Quantitative Literacy

The ability to interpret quantitative information as it appears in charts, tables, and graphs has always been important.

That said, thanks to the emergence of new technologies that count everything–from our web searches to our consumer purchases–numeracy is more important now than ever. Simply put, we live in a data-oriented culture. Thanks to tools like FitBit or the Apple Watch, we quantify our health: heart rate, calorie count, step count–and so on. When we post on Facebook, we count likes. On Reddit, we look at who downloads our posts or shares them. For students, in academic contexts where TurnItIn is deployed (at our expense as it vacuums in our texts), students view measures of our originality. In turn, scholars turn to Google Scholar for impact measures of their research and scholarship.

And the ecosystems in which we live, from Facebook to Instagram, Verizon to AT&T, Google to Bing, are watching us. Arguably, they know us better than our best friends and significant others as they track our clicks, purchases, likes, and posts. They know who our best friends are, what our sexual preferences are, who are colleagues are, and who follows us.

Quantitative literacy, also called numeracy, is the natural tool for comprehending information in the computer age. The expectation that ordinary citizens be quantitatively literate is primarily a phenomenon of the late twentieth century.  In contrast to earlier times when quantitative thinking was reserved for scientific endeavors, numeracy is now essential for deep understanding of nearly all academic fields.  Indeed, the ability to reason with numbers is an essential condition for substantive discourse in many domains–not least intellectual, economic, and political.  In the twenty-first century, literacy and numeracy will become inseparable qualities of an educated person.