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“If you don’t get [the] … mathematics of elementary probability ... then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest’. So begins Dominic Cumming’s recent blog, with a memorable if somewhat eyebrow-raising quote by Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett’s partner). He continues the quote: ‘One of the advantages of a fellow like Buffett is that he automatically thinks in terms of decision trees and the elementary math of permutations and combinations.’
You may have heard of Dominic Cummings. He is a political strategist who was Campaign Manager of the UK ‘Leave’ campaign, and he credits much of that success to experts in ‘physics, mathematics and computer science’ who helped build a brand new piece of canvassing software for the UK, ‘to do things in the field of data that have never been done before.’
We are used to the wan rhetoric of ‘maths is hard’ in this country. Sometimes, a sour underlying taste of ‘…and also useless’ flavours it too. Telling people I work in maths education, a common reaction is to spin the narrative of ‘…and then I never used quadratics again. Totally pointless.’
Whatever your position on a utility curriculum, labelling mathematics as universally dry and futile is wilfully ignorant. Maths has been used for purposes both lofty and dark ever since the first person divided up their food fairly amongst their children - then cheated their neighbour out of a fair trade. Why? We trust maths. It’s hard. It’s gatekept by experts. It’s a language we uniquely associate with objectivity, hard facts, and logic – yet is used every day by highly subjective, irrational and selfish beings – us – to manipulate others.
Except we have a slight definition problem here. Mathematics – the language of pattern, measurement and logical rules – is not really what we’re discussing, exactly. Mathematics itself rarely has a moral aspect – it just is. What we actually mean is ‘statistics’ – the use of numbers as data in context. ‘9’ has no ethical value.‘ My time is worth 9 times yours’ or ‘9 people out of ten agreed with me’ starts to add statistical colour and gives us the ability to manipulate. Data are easy to use as part of pretty much any argument because what you ask, who you ask and how you ask it can change those numbers radically. Add that to the ‘maths = facts’ paradigm we have internalised and you can see why Dominic Cummings is such a fan of employing mathematicians for political campaigns.
The ‘decision trees and permutations and combinations’ that Buffett is so practised in are usually categorised under statistics, too. Risk, uncertainty, danger – this is the stuff political enterprise (taking its cue from advertising) is built on. The phrase ‘post-truth world’ may be new, but the concept of massaging figures, exaggerating numbers and misleading with data is as old as zero and probably older. ‘Lying with statistics’ means just that: the numbers themselves don’t even need to be made up, just the context or the conclusion.
But it’s not just about pursuing the underhand. Sasha Issenberg, in his eye-opening book ‘The Victory Lab’, argues that using data is improving personal engagement in politics – and cites the success of Obama’s campaign as a powerful win for democracy by data. David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, expresses it thus: “Mathematics won't tell us what to do, but we think that understanding the numbers can help.” This is the case for numeracy – being both literate and critical around numbers – which is described by National Numeracy as ‘connected to better health and wellbeing, better employment and higher wages’.
But more than this, Cummings argues that going further – not just basic numeracy, but true expertise in mathematics, data science, and physics – gives you a huge advantage in the world of politics. Think too, of the professional poker players, the British Olympic team’s ‘marginal gains’ triumphs, and the life-saving work of mathematical terrorist-busters the next time you hear that mathematics is useless. In the words of Anthony Painter: “In the battle between the ‘geeks’ and the ‘gurus’, it is the former who have increasingly won.” Maths is now being seen for the potent, incredible tool it is – and used by a variety of villains and heroes alike.