John Oliver said it best: April 15 combines Americans two most-hated things: taxes and math.  I’ve been thinking about the latter recently after hearing a fascinating talk last weekend about quantitative literacy.

QL is meant to describe our ability to think with, and about, numbers.  QL doesn’t include  high-level math skills, but usually is meant to describe  our ability to understand percentages and proportions and basic mathematical operations.This is a really important type of literacy, of course, but I fear that the QL movement could benefit from merging QL with SL–Statistical Literacy.

No surprise, that, coming from this blog.  But let me tell you why.  The speaker began by saying that many Americans can’t figure out, given the amount of gas in their tank, how many miles they have to drive before they run out of gas.

This dumbfounded me.  If it were literally true, you’d see stalled cars every few blocks in Los Angeles.  (Now we see them only every 3 or 4 miles.)  But I also thought, wait, do I know how far I can drive before I run out of gas?  My gas gauge says I have half a tank left, and I think (but am not certain) that my tank holds 16 gallons.  That means I probably have 8 gallons left.  I can see I’ve driven about 200 miles since I last filled up because I remembered to hit that little mileage reset button that keeps track of such things.  And so I’m averaging 25 mpg. But I’m also planning a trip to San Diego in the next couple of days, and then I’ll be driving on the highway, and so my mileage will improve.  And that 25 mpg is just an average, and averages have variability, but I don’t really have a sense of the variability of that mean.  And this problem requires that I know my mpg in the future, and, well, of all the things you can predict, the future is the hardest.  And so, I’m left to conclude that I don’t really know when my car will run out gas.

Now while I don’t know the exact number of miles I can drive, I can estimate the value.  With a little more data I can measure the uncertainty in this estimate, too, and use that to decide, when the tank gets low, if I should push my luck (or push my car).