Sunday, September 5, 2010

Being an Effective Citizen: Understanding Proportions and Percents

I talked a little bit last week about how I believe you need to be numerate in order to be an effective citizen. That lots and lots (and lots) of data gets thrown at you and you need to be able to make some sense of it if you're going to help make good personal decisions, good policy decisions (when you're in a position to do so), and good voting decisions (which you'll all be able to do).

Today's Denver Post was a perfect example. One of the lead stories on the main page was about nutrition and the effect that government subsidies might be having on how healthy we are as citizens of the United States.
The reasons fresh fruits and vegetables are so pricey compared with processed food in a carton are a complicated stew of government subsidies, politics and the whims of Mother Nature.

But their combined might, say critics pushing for a change in the way money is doled out, moves us away from fruits and vegetables and toward meat, dairy products and the sugar- and sodium-loaded processed foods for which crops like corn and wheat serve as the raw ingredients.
Now, let me be clear, I'm not necessarily supporting one "side" or the other in this debate, and this is a complicated issue. But that's all the more reason for you to be able to understand the numbers thrown around in the article, most especially this chart that accompanied it.

Can you make sense of this chart? It's an important part of the story (and an important persuasive tool for one "side" of this argument), and one you need to be able to critically examine if you're going to be an informed citizen. You have to understand percents, of course, but not just the percents in terms of the subsidies. You also have to be able to understand percents in terms of the portions recommended in the nutrition guidelines. And you need to understand area and volume to understand whether the chart fairly portrays the relevant ratios.

This is what I'm talking about when I say that understanding Algebra isn't just important to get a good grade or to get into college, it's critically important in order to be an effective, contributing member of society.

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