Roger Marolt: Roger This
December 4, 2009
Light the candle and dig out the old (but like new) trigonometry book. To save the planet we need math. I mean no insult to Shakespeare, but I know what a rose smells like and with the help of Google I can tell you its scientific name. However, it was a numbers man who proved the planet is a ball which trumped all imagination, speculation, and creative interpretation to the contrary, putting to rest all argument as to which contribution to mankind was more important.
You might wonder what has me worked up. I am not ashamed to tell you that it is fear. I am afraid that we have become afraid of mathematics and are paying a big price for it in everyday life.
Suppose for example (in a completely hypothetical scenario) that you had potential purchasers of real estate who did not understand math. Further, suppose that you had a real estate appraiser who didn’t understand it either.
The buyers, having no idea what a house is worth, ask the appraiser his opinion of its value. The appraiser, not understanding numbers, says something like, “Let’s see, a fool bought the house next door for X dollars six months ago. And, we can guess with near certainty that there are bigger fools than they (most likely sitting before me at this very moment). Therefore, the house is worth X plus 10 percent, and thus the one you are contemplating purchasing is worth the same, or even a little more. ”
To which his clients, the mortgage banker, and a couple of real estate brokers say something like, “Thank you!”
Everybody knows that there is a simple mathematical formula to determine what a house is really worth in terms of utility and investment value, and that the above case is a preposterous example of how someone might actually go about buying property, but it hints at potential problems that could ensue if a practice such as this ever caught on. It could cost us trillions of dollars!
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Now, I am not suggesting that all the problems of the world can be solved by dropping in values for independent variables and letting the dependent variable fall out. There is simply too much covariance and autocorrelation amongst the data to come to any significant conclusions given a likely low R-squared for massively complicated hypothesis.
What I am suggesting, however, is that the study of mathematics will counter the New Age tendency to reward effort rather than results and then embracing whatever answer pops out of our guts. This is killing us!
Our local government buys a small lumber yard for $18 million. Some people used to invest in timeshares. We give “participation ribbons” to everyone and the “Most Valuable Player award” to nobody on the third-grade soccer team. The last example might highlight math ignorance best.
You don’t see it? The proof’s on the turf. We accept the notion that all kids should be rewarded equally knowing full well that not all kids are equally talented. The kids of average talent don’t care, but parents of the kids with “exceptional talent” are bummed out that their kids have to share playing time with the ones who don’t care.
In order to get quality playing time, the gung-ho kids’ parents organize “traveling” teams and then spend virtual childhoods on the road going from event to event. The costs get intense so the kids have to dedicate themselves to sports at younger and younger ages to make the “investment pay.”
The parents of all the other children then feel like their kids are missing out so they pressure them to get into these “high-level” programs, ensuring that no child escapes the maelstrom. In the end fewer kids participate, more kids burn out, all parents wear out, and nobody gets a college scholarship anyway. It’s a disaster.
And, this all happens because we don’t understand math! In the above example the dollars spent, the miles driven, the time wasted, the opportunities lost, all compared to what kids are getting out of it – it doesn’t add up. But, the case for understanding math is even more fundamental than that: Math teaches us that not every solution we come up with is a good one.
In math, untenable answers are not allowed. For a good effort but a wrong solution, the best one can hope for is a pat on the back and a solid D+. It doesn’t matter how long you worked on it, wrong is still wrong. There is nothing touchy or feely about numbers. One reason we hate them is because they don’t lie to make us feel smart.
You see where I’m going with this, right? Yep, mathematics suggests that absolute answers do exist. In fact, mathematics hints that there is a correct answer for every question, even if there are too many “unknowns” for us to ever arrive at it. But, one implication is clear, and frightening to many people learned in pop culture: Except in art, relativism is a bunch of crap. Even worse, right and wrong are alive and well.
Many will worry that this conclusion gives ammunition to the majority to impose their values on the minority in the name of absolutism. Don’t. Math problems are not solved by consensus and rarely by the person speaking most eloquently or forcefully about it. If you are right, you can stand confidently independent of the crowd.
The rigors and precision of mathematics reinforce the notion that complex problem solving is difficult, at best. So, what then is the good of it? Well, far from relativism’s reliance on our inability to arrive at answers to suggest that everyone is right, the forgone conclusion in mathematics that a correct answer exists, even if we are unable to solve for it, suggests that many times most of us may be wrong. This makes for humble and thoughtful discourse.
Now do you see the need for math?