Saturday, August 20, 2011

If the Stakes are So High, Why Do Math Errors Still Occur?

I have always been fascinated by numbers. I find them beautiful and incredibly useful, when used correctly. Numbers and math, together, are a language through which we can express ourselves and make sense of the world around us. Coupled with technology and computers, algorithms enable us to get information at our fingertips at the speed of electrons, and drive the scheduling and execution of complex processes in transportation and logistics, energy, healthcare, and finance.

As a student at Brown University, in the dual degree (ScB & AB) program with majors in Applied Math and Russian Language & Literature, respectively, I would spend hours in the Sciences Library working through math problems (when I wasn't devouring economics books in the Rockefeller Library). I always had a fascination with networks, optimization, and game theory and solving those tough word problems plus modeling systems and computing solutions to them. I figured that, if I could work through all the problems in the various texts, I would be prepared for those exams and I was -- perhaps scholarship students just know that they have to work harder.

Another aspect of math that I love is that many answers are either right or wrong and I appreciate that kind of clarity and objectivity in what may be a very nuanced world. Now my passion has become my career as a researcher and writer and educator.

The Numbers Guy also has a fascination with numbers and writes a blog and column for the Wall Street Journal. His focus is on a critical theme -- how numbers are used, and abused. He holds a degree from Yale in Math and Physics and his column is always thought-provoking and illuminating.

He got in touch with me this past week, since he was working on a column as to why math errors persist in high-stakes situations, even in the computer age. With the dramatic and costly errors both in the UK and the US lately regarding high-stakes economics data, analysis, and policy impacts, his latest blog posting and column are a must read and you can read my take on what has been happening.

Perhaps we need an organization such as the National Transportation Safety Board for Data and Analytics Quality and "Safety?!"