Adrian V. Cole
15 min readFeb 13, 2020

How Learning Some Basic Math Will Help You Look Smarter: A true Story (sorta)

Excerpted from Look Smart: How To Appear Intelligent (When You’re Not).

Let’s face it; before mathematics, everything we knew came from religious texts. It didn’t matter if you were Mayan, Muslim, or Manichean, you had a question? Open the scriptures. What should I wear? Scriptures. Who should I marry? Scriptures. Which hand should I wipe with? How should I genuflect? You get the picture. But at some point this began to change, and there emerged a new way of approaching the world: As Roger Bacon pointed out in a cheeky, almost heretical, way in the twelfth century: “The things of this world cannot be made known without a knowledge of mathematics.” Scribes everywhere put down their quills, rubbed their inky hands on their hair shirts, and said “Wait, what?” (Rather like Baby Boomers do today when Millennials point out that they can watch TV shows on their phones).

But it wasn’t just one medieval philosopher who got that math was important to looking smart. I asked my brainy friend Jeff about what looks intelligent, and one of the first answers he gave, as he changed out of his scrubs, was: “Use percentages. If something is common, use a number around 85%. If something is uncommon go with near 15%.” He scratched his egg-like head, and added, sounding more and more like a sage every second: “Try using small ranges with slightly unusual numbers like 12–16%. Don’t use “always” or “never”…this leaves you unprotected.”

“What, never?” I asked. He stopped to think, frowning. “No, never!”

Now Jeff might not be Roger Bacon, but he understands that data is a dish best served hard. If it’s soft it’s probably not cooked. Hard data is reliable, and it happens to be the realm of mathematics. But Bacon (the Roger kind) was a bit early for the Renaissance, when logic and reasoning really became trendy, and most of his colleagues were still mired in the Bible, like ants stuck in honey. But by the seventeenth century some of the Bible’s answers were looking seriously questionable, and the mathematical way of thinking — what became the Scientific Revolution — was really underway. Ants, everywhere, were beginning the slow process of extricating themselves from stickiness.

Now that we were off to the races, another quick-witted Brit (where have they all gone?), Sir…

Adrian V. Cole

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750.” Politics Reporter at the American Independent