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Chapter 5

Explain what numbers mean

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#Data and decision making

How many people secretly struggle to understand major political, cultural and medical decisions like inflation, debt and even Covid 19?

During Covid, the daily government briefings spoke of the infection rate, the death rate, testing targets, dates and timelines.

But a 2019 study by National Numeracy showed only 1 in 5 adults in England have GCSE grade C or above in maths.

And people with dyscalculia, low numeracy and maths anxiety will likely struggle to estimate large and unfamiliar numbers. 

Understanding and making sense of data is stressful anyway, but in a pandemic, it’s worse.

The endless stream of media concerning hundreds of thousands of coronavirus tests, people, and equipment makes it easy to see why Covid 19 was viewed differently by people who feel anxious about numbers.

We have a moral duty to explain, in simple terms, what numbers mean on a societal, political and spiritual level. Numbers are emotional. 

Data and numbers underpin our basic needs, like school grades, budgeting for food, and medical procedure success rates. 

In the medical space alone, we can see the ways people might struggle to understand: 

  • the effectiveness of a drug 

  • how likely they are to experience a side effect

  • the probability of recovering or not

People who score high in maths anxiety are less confident in assessing the risk of medical treatments.

#Getting data visualisation right

Remember that data helps people to make decisions. And sometimes, it’s a useful way to communicate a message. Particularly for people with dyslexia or ADHD who prefer images to words.

Because we are bombarded with numbers and data daily, we rely on businesses to interpret data clearly. But people don’t realise they don’t understand.

A 2021 Plain Numbers report suggests that people make choices about money on a mistaken belief that they understand the information given to them. Nearly half feel overwhelmed and stressed when dealing with money. 1 in 4 admit needing help understanding the options they have taken out. 

A Financial Conduct Authority 2020 survey found that people who had fallen into debt felt it might have been avoided if they had understood their options better.

Most data in tables, charts and graphs are inaccessible to disabled and neurodiverse people.

The latest data visualisation course from the Government Analysis Function recommends:

  • providing a text alternative that explains what a chart is showing

  • keeping text like chart titles and source information out of chart images

  • making chart labels and annotations have at least a 4.5 to 1 contrast ratio with the background colour

  • not relying on colour alone to indicate a difference

A researcher from Cancer Research UK wrote about designing visuals

  1. Do you need a colour, or could you choose another way of distinguishing data?

  2. Choose a colour blind friendly palette

  3. Check images using a colour blind simulator 

More inclusive data visualisation resources. 

#The cost of misunderstanding numbers 

Low numeracy and number confidence cost the UK economy £25 billion a year.

14 million people in poverty pay extra costs for essential services like energy, credit and insurance. It’s called the poverty premium, which is £430 per year for low-income households.

People in poverty have low numeracy and high levels of maths anxiety

There’s a gender numeracy gap, too. Women have lower levels of number confidence than men, which raises a high barrier to opportunities, career choices and earnings. On a sliding scale, women rate their maths confidence at 6 versus 8 for men

There’s more on why women are twice as likely to be anxious about using maths on the Money Unfiltered podcast.

Lack of number confidence is an obstacle that stops people from achieving their full potential and from making their greatest possible contribution to their health, family and society.

Adults with low numeracy often have fewer employment opportunities and end up in lower paying jobs. 1 in 5 people say they will avoid applying for jobs because it, or the interview process involves maths.