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Cady: Yeah, I like math. Damian: Eww. Why? Cady: Because it's the same in every country. -Mean Girls
Junior year of high school, I received my all-time lowest test grade.
I got an 8% on a calculus test.
No, not an 80%.
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I suppose this is an ironic admission for a newsletter about “Moneyball,” as those who actually do data analysis must be highly competent in things like algorithms, coding, etc., all of which require math proficiency.1 As much as I love a resume of failures, any reader would be welcome to question why you should listen to me, as opposed to Cady Herron or Winnie Cooper.2
On the other hand, maybe I’m not being fair.
I’ve made several jokes about how terrible I am at math (particularly calculus), but the truth is that I used to love math until it became hard (I blame Dino Math3), and then I convinced myself that I was bad at it.
I’m not alone. Math anxiety is a real thing.
For me, math anxiety is just one of several reasons why it is dangerous for educational choices to be primarily made by people who love a particular subject.4 Some people love solving equations all day; I’m not one of them. However, I love bringing new sets of tools to tackle hard problems, and in this sense, thinking similar to a mathematician is invaluable.
In Jewish life, few problems can be solved by an equation. But many problems could be better addressed if we see through the noise and focus on the data, whether the data can be found through spreadsheets, research, or the scientific method, all of which parallel the skills one hopes to learn in a math class.
In this sense, Moneyball Judaism is my attempt to reclaim a love of math. And once you start thinking about math through a different lens, you discover things about your work you never realized about how people receive information, and underlying structures exist that most ignore.
Left Digit Bias
Several former colleagues subscribe to this newsletter. If you interviewed them, I suspect they could identify the subtle and not-so-subtle ways I annoy them, with pre-scheduling my emails to be sent at 5 a.m. at the top of the list.5
But my second most annoying habit is my insistence that every price for every program needs to be one monetary unit less than a multiple of 10. If the price of a program is $1,000, list it at $999; if it is $10, list it at $9.99.
I’ll admit that it’s an odd habit, though not one without justification.
Meet the left-digit bias.
In brief, the left-digit bias is the tendency of people to look at the left-most digit when making judgments about price or value. This means that if one store lists the price of an item as $9.99 and another lists the same item at $10.00, the former store is more likely to sell more of this item because people will tend to see the number 9 as being less than the number 10 and pay less attention to the fact that $9.99 is only one cent less than $10. Here’s a quick summary:
Once again, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were the first people to identify the left-digit bias, arguing that “people make estimates by starting from an initial value that is adjusted to yield the final answer.”6 In this sense, the left-digit bias is a cousin of the anchoring bias and the framing effect. A subtle change to how numbers are presented makes a world of difference.
And it turns out the left-digit bias affects our buying habits and how we diagnose problems. In a 2020 letter to The New England Journal of Medicine, our friend Dr. Anupam B. Jena and a group of physicians raised a concern that the left-digit bias may lead to a situation where,
“patients…hospitalized with acute myocardial infarction and who are 80 years and 2 weeks of age may be perceived by physicians as being at greater risk for complications — and thus may receive more conservative treatment — than patients who are 79 years and 50 weeks of age.”7
The authors attribute this potential bias to the fact that there is a mental difference between saying that a patient is “in their 70s” versus “in their 80s,” however small that shift may be, one should not ignore it in life-and-death situations.8
As with any heuristic, one should not overreact. However, the left-digit bias has been identified as a salient factor in stroke diagnosis, ride-sharing, voting patterns, and marketing, and thus, it should, at a minimum, give all of us pause when making evaluations about price and value.
Returning to my desire to fall in love with math again, in a world of finite time and limited resources, the idea that something as simple as charging $4.99 instead of $5.00 might matter is the kind of experiment that costs almost nothing to try but can make a world of difference. Even though our organizations lack the research budget to prove or disprove this hypothesis, the fact that others have proven the salience of the left-digit bias provides ample justification that we should try to utilize that knowledge without overthinking it.
Once Upon a Prime
But back to getting over my math anxiety.
I’m never sure how I feel about pun-infused titles, but Sarah Hart’s Once Upon a Prime was too beautiful not to enjoy. Hart wants people to see mathematical beauty in literature. Frankly, she won me over quickly by drawing a connection between how mathematics and literature relate to humanity’s search for underlying patterns and structures:
“…there is a deeper reason why we find mathematics at the heart of literature. The universe is full of underlying structure, pattern, and regularity, and mathematics is the best tool we have for understanding it—that’s why mathematics is often called the language of the universe, and why it is so vital to science. Since we humans are part of the universe, it is only natural that our forms of creative expression, literature among them, will also manifest an inclination for pattern and structure. Mathematics, then, is the key to an entirely different perspective on literature.”9
In the end, math is a mechanism for seeing beyond the often flawed statements of human beings and finding order amidst disorder. This is not the same thing as saying that math will show you that there is only one right answer to every problem (although there are certain ones for which that is also true).10
Later in life, math provided me a window to find calm amidst the noise of complaints and speculations so that I could tweak my work subtly to find new pathways to success. When I think using mathematical tools, my mind is calmer, and my results are better. And in a world where all of us want to make our own impact on the Jewish world, that is beautiful, indeed.
Math on the Move
What I Read This Week
Gen Z Falls for More Scams Than Boomers?: Youth really is wasted on the young. But read the entire article and decide for yourself.
The Overhead Myth Debunked (Again): I haven’t focused much on Dan Palotta, but in brief, he is an advocate for the nonprofit sector who is particularly frustrated at how we devalue the importance of overhead expenses, salaries, etc. Read this interview. We will come back to him.
So Much for “Learn to Code”: The title is a little hyperbolic, but all of the discussion of AI and LLMs should remind us that the value of certain forms of professional knowledge will ebb and flow, often in ways that we do not expect. Read more.
3 Questions to Start Making Progress: Who among us has never felt stuck before? I try to be sparing with listicles, but I really enjoyed this.
100 Lesser-Known But Useful Websites: Two in one week? Yes. Worth it.
In my defense, I got As in English.
Danica McKellar, the actress who plays Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, is an accomplished mathematician and math educator.
And yes, she was also on The West Wing…
In 5th grade, the advanced math students were given extra word problems that involved dinosaurs, hence “Dino Math.” I lost count of how many hours it took my father and me to complete them…
This is an homage to Nel Noddings, my favorite educational theorist. Noddings make a convincing case that teachers saying they want students to “think like scientists” or “think like historians” is a terrible strategy. Most students are NOT going to be professionals in the subjects they are required to learn, and if they think the only way they can use math is by becoming a mathematician, there is an implicit disincentive to use math when they no longer have to…
Runners Up (to name a few):
Forcing people to facilitate a meeting even if they did not write the agenda
Producing all of my writing in incredibly small fonts (specifically, Verdana size 8)
Hatred of long surveys and my desire to only ask for a Net Promoter Score (NPS)
Manalogues...lots of manalogues. I try really hard not to mansplain, but I cannot resist a good manalogue (I’m human)
Constant references to The West Wing, Mean Girls, and Safam
If you think it’s odd I’m willing to be so self-deprecating about all of my faults as a professional, just remember: others are always thinking about our faults. I’d rather be open about it than be the last to know…
Yikes, this means that I should have started saying that I’m “in my 40s” for the past several years, even though I don’t turn 40 until February.