Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Second Literacy

Although the invention of the movable type printing press by Gutenberg in 1440 is often quoted as the reason for the growth of literacy, it was not until hundreds of years later that reading and writing actually became common skills. The reason for this was the industrial revolution, which made printing cheap- and thus accessible to the masses.

Before this time, the "common man" relied on the "scholars" (usually the wealthy) in their towns to read for them. This meant that there was a small percentage of the population who were reading books and pamphlets of the time, interpreting them, and then telling the rest of the population what those words on the page meant. When cheap books became available, not everyone was happy about it. Those who had previously controlled ideas and influenced the masses with the interpretations that favored their point of view argued the "dangers" of teaching certain classes of people to read and write.

It has not been a smooth ride. Certainly the printed word has been misused and abused people in addition to freeing new ideas. Political propaganda, advertising,and government controlled press are all examples of this literacy revolution being manipulated against people. But once the masses experienced the power of understanding those little squiggles on the page, there has been no turning back. It is not a perfect world, estimates run between 15-20 percent illiteracy rates globally, and literacy is certainly not equally distributed amongst all classes and geographical areas. But today people across the globe read and write and share ideas and experiences in a way that continues to transform our thoughts and lives.

About 200 years after Mr. Gutenberg, a small treatise called Observations on the Bills of Mortality was published by John Graunt. At about the same time, Pascal and Fermat were developing probability theory. For statistical literacy, these events were the equivalent of Gutenberg's printing press.

Now, nearly 200 years after the industrial revolution, for the first time raw data and statistics are available cheaply to the masses. ( See CDC data here, for example) We are currently poised on the brink of a revolution in thought and understanding, and I look back and wonder if the people living and working in a time before literacy was common could have predicted the impact that reading would have on their world. We still live in a time when a very small group of people have a good understanding of statistics, interpret the data and tell the rest of the population what all of those numbers mean. Just as there were arguments that reading was unhealthy for women, we continue to hear how there are "liars, damned liars and statisticians". Look at what reading has brought to the women of the world. Just as there were arguments made that reading was too hard for "colored folks", we still here arguments that math is too hard to teach and learn. We just elected our first black president who is incredibly articulate and literate, and people all over the world are poised for the change they hope he brings.

There are some who are working not just to bring the raw data to the masses, but to bring a means of understanding them to the masses. Just as McGuffey created a set of readers that were age appropriate and helped to teach generations of children to read, Hans Rosling is working to create graphical tools that make statistics more accessible. If you have not listened to any of his GapCasts, or his TED talks, I highly recommend them. Check out this one, for example:

The curve of social change is going to be even more radical for this literacy revolution than for the first. During the first curve, it was already common for those who were "well educated" to be literate. Today, even most college graduates have no real understanding of statistics. During the first revolution, even in middle class working families, there was some ability to read simple bible passages and do some basic writing for business clerical reasons. Today, most hardworking blue collar families have no one who understands the difference between correlation and causation.

We are currently living in the equivalent of a world flooded with free books- stacked on every table, in every corner of every building- but with no one picking them up and reading them because reading is "too hard". I suppose it is possible that we will continue to live in these surroundings, allowing our statistical priests and scholars to tell us what the data means and what we should think, but my mind struggles against that. I can not imagine that the human spirit will continue to resist the urge to explore and pick up that book and learn to read. When we cross the bridge and statistical literacy becomes common, the variety of free data sets easily available will be much wider than the variety of books that were available to the first common readers.

When I hear people arguing that probability and statistics is much too hard to teach small children, I am visualizing an illiterate parent or grandparent in the early 1800s who did not see the utility of sending small children to school to learn to read, but wanted to keep them home to do useful work. When I hear people argue that math is important, but statistics is too advanced and not very useful, I visualize those same parents arguing with teachers that going to school beyond the 5th or 6th grade was a waste and it was time for the 12 year olds to go to work and be productive. It is easy now to look backwards and see how important early childhood education and a High School ( or college) diploma is, but can you look forward and imagine a world where equivalent statistical literacy is taken for granted?
What sort of a world will you choose, one where data is interpreted and manipulated for you, or one where people can come to a real understanding of data?


  1. Great article! I remember taking stats in college and having the professor show us how we could use stats to correlate the reproduction of frogs in NC with the amount of rainfall in WA. It is so easy to skew numbers! That being said, I see a population of people who are complacent to let someone else interpret for them, tell them what to do, and whine because they are not happy with the outcome - in all aspects of life. In my corner of the world I see this with regard to health and wellness, but it is prevalent across the board. So Orwellian, and so sad.

  2. On the other hand, some schools are using video games to teach basic math skills.

    While emoticons may start showing up in Academic papers, I hardly think that lack of hardpaper books will keep people from learning to read from our new Electronic Age.

    Certainly, they'll learn to search before the attempt undergraduate stats courses, though...

  3. I don't think it's an either-or situation. Some basic understanding of statistics should be made available to everyone, but if everyone took all the time necessary to get something out of the raw data, society could get bogged down via information overload. Onee reason I've decided to go back to school to go into research is that I'd grown tired of hearing other people's conclusions in a particular field and want to learn enough to come to my own conclusions with direct exposure to data. There are plenty of other areas in which I'm content to hear conclusions based on other interpretations of statistical information, but, with critical thinking skills, that doesn't mean I swallow everything I'm told without question. The key is what I just mentioned: improving critical thinking skills and peoples' ability to question the information they are given.

  4. @Dr. Robert C. Worstell The thing I think many people miss is that it does not take an undergrad stats course to be able to understand and interpret statistics. I would argue that we should be teaching the basics of statistics at the same time that we teach the basics of reading.

  5. @dan I so completely agree with you on the critical thinking skills. I think if you have some basic statistics understanding and critical thinking skills you can rationally decide how/when to trust other people's interpretations. Without those skills you are an illiterate at the mercy of random strangers to interpret the data of the world.