Cece Henderson ’23
Cece Henderson ’23 uses research to find points of connection between math and the humanities.

What Can We Learn from the Use of Math in Political Speeches?

September 16, 2020

How can we quantify the relationship between math and politics over time? What can it teach us? And how does it connect to math education today?

Cicely (Cece) Henderson ’23 sought to answer these questions as part of her Science Summer Research project, “Trends in Mathematical Language Used in Political Speeches,” with Wellesley mathematics professor Ismar Volić. “When Professor Volić and I started investigating potential project ideas, we saw that there was a gap in the collective knowledge when it came to the use of math and politics,” Henderson said. As someone with an interest in both math and the humanities, she was interested in exploring those connections further.

“The premise for Cece’s research is that there should be a correlation between quantitative literacy patterns in education and mathematical language in political discourse,” Volić said. “As far as we know, this is the first time this kind of research is being done.”

Henderson analyzed three kinds of presidential speeches from 1929 to 2020: annual State of the Union addresses, remarks on immigration, and remarks on tax reform. She used a JavaScript code to highlight all the math terms and examples in the speeches, including numbers, like “45 million,” and math terms, such as “average.” Henderson then divided the number of math words in a speech by the word count, according to her abstract, and from that, she generated three proportions: the number of statistics, math vocabulary words, and total math-related words as compared to the total number of words.

Henderson had hypothesized that the amount of math used in American political speeches increased from the 1960s to the present. However, she found that the proportion of math used in political speeches during that timeframe has stayed more or less constant, without any statistically significant relationship.

“These were not the exciting results we were hoping to get,” Henderson said. “But after weeks of analyzing these speeches, I had all this data and had to think about what else it might be telling us—even if it didn’t support my original hypothesis.” Henderson considered how much math we are bombarded with every day, if there might be a connection to math education, and if so whether her data might show how that relationship has changed over time as well.

She found some interesting correlations. Math education in the United States was revolutionized in the 1950s and 1960s—tied to the space race and the resulting emphasis on STEM education during this period, Henderson said. And she did see an increase in the use of math in political speeches from the 1940s to the 1960s: The proportion of math words was approximately 50 percent lower than in the 1960s in the early 1940s and only rose in the late 1950s. “From the time before math education was revolutionized, we see a significant jump in the amount of quantitative language. Since then, our approach to math education has not really changed at all, and neither has the use of quantitative language in politics,” Henderson said.

“It’s so important that we have access to these statistics, but I think it’s also important that, as a country, we have the educational background to understand them.”

Cece Henderson ’23

What then accounts for Henderson’s perception that there is so much more math in politics today? She believes the answer may lie more in the amount of media available to citizens now, and our increased consumption of it. The correlation she describes in her research raises additional questions about the role of quantitative literacy in math education today and what that means for people’s participation in politics and democracy. Henderson noted that results of recent PISA tests, an international standardized test for 15-year-old students, suggest that U.S. students struggle to apply math to real-world problems, an issue that directly relates to the interpretation of math in political speeches and participation.

“We ultimately hope to extract an entirely new understanding of how quantitative literacy, education, and politics interact,” said Volić, who is the co-founder and director of the new Institute for Mathematics and Democracy. “The story is much more complicated than we thought—and this is a good thing, since it is opening various new doors and potential avenues of investigation.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Henderson had to present her findings virtually to her fellow students and other faculty members. During the presentation, Gabe Halford ’21 asked how Henderson determined what constitutes “math language” and how she drew the line between math and math vocabulary. Henderson said this was an aspect of her methodology that was a bit of a curveball early on in her research, but she quickly found a solution.

She said she turned to the ITS math dictionary and glossary, which “drew a nice line between words we use and associate with math but are so colloquial,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I was including words that truly indicate mathematical thinking and principles.” To be included in her analysis, words had to be found in the dictionary, be cardinal/ordinal numbers, or be words denoting specific proportions, multiples, or math operations.

Henderson hopes to expand her analysis to regional politics and speeches from governors. She is still working out the details, but she plans to look at regional news sources as well to see if she can quantify the amount of math used in local stories about politics. She also wants to continue exploring the relationship between math education and quantitative literacy, by comparing two states, one with a higher education ranking (New Jersey) and one with a lower one (Louisiana).

“I think with the upcoming election, as well as with the current pandemic, we are consuming so much math and statistics every day, just by listening to our politicians and the news,” Henderson said. “There are real implications for not understanding this math we are being bombarded with: When we hear information about polling numbers or COVID cases, people sometimes make decisions that aren’t consistent with that information that end up affecting our elections and our public health. It’s so important that we have access to these statistics, but I think it’s also important that, as a country, we have the educational background to understand them.”

Henderson’s research taught her something about herself as well: “My first-year seminar with Professor Volić on math and politics and this research project showed me that I don’t need to compromise on my interests, that I can find these points of connection between math and the humanities,” Henderson said. “I would love to continue working on the math that I really enjoy, in a way that is more oriented to understanding our society and helping people. This project has really shown me that that is possible.”