This clip from one of the alphabet networks is going viral. An MSNBC talking head, a bunch of MSNBC production staff, and a member of the NYT editorial board all think that Bloomie could give every man, woman, child, and intersex individual in the US a million dollars out of his personal wealth. This was based on an idea floated by some rando on Twitter.
In all likelihood, most of these people could probably do the arithmetic correctly if presented with the problem with pencil and paper. The issue in not that they fail at arithmetic as a set of algorithms to obtain a numerical answer. The trouble is they don’t understand arithmetic on an intuitive level well enough to realize that one million times 325 million is a much bigger number than the number of dollars Bloomie could possibly have. It’s not necessary to do the division to know the tweeter’s idea was wrong.
It’s not hard to imagine most viewers knowingly nodding their heads in agreement with these two individuals. Those same people (the ones on TV and those at home) have no idea how to assess less outrageous, but still wildly erroneous, claims by journalists and activists. This extends beyond math to science in general. This is alien territory for a great swath of humanity in a world that increasingly is reliant upon these cognitive skills.
This failure of mathematical and scientific intuition is on full display with COVID19. Absurd claims abound concerning the efficacy of masks, about the mortality rate, and a host of other topics. Many have no idea of the order of magnitude of the size of a virion or a typical aerosol yet feel at liberty to opine on how well masks work. It’s like a bunch of illiterates styling themselves as critics of the works of Shakespeare: “Well, in my defense, I once heard someone recite one of his sonnets.”