Blogs & Comment

Bad math marks are bad for business: Elaine Chin

Like childhood obesity, we need to fix this

One bad math calculation in the medical world can mean death for a patient. Failing math skills lessen opportunity for innovation across all sectors. Yet Canadian students are falling behind. According to a report released from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, Canada now ranks 13th in the world for international math performance when we’ve previously always made the top 10. That slip should be cause for alarm, and when John Manley, CEO and President of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, declares poor math scores “a national emergency,” as he did on Nov. 28, we should take heed.

Instead we get the dismissive response of Rudyard Griffiths on the CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange suggesting Manley’s comment is rooted in CEOs wanting more bean counters to count their money. Really? To me, this type of discourse belongs in the same camp as those who reject concerns about childhood obesity – another national emergency. As a society we’re just now beginning to recognize the financial and societal costs of children who suffer from obesity-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, historically reserved for older people. I meet parents who dismiss their child’s obesity diagnosis, for example, and challenge me by saying, “Johnny is a bit heavy, but he’s healthy. He just loves to eat, he’s growing and he will grow out of it!” Can we grow out of poor math skills, too? I think not.

I’ve written before about how dumb and fat go together. Denial and dumb make a scary match, too.

Whether we’re talking about the childhood obesity epidemic or our slide down the math smarts scale, we have to acknowledge that both present a crisis situation. I’m not alone in this opinion. Consider these statements from top thinkers:

“If childhood obesity continues to increase, this young generation could be the first in American history to have shorter lives than their parents.”   — President Bill Clinton, from his book, Giving, How Each Of Us Can Change the World.

“Theoretical physics is the most basic and powerful science, responsible for essentially every modern technology. Indeed, history shows us that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology.” — Stephen Hawking, in a speech to the grand opening of the Stephen Hawking Centre at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Physics, of course, is applied mathematics. Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of BlackBerry and of the Perimeter Institute, told the Canadian Business CEO conference in November that without physics, we wouldn’t have electricity, radios, TVs, Internet, computers, and our indispensable personal communication devices. Not to mention CT and MRI Scans and our ability to read the genome. These inventions, based on mathematic principles, have transformed our lives (Lazaridis puts his money where his mouth is having made a personal commitment of $100 million to the Institute, a centre of excellence for physics).

Indeed, the next generation of discoveries may also depend on physics.

While quantum physics may be out there for many, let me make mathematics practical to your health. We need to do math calculations to give you the right dosage of medications which generally can cure you of many ailments. A bad calculation can lead to death. We have seen this too many times. We need math formulas to determine which cancer agents are working and which are not so we don’t play Russian roulette with your life. We need applied math to help us decode DNA so that we can predict illness before it occurs – saving lives.

The best future jobs all require a strong set of mathematics. The top paying jobs of the future are all expected to involve high level applied math. Just take a look at Canadian Business’ list of Canada’s Top 50 Jobs for 2013.  Certainly not every child has strength in math or interest, but let’s work toward giving them a better start in their early learning years. Education is about keeping opportunities available. We must aim for the top and not be complacent by being ‘average’ because it is no longer cutting it. We are falling behind and before long our children will lose out. They will become the gofers of the new economy.

I don’t think it’s right to allow Johnny to stay fat and shorten his life. So why should we allow Suzy to miss a chance at discovering the next medical advancement because she lacks math skills?

Elaine Chin, M.D.

Founder, Executive Health Centre

Dr. Elaine Chin helps people take charge of their health to live a long and healthy life. A global expert in personalized and preventative medicine, she combines leading edge testing and proven science with a holistic health approach.