If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Friday, May 16, 2008

What Can Math Teach Us About Character?

In case you hadn't noticed, it's election time again. What do elections mean? Lots and lots of numbers. We have poll results, delegate counts, statistics of all different sizes and hues. For the next six months, the air will be unusually full of numbers. It will be left to the American voter to sort through all the numbers and come to a conclusion about what the right thing to do is. But how numbers literate is the American public?

Perhaps the defining moment for numbers in politics came in the first presidential debate in 2000. Al Gore spent much of the debate defending his positions with statistic after statistic, which Bush brushed aside with the phrase "fuzzy math," converting all that information into so many greenhouse gasses. (It turns out that "fuzzy math" and "fuzzy logic" are real things, but I don't think that's what Dubya meant.) This moment was, of course, indicative of the whole campaign in which the intellectual and analytical Gore was regularly stymied by Bush's appeal to people's common sense and values.

Personal opinions about el presidente aside, what Bush was playing on was the general impression that in the wrong hands, numbers can be made to show whatever we want them to. In this particular respect, he is not wrong. Because we expect numbers to be objective, we can be manipulated by themall the more easily, and it is not all that hard to make the numbers appear to show something. Bush's strategy for dealing with the problem (ignoring the numbers completely), is one way to handle this problem. (I leave it to the reader to decide how successful it has been.)

The opposite approach, and the one which I would advocate, is to educate ourselves to be good interpreters of numbers, to recognize when the numbers have been fudged, and when they are really telling us something. If we are going to be good citizens, we must also be good judges of information. We need to be able to figure out when someone is telling us the truth, and when they really are using "fuzzy math".

All you math teachers out there, I encourage you to spend some time with your students analyzing the numbers that are floating around out there these days. Help them decide for themselves what is real or what is not. Their decisions just might make a difference someday.

Have you seen any really bad math recently? I'm sure you have.

No comments: