Institute for Policy, Ethics, and Culture (IPEC)

Math Communication in Crisis: Responding to Numbers During a Pandemic

by Andrew Fiss, Assistant Professor of Technical and Professional Communication


In the midst of a pandemic, it is important to recognize that math does not speak for itself. In fact, pandemics emphasize how math is tied to human communities, how it is not purely objective or unemotional. Depending on how pandemic numbers are reported, they can inspire a variety of emotions, what researchers sometimes call “affective responses.” Paying attention to the responses, we can recognize how common ways of communicating about math can lead to complex feelings: sadness, worry, anxiety, and hope.

Sadness: Since March 2020, many news agencies have been providing daily “coronavirus counts.” This type of news story usually refers to the number of new confirmed cases in a region or country, usually shading into reporting about the number of deaths caused by the illness. The May 24 edition of The New York Times listed abbreviated obituaries for a thousand people who died, along with the headline, “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss.” The combination of names and numbers suggests what cannot be counted in a pandemic: the human names and lives “incalculable,” despite the rest of the headline (a number, after all). It was an imperfect memorial, on the eve of Memorial Day. As the story makes clear, reducing people to numbers has a problematic legacy. Numbers might document and provide evidence for broad trends but they lose the specifics of individual lives and hopes. People have been reduced to numbers in awful circumstances, as soldiers, prisoners, and slaves. Despite or perhaps because of these messy associations, the news stories provide a mass memorial, pointing out the scale of loss and the overwhelming sadness.

Worry: Graphs have been a mainstay of pandemic reporting, often tied to the stories of “coronavirus counts.” Showing change over time, the graphs often represent alarming trends in new daily cases of the illness or new daily deaths. Their data points do not proceed to the future, and they rarely extrapolate--extending trend lines for potential outcomes. Instead, the pandemic graphs plot the numbers that reflect the past and present--and therefore encourage us to worry over an uncertain future.

Anxiety: Anxiety is a more precise way of talking about our worry in response to a pandemic. The term “anxiety,” though popularized in the U.S. in the 1920s-1930s, did emerge in the Middle Ages, and meant precisely worry over an uncertain future. Since then, anxiety has been medicalized and psychologized—appropriately for a pandemic—making our experiences seem a concern of hospitals and neighborhood clinics. Anxiety is an understandable way of responding to medicine and public health policy.

Math Anxiety: Also, there’s a more specific anxiety at work here. Around 93% of Americans experience some level of “math anxiety”--the psychological condition where mathematics inspires uncomfortable, uncontrollable bodily effects. Dr. Sian Beilock and her team at the University of Chicago used fMRI to study individuals with “high levels of mathematics-anxiety” in the early 2010s, and found that participants’ “pain networks” activated when they anticipated having to do a mathematical problem. Many Americans, they concluded, likely experience pain in anticipation of math, at higher levels for those with more extreme math anxiety. Graphs lead most Americans to feel pain--not just because of what they represent--but because they’re mathematical.

Hope: Still, there is hope. Some ways of communicating might lessen our anxiety. Graphs, after all, provide context, and numbers are used because they can show a big picture. Such representations are a mainstay of political assemblies and hospitals, and in a pandemic, math is used to show how diverse realms of government, policy, and health work together. Moreover, pandemic math can show the power of human communities. It’s remarkable how the phrase “flatten the curve” has entered not only news reports but a variety of other media. In what appears to be a coordinated effort, news and science reporters began to use the phrase in mid March, trying to urge Americans to consider changing their daily behavior. Though encouraging us to imagine graphs of broad, impersonal trends, “flatten the curve” also argues that small, individual actions can have big effects. It inspires hope in our communities.

Whether it be sadness, worry, anxiety, or hope, affective responses follow from math communication during a pandemic. Memorializing, plotting, harming, or organizing, math does not speak for itself, but does this work because of its human spokespeople. When we imagine math to be part of communicating communities, and not merely an unemotional purity, we can gain a measure of control over our responses to the pandemic. Moreover, we can realize how we are part of communities striving for a common language. Especially during a pandemic, it’s clear math will not provide a common language on its own. We still need to work together to establish one.

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