Hollywood’s math problem

A few days ago, I stumbled on this montage of math-hating movie clips. Few things irk me more than when people brag about their inability to do math, so this was pretty much guaranteed to whip me into a frenzy of annoyance.

In scene after scene, characters talk about flunking, hating, or being bad at math, brandishing their lack of ability like a trophy at times. What makes me so annoyed about this anti-math mashup is that these attitudes appear in the curated world of the movies, in which scriptwriters actively harvest the whole of human life for the bits that are most evocative, easy to connect with, or funny and true. For some reason, disliking math counts as character development.

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In real life, some people do feign a little embarassment when they’re struggling to calculate the tip. Usually, though, that’s just theater; most people seem to take almost a guilty pleasure in not knowing how to do simple arithmetic. They confess their ignorance of basic mathematical concepts with the assumption that it will bind them more closely to other people who have the same problem. Maybe my exasperation is misplaced, but I do not know people who publicly celebrate the fact that they have a limited vocabulary. Most people would consider reading essential; why do these movies treat math like something only geniuses can do? More generally, in what other sphere of life do people secretly (or not so secretly) feel a little less alone because they are ignorant?

People certainly don’t have to study logic and math at the highest level; it’s been a long time since I personally did any tough math problems. But the kind of analytical thinking that people use to reason their way through a problem set can be pretty useful in other areas of life, just as communicating competently is an essential life skill.

And usefulness aside, basic mathematical principles provide another way of looking at the world that can pull back the curtain on everyday phenomena and provide a new perspective for appreciating something. The recent interest top chefs and the public have taken in the scientific principles that underlie food textures has been one heartening development. And I always love it when scientists use math to provide some new insight into how everyday things work, such as how a cat laps milk or that desserts can be classified not just on how they taste, but based on proportional clusters of a few key ingredients.

Fortunately, the comment streams that follow the video point to this webpage from Oliver Knill, who teaches math at Harvard University, which points out the (surprising) number of movies in which math actually plays a useful role.

Maybe there’s hope.