Marlee Smith

Scientists have discovered that to people with something they call HMA — high math anxiety — the idea of working things out with numbers may be literally physically painful. So now we think we might understand why there are so many climate deniers. There’s a lot of math involved in climate science. Like, for example, you have to be able to add 11 to the average current temperature to see what it will be in 2100. And then there are logarithms and stuff. Wow. We don’t really even hate these fuckers anymore.

I mean, imagine being Mitt Romney, and making fun of Obama for saying the oceans were going to rise, and then just even thinking about how the word “rise” implied crazy math stuff, probably worse than adding 11 to another number, and then suddenly, developing a splitting headache. (Although Romney does seem to enjoy the equation “This Poor Company + Me = Screw the people who work there.”)

This math/physical pain experiment came about because scientists Ian Lyon and Sian Beilock were intrigued by the idea that some people experience social rejection as physical pain. Since this pain is thought to begin with anxiety, and math is famously anxiety-inducing, they thought, well, might math cause pain too? Here’s the low-pain version of how they test that hypothesis: They got themselves some LMAs (low math anxiety people) and some HMAs, establishing who was who with this crazy test. (They only had 14 of each, although it gives us a headache to try to figure out how that small sample size affects statistical significance.) They set them up in MRIs and proceeded to ask questions. Before asking each question, they flashed a series of lights indicating whether the question would be about langauge or math, and whether it would be easy or hard. When HMAs were alerted of an imminent difficult math problem, parts of the brain involved in physical pain lit up.

So if even anticipating math is painful, what does this mean about how we should teach it? Does it mean instead of having assigned math periods, the teacher should just spring it on students by surprise as a way of mitigating discomfort? And should all discussions of climate change in Congress be similarly impromptu? Oh, and what are we supposed to do about that weird, pained, potentially HMA-inspired look on Romney’s face? Oh, I almost forgot. We don’t have to look at it anymore.