This item is archived. Information presented here may be out of date.

Lessons learned at the “Communicating maths for the public” event

Hannah Thomas

Last week I went to Disneyland Paris. But the week before that I went to Cambridge.

Unexpectedly, the Cambridge trip was as entertaining as Disney and definitely more inspiring!

I was at an event hosted by the Newton Gateway to Mathematics titled: “Communicating Mathematics for the Public”.

There was a bit of a buzz beforehand as the speakers included mathematical and statistical celebrities like Hannah Fry, David Spiegelhalter, and Richard Vadon, the producer of the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less.

You would expect people like them to give good 20 minute presentations. But, in fact, all the presentations were interesting, thought provoking, inspiring, and well communicated.

There were several points that really caught my attention.

The general public does not exist

This was a point about grouping all people into one huge group and saying “that’s my target audience”. Obviously, this does not work. A target audience needs to be more specific.

It is OK to get mad (sometimes)

If something is not being communicated correctly and people are being misled, speak up! And get mad if you have to!

It is good to deal with misconceptions

We all have preconceived ideas.

There was a good section in Richard Vadon’s talk about comparing gross domestic product (GDP) per head across different countries.

Perpetual February for climate change

This was my favourite phrase from the two days.

One of the speakers noted that we were complacent about the pandemic in February 2020, accelerated our response hugely as we went into March and things got very real. But for climate change our response level seems to be stuck in February 2020 mode. We know about it, we know it is going to be a problem, but we have not accelerated our response.

Telling a lie to save a life

One of the presenters was a philosopher and asked the question about whether you should tell a lie to save a life. This was such an intriguing thought for public sector communicators.

Increasing steps to the Mont Blanc ice cave

One presenter shared a scary but powerful visualisation showing how the steps down to the Mont Blanc ice cave have increased in recent times.

The seat belt analogy

Most people who die in car accidents are wearing seatbelts, but this does not mean the seatbelt caused their death.

Most people who die of Coronavirus (COVID-19) have been vaccinated, but this does not mean the vaccine caused their death.

This was a powerful analogy for communicating a very complex message around rates of death.

Drag Queen Maths

Drag queens doing maths on TikTok was not something I knew about beforehand!

Balance is good for sceptics

One presenter made a point about balanced arguments being good for all, but particularly for people who are sceptical about where you are coming from.

Maths week

Did you know there is a Maths Week Ireland, a Maths Week England and a Maths Week Scotland, but there does not appear to be a recent one in Wales!


Take a look for yourself

You can find recordings and slides from the Communicating maths for the public event on the Newton Gateway website.

Hannah Thomas
Hannah Thomas
Hannah is the lead support for communicating data, statistics and analysis. She works for the Analysis Function Central Team.