Debunking 3 Common Misconceptions about Math

Throughout my career, I have encountered quite a few statements regarding math as a discipline. I was to discuss three common misconceptions regarding the field of mathematics.

Math isn’t used in the real world.

Math is used everywhere! It is infused in the very laws of nature. We rely on math for everything: communication, travel, medicine, etc. However, it is not surprising that people fail to realize when and where math is used. Engineers and mathematicians have cleverly abstracted out the math for reliability, efficiency, and convenience. We no longer need to perform the more mundane parts of mathematics because we have software packages to do it for us.

But is it still worth learning the fundamentals if we have software available to us? Of course it is! There is always a better way to do something. Even if the math itself is not changing, the situation it is applied to changes for each application. Take matrices for example. We have algorithms to efficiently compute all sorts of matrix operations: addition, multiplication, determinants, etc. However, what if the matrix is sparse? In some instances, standard algorithms and storage options are extremely inefficient. We can take advantage of the sparsity to improve upon the operations. If we had never learned the fundamentals to begin with, we would have been unable to improve upon the software packages.

Matrices are just one example. Even though we have abstracted the fundamentals, the very foundation of advanced mathematics and customization rely on them so we must devote time and effort to fully understanding them.

I am not good at math.

I hear this time and time again. I am a firm believer that everyone is capable of learning mathematics. However, not everyone is taught math in a way that is conducive to their learning style. Some students are visual learners, some students prefer to read the definitions, some students need to see worked out examples. Unfortunately, our education system is not constructed in a way to teach to an individual student. Often times, mathematics is taught in a formulaic, direct approach instead of a creative, applied approach. We focus more on how to solve a problem instead of understanding why we are solving it to begin with. Many times, students are left behind and internalize a disdain for math. They do not understand that its an incompatibility between a learning style and a teaching style rather than a rebuke of their mathematical intuition.

Furthermore, mathematics is such a broad term. People are demotivated after failing to grasp one concept of math. I argue that just because you do not understand algebra doesn’t necessarily mean you will not understand geometry. These are different branches of mathematics; branches that require a different mindset. You may thrive in geometry because it is more about visualization and less about algebraic manipulation. Before you state you are “bad” at math, I challenge you to explore the other topics in math. Maybe you will find a subject you thoroughly enjoy.

Math is only useful for engineers and scientists.

A subject’s usefulness is not determined based on its prevalence in the field. Sure, engineers and scientists work in a field that is fundamentally mathematics, but I argue that math is just as useful to artists, plumbers, etc. At its core, mathematics is just problem solving. It involves a logical approach to the issue at hand. Look at a mathematical proof. You are given an input, maybe make some assumptions, and take the solution step-by-step until you realize a desired output. Every field has its problems that need solved. While some use physical laws and measurement, others use common sense and emotion. Whatever the medium, most problems require a solution and math provides the perfect way to chart the path to it.

Math is hard. I do not think many people would argue with that statement. However, hopefully, I helped provide more context regarding three common statements about the field.

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