Stories are sticky. Statistics, not so much.

Last month I was listening to a Freakonomics episode that really stuck with me.

That’s what it was about. Stickiness.

As teachers, we would like our lessons to be sticky. As citizens, we would like certain political messages to be sticky. A few years ago I attended a required PD (professional development) workshop that was all about stickiness. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything about it, other than the topic.

Statistics, in contrast, don’t impress anyone (except, perhaps, statisticians). I was reminded of this contrast a few minutes ago when reading an article in the New York Times about a massive and maskless motorcycle rally going on right now in South Dakota. One tidbit:

Bruce Labsa, 66, drove from North Carolina last week to be among the first in town. This was the first year he would be able to attend the rally since retiring, and he did not want to miss it. On Friday, he was not wearing a mask, and he said he had no concerns about catching the coronavirus.

“I don’t know anyone who’s had it,” Mr. Labsa said.

Clearly the personal story of a single friend or relative was going to have more impact on Mr. Labsa than the statistic of 60,975 cases on a single day (yesterday). Furthermore, note that the reporter knew that a single sentence quoted from a single real person — itself a story, albeit a very short one — would probably have more impact on a typical reader than a statistic about crowd size. People don’t do numbers. (OK, we STEM geeks do numbers, but most people don’t.) We remember stories, even when they aren’t true. That’s part of the success of certain Republican politicians, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. That’s why Men of Mathematics is a good book, even if it’s full of inaccuracies.

But nothing is a panacea. A clear majority of students like a lesson in which a story illustrates a mathematical point. But what’s still troubling is that there is a not-insignificant minority who would rather just be told “how to do it” and not be subjected to “irrelevant” stories, especially historical ones. What do we do about that?

(PS: Proofreading this post before publishing it, I noticed that autocorrect had changed “maskless” to “massless.” Hmmm…)

Categories: Life, Math, Teaching & Learning