Because of my background in mathematics and statistics, I have been called upon by my department (the Math/Stat Department) to assist faculty members from the humanities and linguistics departments in performing routine statistical analyses for a few of their publications. While the actual statistical analysis is very low level (basic undergraduate statistics), I am of course more than happy to do the simple work and be given co-authorship on a paper.

However, in the course of performing these statistical tasks, I have found that some of these professors do not even know how to perform elementary tasks such as finding the average of a set of numbers, adding fractions with single digit denominators, or calculating 45 cubed ("There's no button for that on the calculator!"). These are all tasks that I literally knew how to do when I was in elementary school. It did not take a PhD in math to know how to do these things (or even a high school diploma).

Because of this, I have begun to wonder why we seem to be completely fine with supposedly "well-educated" (is that too harsh?) people being entirely incompetent at mathematics. Some of these people that I am asked to help have what I would deem to be 2nd or 3rd grade math skills. What if I, as a math researcher, only wrote on a 2nd or 3rd grade level and had to call upon the English department to write my papers for me? Or what if I could not even identify who painted the Mona Lisa (or that such a painting even existed)?

Should I suggest that my university begin encouraging 'non-math' faculty to become more competent in core mathematics?

I am not saying that these professors are charlatans and do not deserve their faculty positions. They are very knowledgeable on the specifics of their topic. And I am not trying to berate people for whom math is not their strongest subject. However, I wonder if there are steps that the academic community could begin to implement that would enforce a higher standard of competence in basic mathematics among "non-math" faculty.

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    I'm not sure this venue is the best for this type of question, but I am highly sympathetic to your concerns. – Bryan Krause Oct 31 '18 at 18:22
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    Worth noting that STEM researchers with very poor writing skills also exist and present the same dilemma. – cag51 Oct 31 '18 at 18:52
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    This is very difficult to correct. One reason is that the failure of the educational system occurred for many people at many different times and in many different ways. It isn't that they are dumb. They don't have the background, nor the time to develop it. If you were failed in the 3rd grade and never brought up to speed it is an almost impossible task to fill in the gaps. The fact that the can excel in other fields shows they have mental ability, it is just undeveloped and hence dormant in areas that you are comfortable with. – Buffy Oct 31 '18 at 19:01
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    @AzorAhai As in, they hand me a basic +-*/ calculator and say "This calculator cannot calculate 45 cubed." They do not understand that 45 cubed is 45 times 45 times 45. – Vladhagen Oct 31 '18 at 20:03
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    @user2357 "Because of my background in mathematics and statistics" – Vladhagen Nov 1 '18 at 15:41

Writing is part of your everyday life and an essential job skill, as a STEM academic. The comparison between your writing skills and the basic math skills of a humanities professor is only valid to the extent that these math skills matter for the humanities professor's job. By all means, if their mathematical inability is hindering their research or teaching, they should brush up. But frankly, I trust them to make that call, and to seek out the many resources that are already available for that purpose, if necessary. If they need "encouragement" to do this, I question whether it would be all that helpful. You could teach them to add fractions, but if they didn't use it regularly, they'd forget again. If your only reason for why they should know math is that you as a STEM academic know how to write, I think it's a stretch. It would be like a physical education professor coming to the math department and saying "I remember geometry, why can't all of you lift weights?"

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    I'm also not calling the physical education professor over to my office to help me lift a stack of three math books. – Vladhagen Oct 31 '18 at 18:31
  • @Vladhagen - but you seem happy to go over and do their math for them, so why shouldn't they let you? I haven't used my quantum mechanics in a long time, but I do know who to call to get the right answer quickly. – Jon Custer Oct 31 '18 at 18:46
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    I'm going to just guess that many academics in the English department are a bit appalled at the writing of STEM academics. Ditto for philosophers at the thinking of STEM academics, etc. Don't assume superiority too easily. – Buffy Oct 31 '18 at 18:46
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    We think we can write, but I'll note that almost all of our writing is directed at people just like us. That is a much easier task than writing so that anyone could understand. – Buffy Oct 31 '18 at 18:54

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