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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Human Nature I

Okay, sorry for the absence. I have been fighting a virus and treating a sick dog. Also I have been paralyzed by disgust at the political antics, and since my stomach was upset anyway, I decided to ignore politics for a few days.

I am pretty awed by the latest bird flu news. Flu Clinic has a country thread here. I guess I've been reading too much of this, because I burst out laughing when India suddenly discovered H5N1 10 days after they had a suspected human case admitted to the hospital (who died). Now they are saying that the human case died from a bacterial infection. Uh-huh. I bet his heart stopped too. Northern India seems to be to have been the source for the Qinghai strain of H5N1; the bar-headed geese fly over the Himalayas to China from India and Tibet.

Neither the US nor Canada have released the full results of the surveillance tests done last year.

Stuff like Richard Cohen's inability to deal with percentages explains an awful lot about political insanity and public policy insanity:

I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. ...

Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it.
Is there a correlation between innumeracy and certain strains of political thought? The thing is, I use fractions, percentages and other types of arithematic constantly even when I am reading the news. This may be why Richard Cohen and many journalists don't seem aware of some things which jump out at me - such as the problem with Social Security and the hilarious Al Gore prophecies of CO2-induced global disaster. See Pharyngula on Cohen's column.

Cohen goes on:

Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. This is a lie. Writing is the highest form of reasoning.
See, Cohen's blind, deaf and dumb to what he does not understand. Any fool can blather on in writing. Many fools do, including this one. Just because I write something doesn't mean that it is reasonable. Forming an idea and writing it down can be an exercise in pure fantasy. Algebra and those frightening percentages are necessary analytical tools to understand the basics of our world.

When Chief No-Nag read Cohen's article he laughed for 20 minutes. Then he sobered up and told me that this explained a great deal about some Democratic proposals. He said they couldn't understand numbers at all, so they can't understand economics and other public policy issues. This could explain quite a bit.

Update: Tommy did not pull his punches on the Richard Cohen. He offended one commenter, thus upholding our free speech rights.

Without the skill needed to look at numeric data and figure out whether it makes sense, you're at the mercy of the glib writer. Many, many, many liberal arts types have no understanding of numbers. I did. I actually liked math, science, and technology. I guess that explains why I, unlike other history majors, have had little trouble finding lucrative employment since college. Employers have been pathetically grateful that I mastered useful skills, AS WELL AS writing.

While I'm on a roll, will someone deal with the situation of social studies teachers who flat-out don't "grok" statistics, yet feel compelled to make pronouncements about issues based on their faulty understanding?
Linda, no one can grok people who are so subject to the Dunning Effect (being so bad at something that you believe you understand it).

As for the "pathetically grateful" bit, I hear you. It is very hard to find employees with a good basic education nowdays. This causes horrible problems.

Good writers are highly employable if they can reason well and assimilate and organize information. There is a huge need for technical writers, for example.

It's not that liberal arts majors aren't employable. I think far too many people have forgotten that the classic definition of the liberal arts did include mathematics.

Or maybe, like Richard Cohen, they just can't stand to deal with it.
well the algebra problem is two fold. I wrote about it here.

Not only does he not understand algebra, he doesn't understand what it is and I'm not sure which is worse. Basic algebra is required to know if you have enough money to pay for the candy bar you want to buy.

It wasn't that long ago that the math and philosophy department were typically linked if not one and the same. Maybe we should do that again and deem anyone not able to grasp the concept not capable of thought.
Well, you minced no words! You're right.
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