THERE is a theory that humans are naturally bad at maths. I’m not sure how you prove such a thing, but how many times have you heard someone say "I’m terrible at maths" as a precursor to giving up on the problem entirely? It’s odd when you think about it. Nobody says, "I’m terrible at reading, ergo, I’m going to give up immediately, and I’m not even going to try."

People generally say, or we hope they say, "I’m bad at reading, and consequently I might read more in order to improve." Maths somehow seems to fall into a different category of learning. It was discovered recently that doing maths problems seems to light up the parts of the brain normally associated with pain. There are even some studies that suggest mathematical ability is not directly linked to intelligence.

What we know for sure is that mathematical ability is a direct consequence of learning: natural mathematical ability takes you only so far, the rest is a question of application, not ability.

There is at least one good example of how bad people are generally at maths. Try this example for yourself. Everybody knows the myth about the man who invented chess, and when his king insisted on giving him a reward for doing so, the man said he wanted one grain of rice for the first square on the chess board, two for the second, four for the third, doubling each time. The king readily agreed but soon found out there wasn’t enough rice in his kingdom to fulfil the inventor’s wish.

So how many grains of rice are we talking about here? Small warning, you need to be clear on the terminology of large numbers. A billion is normally defined as one thousand million. With every change of the prefix from bi, to tri, to quad, you add three noughts to the number. So what did you get?

The ANC’s own study, the so-called Sims study, was released in 2012. It found that nationalising even 51% of mines would be "totally unaffordable" and would throw SA into an IMF structural adjustment programme.

I bet you massively underestimated the number, which is remarkable because the story itself indicates we are dealing with a very large number. I certainly did.

But as it happens, the calculation is not that difficult. It’s 2 to the 64th minus one. The actual result is 18 and a bit quintillion; that is 18 and six sets of three zeros. The volume of the rice would be greater than Mount Everest, and the quantity would be about 1000 times current annual global production.

This is all very interesting, but the point I want to make is that there is often a kind of optical illusion involved in maths, comparable with judging distance. When something is close to us, judging the distance between us and it is easier. The longer the distance becomes, the easier it is to confuse 1 000m with, say, 10 000m. To get the correct perspective, some things require calculation.

Knowing this about maths makes listening to the general discussion about policy issues in SA incredibly frustrating. People talk about things without the vaguest notion of what they actually mean in concrete.

The most recent example is Gauteng ANC leader Paul Mashatile’s glib and irresponsible notion that 50% of SA mines should be "handed over" to "previously disadvantaged" South Africans. The ANC’s own study, the so-called Sims study, was released in 2012. It found that nationalising even 51% of mines would be "totally unaffordable" and would throw SA into an IMF structural adjustment programme.

I find the same level of mathematical dysfunction in relation to the costs of the nuclear programme, to the extent that SA seems to be seriously considering buying something beyond the liquidity of the country's banking system.

On a more immediate level, a company called Columinate discovered recently in a survey of people who have bank accounts that only 20% of them could define the term "equity".

The point is that maths and financial literacy have to be learnt; they cannot be a matter of political or personal expedience. Politicians who don’t have it should make an effort to get it, for all our sakes.

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