Guess how good you are at math

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So many complaints about science journalism appear here on Language Log that it is only proper that we should occasionally draw attention to a fine piece of popular science writing. One such, I think after one read-through, is Natalie Angier's "Gut instinct's surprising role in math" in The New York Times (hat tip to Barbara Scholz, who pointed me to it). It's reporting on a paper in Nature by Halberda, Feigenson, and Mazzocco, which supports the view that (in Feigenson's words) "your evolutionarily endowed sense of approximation is related to how good you are at formal math." There have been many Language Log posts on related themes, like "The cognitive technology of number" (July 11, 2008) and "The Pirahã and us" (October 6, 2007). There is intrinsic interest in what Angier reports: evidence that how good you are at subitization, the instinctive quantity-assessing ability you share with many animal species, is correlated with, and perhaps even determinative of, the extent to which you will readily develop abilities at linguistically formalized manipulation of mathematical concepts. But Angier's article also represents an instance of really good generally accessible writing about science, in a contemporary American newspaper. It can be done. Some science journalists put out good product. And not all journalism that touches on the cognitive and linguistic sciences gets grumbled about on Language Log.

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