Article on Decline of Math Ability Contains Bad Math

Fun times to be had by all!

Commentary from the Guardian on a thinktank’s article on the decline of mathematics in the UK:

Unfortunately, in any case, even this aspect of their report may be marred by simple errors in applied arithmetic. The thinktank is worried that the loss of A-level mathematicians has resulted in lost earnings for the economy. If the number of maths candidates had remained constant, they say, there would have been an additional 430,700 over the period 1989 to 2007. In the adjacent table they say 430,031, but heck, that’s the least of our worries.

They reason thus: “Each of these students would have earned an additional £3,080 a year due to the market premium on A-level mathematics, equating to £136,000 over their lifetime. The total gain to the economy over the period would have been over £9bn.”

Now we’ll put aside the fact that the BBC said “a maths A-level puts on average an extra £10,000 a year on a salary [not £3,080], says Reform” because I can’t get £9bn for that period with those numbers (I get £12bn assuming a linear decline, although they may have access to more detailed data), and in any case Reform makes assumptions which are not, at face value, tenable, including the notion that the extra earn would have survived a widening group of people with maths A level.

Arguably this is a case of confused economics principles; more likely it is simply the thinktank taking the worst case scenario for a more sensationalized report. Certainly, there are shortages; certainly, people with mathematics skills can earn more; however, any exposition on such should hold itself to high mathematical standards.


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