This doesn’t add up

Sure it does. You’re just doing it wrong:

A 2012 study comparing 16-to-65-year-olds in 20 countries found that Americans rank in the bottom five in numeracy. On a scale of 1 to 5, 29 percent of them scored at Level 1 or below, meaning they could do basic arithmetic but not computations requiring two or more steps. One study that examined medical prescriptions gone awry found that 17 percent of errors were caused by math mistakes on the part of doctors or pharmacists. A survey found that three-quarters of doctors inaccurately estimated the rates of death and major complications associated with common medical procedures, even in their own specialty areas.

So much for three out of four doctors. Not that we civilians have anything to brag about:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼” larger than the “3” in “⅓” led them astray.

Not that it’s relevant, but Johnny Carson once announced in his monologue that McDonald’s had passed the sort of milestone they used to put on the sign, and mused: “Fifty billion burgers! You know, that’s almost 100 pounds of meat.” Then again, he paid people to come up with stuff like that.


  1. fillyjonk »

    24 July 2014 · 7:18 am

    One of my colleagues, who teaches Microbiology, says she would never have cosmetic Botox therapy because, “I’ve seen them [her students] try to calculate dilutions.”

    I also once had a student – a 20 year old college junior – stop my class dead in the water when I referred to an “average” value. He did not know how to calculate an average. I stopped, boggled for a few moments, and then quickly did a demonstration of one.

    So yeah. I’m dismayed, but not exactly *surprised.*

  2. McGehee »

    24 July 2014 · 7:24 am

    Carl’s Jr. And Hardee’s have no apparent problem with the 1/3-pound fraction, nor I think does DQ. Either people have figured fractions out or the A&W story may be … questionable.

  3. CGHill »

    24 July 2014 · 7:30 am

    Braum’s, which vends such a burger, always spells it out: “Third-Pound.” Perhaps that’s the trick.

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