This was the question my dissertation ended up answering. It wasn’t necessarily the question I started with, but hey, that’s science. Or something like it.
The answer is (depending on the type of infographic):
- A man
- of above average numeracy
- with a doctoral-level degree
- between 45 and 54 years old.
Apart from this singularly unhelpful caricature, this is what else I found.
1. If you want to be clear, use written percentages.
Not ratios. Certainly not graphics. If you have a number that can be expressed as a percentage, do that. They came away as by far the most clearly understood means of representation in this experiment. 77% of the time, where a percentage was the correct answer, you lovely people answered correctly. For graphics, you only answered correctly 69% of the time.
69% isn’t that bad, you might say, and no, it’s not. So I might recommend that if you are using graphics (and who doesn’t, these days), then perhaps you should back them up with other figures so people know what they’re looking at. The evidence? When the question asked my survey participants to compare a graphic with another graphic, they only got the answer right 63% of the time.
This is, of course, if you want to appeal to both genders. If you just want to appeal to men, use ratios. They got them right 82% of the time.
2. Girls can’t do maths (until they get a doctorate)
It was genuinely the most surprising result I had and one that I feel needs immediate attention because girls maths teaching must be completely messed up. There is a small amount of encouragement in that ladies over the age of 45 seem worst affected, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t in trouble.
Across the board, regardless of any of the variables measured — numeracy levels, education, age — girls doing the test never got a look in. They consistently answered more questions incorrectly. For questions involving graphics, women got 66% right. Men got 75%. For ratios, women got 68% correct, for men it was 82%. The only one close was percentages — 76% for women compared with 80% for men.
Sadly my survey wasn’t detailed enough to get at any more useful nuggets of information — like which girls had taken maths at A‑level and beyond, so I’m not able to pry any further into this with my results alone. But can somebody else do this? Please? It needs more research, as people like to say.
3. Having qualifications doesn’t make a blind bit of difference (unless you’re a doctor)
The results say that people who didn’t go to university, undergraduates and masters degree students have essentially no differences when it comes to the mathematical understanding needed to properly interpret these kinds of graphics. The number of correct answers for people with any of these levels of qualification hovers around the 73% mark.
Having a doctorate on the otherhand, does. Understanding positively leaps to the dizzying height of 82%. It even levels the playing fields for women. How about that?
Turn to page 2 for the boring science-ish bits and access to the data.