed by meaningless or "nonsense" math. So he asked people with doctorates and master's degrees from a variety of disciplines to read abstracts from real journal articles then rate the quality of the research. Half read the actual abstracts, the others, abstracts doctored with a single line, an irrelevant mathematical equation  - "A mathematical model (TPP=T0fT0df2fTPdf) is developed to describe sequential effects."  If there were truly no differences in quality between the two abstracts then we'd hope most people would rate them equally high.

What happened? The reality was a bit messier. Check out who fell for the mathematical mumbo jumbo and rated the "nonsense math" study as better:

 73% in education and other fields*

 62% in the social sciences or humanities

 42% in math, science and technology 

Notice the number of education folks faked out up by math. It's anyone's guess how many are now teaching our kids math. Then there's the healthy number of the calculator-carrying crowd struck by a few math symbols.   

True nobody read the entire study and maybe many wouldn't have judged either article as superior. Maybe people wouldn't have misjudged content within their field. To be fair, this is simply impressions based on a small amount of information and who knows, maybe abstracts (or articles) with math equations generally are superior. I haven't seen that study.  

I wonder if the same differences would appear with good math (i.e. relevant math). Call it the Good Math Effect. It's reasonable to question whether math anxiety might account for or intensify these effects. There's also the possibility women's judgments might be further compromised by stereotype threat, essentially the fear of confirming the stereotype women perform poorly in math.  

In any event, the Nonsense Math Effect deserves some attention especially since attention spans or at least appetites for lengthy articles have been shrinking along with our smartphones. If it's true pediatricians, psychiatrists and others accustomed to reading and memorizing lots of highly boring highly technical details now routinely pass over journal articles in favor of abstracts then what about the rest of us?

Is there any hope for parents navigating the onslaught of questionable numbers and statistical figures in the media?

*Please note the baseline for determing significance is 50%  where each article has the same chance to be rated better.  

About the Author

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media.

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