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Make maths count again – Business Daily

IEBC vice chairperson Juliana Cherera. PHOTO | NMG
We live in a data-drenched society that is awash with numbers. But it seems to me that we are yet to grasp neither the escalating demand for quantitative literacy nor the consequence of widespread innumeracy in our society.
In the contemporary society we live in today, an innumerate citizen is as vulnerable as an illiterate and superstitious peasant.
I make these opening remarks as an entry point to a discussion on the presidential election petition that is expected to be lodged by the Azimio la Umoja coalition at the Supreme Court of Kenya.
I appreciate that our hands are tied by the sub-judice rule that prohibits commenting on the substance of allegations and arguments being canvassed before judges.
But the rule does not stop us from making broad observations on how the courtroom battle is likely to shape out and the issues that might come up.
If anything, we are yet to see the evidence the Azimio will present to the Supreme Court in that presidential election petition. It seems to me that a good part of the arguments will focus on the issue to do with mathematics and numeracy. Expect a cause celebre at the Supreme Court.
Arithmetic addition and subtraction, how to reason with data — how to skillfully use quantitative information to communicate and persuade will be very big issues in the Supreme Court hearings.
The reason I believe that ability and competence to think numerically is likely to emerge as contentious at the Supreme Court proceedings is because when you go through the videos clips covering the announcements made by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries (IEBC) commissioners as they were releasing numbers and tallies at Bomas of Kenya, you see incredible sloppiness on the part of these commissioners with additions and subtractions.
Throughout this week, the commissioners have been the butt of jokes on social media for their sloppiness in reasoning with data and for displaying a lack of ability to think numerically. For instance, what is 0.01 percent of 14 million votes?
When a whole commissioner of the IEBC gets such a simple calculation wrong, what does it say about the level of quantitative literacy among the commissioners?
Then there is this video clip that shows the chairman of the commission, Mr Wafula Chebukati, coming to the podium to announce that the data and results for the presidential election from the KIEMS kits reflected a 65.4 percent voter turnout and that what remained to be added to the number at that stage were the votes that were cast manually outside the KIEMS database.
When you calculate this KIEMS kit turnout number against the data announced by Mr Chebukati as final results, do the numbers add up?
What is the accurate number for total votes cast in the presidential election: is it 14,213,027 or 14,213,137? Incredibly, both numbers are reported on the IEBC website. Granted the difference in the two numbers are statistically insignificant. But numeracy is about the logic of certainty.
Then there was this video clip where one of the commissioners came to the podium to announce the results from Juja Constituency in Kiambu. That commissioner went on rumbling like a robot pronouncing numbers that just don’t add up. A slip of the tongue? No, extreme sloppiness.
We all know that when a voter entered the polling booth, one was given six ballot papers, namely, for the president, the governor, the women representative, MCA, MP, and the Senate. Why should there be big discrepancies between votes in each category?
Is it conceivable that a voter who entered that booth voted only for the governor or the president for that matter and left for home? If that is the case, can the IEBC show us the spot where those who voted for the president alone were required to deposit the rest of the ballot papers?
Where are the ballot papers that were not cast? Indeed, statistical discrepancies between votes for the president, governors, senators, and MPs were a big and contentious issue during the 2017 Supreme Court petition case.
I think the IEBC suffers from a big bout of math anxiety. Shouldn’t we just be living such assignments with those who are comfortable and competent in thinking in numbers? It reflects a deeper malaise in this society. The teaching of maths in our schools and universities is in a spiral decline.
We need to make maths count again.
We no longer believe that maths is a worthwhile thing in its own right. We think that some subjects are more relevant in job markets. Today, the maths and physics departments in our universities find it hard to enrol new post-graduate students.

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