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Carl Wernicke: Are Numbers Confusing, Or What?

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  Years ago I was at a snacks counter in a local mall to get some cashews. They were priced by the quarter pound, but I only wanted a taste. Seeing the electronic digital scale on the counter, I asked the clerk for a tenth of a pound.

The 20-something clerk looked blankly at me, then said, I don’t know what that is. Swallowing my shock, I pointed to the scale, said set it to point one, and enter the price per pound. She did, I got my nuts, and wandered off worrying about the fate of the Republic.

I’m starting to worry again.

Now, I’m a word person, and never was that good at math. But let’s set some definitions here. Most people define any curriculum involving numbers as math. Myself, I have always considered math to be the higher realms: geometry, algebra, calculus, etc. That is, higher math. Everything else is arithmetic. And I have always been a whiz at arithmetic. I can add, subtract, multiply and divide with the best.

I have always believed that developing good arithmetic skills is fundamental to a functioning society, applicable to a huge swath of everyday life. The inability to do simple computations creates all sorts of problems.

Higher math, meanwhile, is obviously important, and certainly students should be introduced to it. But I’m leaning toward those who argue, as noted recently in the New Yorker, that we’d be better off offering courses in arithmetic numeracy than pushing everyone through math courses they will never use.

That’s another debate. But we clearly need to do a better job teaching people how to do basic arithmetic.

Returning from a trip recently, I stopped in an upper-scale grocery store in Tallahassee. I asked the deli clerk for a third of pound of some lunchmeats, then wandered off to browse. Returning, I noticed a huge pile of sliced meats, with him still slicing. Excuse me, I said, I asked for a third of pound; How much are you giving me?

He said, "0.75."

I said that’s three-quarters of a pound; I asked for a third, .3. Turns out that in struggling to figure out my complex order, he had consulted with a colleague, and they agreed that .75 was one-third of a pound. So two college-age employees of a deli that sells products by weight brainstormed together to conclude that one-third equals .75.

My faith in the future of the Republic shaken, I hit the road for Pensacola.

A week later, I ordered a third of pound at a local grocery deli. As soon as I picked up the suspiciously fat-looking package, I knew civilization as we knew it was in trouble. The label said, .77.

Excuse me, I said. I asked for a third of a pound, and you have given me .77. Isn’t that it? He asked. No, I said, one-third is .3; you have given me three-fourths. Oh, he said, I must have figured it from the wrong end.

What really scares is that at this point I understood his logic.

I grabbed my package, staggered out of the store, and on my way home studiously avoided looking at any road sign with numbers on it. There’s no telling what people think they really mean.

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.