Posted in: HPRgument Blog

Applied Math Democracy

By | February 9, 2010

The other day, my girlfriend (who’s not a math fan) sent me a link to a new New York Times post by Steven Strogatz, an applied math professor at Cornell who is writing a blog that will, over the next few weeks, give readers a quick tutorial on math, “from pre-school to grad school.”  Strogatz starts slowly; his first piece (linked above) was a brief explanation of why numbers are useful, and just yesterday he released a new post, a nuanced lesson in grade school arithmetic.  (For anyone who’s interested, he posts every Monday and will have about 15 entries in all.)

As Strogatz noted in his first column, there are some very intelligent people out there who shudder at the mere mention of mathematics.  It seems that one can self-purportedly “hate” math more than one can have such strongly negative feelings towards other subjects.  A lot of people hate math, and a lot of people, I’m sure, dislike history.  But how many people would say they “hate” history?  Indeed, there is also a tendency to write off math as more broadly inapplicable than other subject areas, and I know plenty of fellow students who grudgingly must find a quantitative reasoning class to fulfill a gen ed requirement and consider the whole exercise a waste of time.

And that’s a shame, because math is one of the most important subjects that a responsible, voting member of this republic can master.

First of all, let me qualify that claim.  I don’t think that much of what is learned in math class is directly applicable in the lives of most Americans.  (As my former soccer coach once said, “When you go to the cash register, they don’t say, ‘That’ll be 3x + 4y dollars.'”)  But one could say the same thing for much of what is learned in any class.  The primary reason for education is not to teach us things that will help us directly in our day-to-day lives; rather, it is to instill in us a way of looking at the world that will equip us to creatively analyze choices we face throughout our lives, be them at work, among friends or family, or in the voting booth.  Indeed, the reason that public education exists at all is so that citizens of a democracy can perform exceptionally well on that last decision set.

In the end, we want to live in a society where people can listen to politicians or read the news and sort out the facts from the spin to make an informed decision; we also want to live in a society that produces policymakers capable of taking new and creative approaches to the problems they encounter.  Math, I argue, gives citizens the tools to do this more effectively than other subjects.

First, math requires creative and focused thinking.  Sooner or later in math class, we reach a problem that the old “plug-and-chug” method can’t solve, and we must approach it from a different angle. In humanities classes, we often define our own questions, formulate our own theses, and find evidence that supports our claims.  Policymakers, however, often do not choose the problems they encounter, and it can’t hurt to have leaders who are trained in creative problem solving.

Second, math is reliant on logic to a greater extent than most other subjects.  Of course, logic is vital to any academic pursuit, but if you make an illogical claim on a math problem, you simply get it wrong; if you present an illogical argument in a history essay, you might escape with a B-. It goes without saying that having a logical electorate and policymakers is preferable to the alternative.

Finally, and most of all, math depends on precision–precision in calculations and, more importantly, precision in language.  There’s a lot of dishonesty inherent in the political process, and most of it is not a result of politicians knowingly telling outright untruths.  Some of it, of course, is that politicians lie, and some of it is that politicians take advantage of the massive tracts of gray area that any issue entails.  But even more of it, I think, is that people are too casual in listening to what other people are actually saying.

Here’s a particularly trivial example:  Remember that 60 Minutes interview with Game Change-author John Heilemann in January?  Heilemann made several claims about Palin’s aptitude to be President, and among them was this juicy tidbit: “[Palin] still didn’t really understand why there was a North Korea and a South Korea.”

This launched a cable-news media frenzy.  Lawrence O’Donnell said, “She didn‘t know North and South Korea are two separate countries.”  Chris Matthews said, “[She doesn’t] understand there’s two Koreas.”  And Bill O’Reilly, interviewing Sarah Palin on his program asked, “Is this guy lying? He says you don’t know the difference between North and South Korea.”

O’Donnell, Matthews, and O’Reilly (and countless others) clearly didn’t understand what Heilemann actually said.  He wasn’t saying that Palin didn’t know that North and South Korea were two different countries, only that she didn’t understand the history of why this division came about.  Obviously, it’s concerning that a nominee for Vice-President of the United States doesn’t understand the Korean War, but what’s more concerning is that America’s media couldn’t even understand what Heilemann was actually telling them!

I’m not saying that math is necessary to being an intelligent, informed voter and a productive member of society.  Indeed, creativity, logic, and precision of language are necessary in any academic subject.  Still, these tools are especially emphasized in mathematics, and understanding this makes math more applicable than most people realize.

Maybe calculus should be a requirement for voting?

Photo credit: akirsa on flickr.

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