I work for a Journalism school, doing computer work. Our student body is largely out of high school, into college, and I would guess by and large, they’re all Bachelors of Arts majors. Which means they’ve opted to take language courses rather than math/science. Which is fine, but it tells you that these students largely aren’t math people.

For years, some of the faculty here at the school have complained about the lack of basic math skills possessed by the students, but no one really had a firm grip on those skills, or knew what to do about it. Finally, last Spring term (2011), an Electronic Media instructor decided to address this, and gave her 16 students a math test each week, with the requirement that they get all the answers right, and then would be allowed to skip all subsequent tests. Doing so was required for the class, so failure to pass any of them would result in failure to pass the class. What were these “terrible” math problems? Largely, they were percentages. One of them based on the graphic for this post. Something like: “The devil makes it through 500 of the 666 slides. What percentage of the total is that?”

Not surprisingly, many of her students balked at this, and some even questioned if she’d actually fail them if they didn’t pass the tests. In the end, all of them did. What WAS surprising is that some of the faculty at the school actually had a problem with this idea. This seems absurd. Basic math understanding is a good thing, and if someone hopes to become a professional journalist, they’re going to encounter numbers. Sports journalists get scores and stats, political journalists get budget numbers, or census info, etc. And just as journalists have to do basic fact checking for their stories, they’re going to need to be able to say “this info is crap” when it’s obvious. No one is going to expect a journalist to double check Stephen Hawking, but they are going to need to be able to see if something is glaringly wrong. Some instructors even went so far as to say they became journalists or journalism instructors because they wanted to avoid math. This is insane. Even english majors are going to encounter math now and again. The hope, at some point, is that there will be a “math for journalism majors” class. Though that only serves to separate out the journalism majors from the rest of the student body, and may give them different math skills than others. Thankfully, there are journalism professors and students that do statistical analysis, and other work that requires some real math knowledge.

What really came of everything in the class, though, was the realization that people didn’t suck at math, even if they thought they did. What it really boils down to is FEAR of math. Because at some point in their educational career, they were presented with “scary” math, or worse, had a teacher that ruined math for them ((I had this happen in high school. I had a terrible trig instructor, and this largely stunted my math education for years)). This has been studied before. It’s called “Math Anxiety“, and it’s getting more and more attention in recent years. And it would seem to be related to math aptitudes between genders.

My hope, and I think the instructors hope, is that given enough traction with this experiment, we might actually see fewer math gaffs in everyday reporting, and a more math savvy population in general (since many of those that major in journalism never go on to be journalists ((Just as I majored in Political Science, and ended up as a Systems Administrator)). Only time will tell.

As a note, the post title is in reference to a mockumentary Fear of a Black Hat.