Thursday, 20 March 2008

f(n)=(3n)! Proves That You're A Dick

Just had someone slap me down on a forum over my insistence on using mathematics in the middle of arguments. The specific objections are that "no-one cares", and "how are you proving anything?" The implication being, presumably, that any single argument in a discussion can only be persuasive if it can be wholly expressed in plain English, without recourse to anything as crass as probability theory.

This has got me thinking about the way we view mathematics as individuals and as a society. Any scientist will tell you that it is often difficult to talk about what they consider reasonably basic concepts without people's eyes glazing over, but it seems to me that even by general standards, mathematicians get the short end of the stick. I've lost count of the number of times someone has told me "I was never any good at maths". Some do it with a sense of remorse, recognising a potential skill they never really grasped, and I don't have a problem with that. I was always rubbish at geography, for instance, and I was renowned as a football player for scoring at least eighty percent of my goals against my own team. But often the confession is accompanied by total indifference, or worse, inexplicable smugness. The latter always takes me back to my days on the front lines of teaching, in which the denizens of many classes had an implicit pact that maths was so irksome a subject that to be poor at it was somehow a point of pride. Children demand constantly to be told what use mathematics will be in later life, rarely thinking to ask the same question to their German or history teachers. A top-heavy fraction is seen as far less relevant that the exact date of the Battle of Arsuf, presumably because the former rarely involves Muslims with scimitars.

It seems to me that some people never quite move out of that mind-set. Mockery of academic accomplishment is everywhere. Wingnuts on blogs criticise liberals for being "educated". Scientists are accused of "not living in the real world". Douglas Adams once wrote sadly of a stand-up whose act including dissing flight engineers (something about how if black boxes are indestructible, why not make planes out of it?), which he described as a conscious decision by a group to band together and laugh at people smarter than they were. Maybe he overplayed his case, but I can certainly see where he's coming from.

Nobody likes to feel stupid. So, when faced by something you obviously can't grasp (or can't grasp yet), some people pull up their socks, some people ignore it until it goes away, and others mock it. The difficult is deliberately, consciously or otherwise, equated with the irrelevant and the boring. Academics are labeled as pointless at best, and untrustworthy at worst, for if their arguments cannot be easily understood, then how can they be believed? And then, by extension, the wielding of academic knowledge of any type becomes frowned upon.

Even within this phenomenon, though, there exists a hierarchy, with mathematics squarely at the bottom. One can make reference to the more basic physics concepts (for the sake of argument; gravimetric acceleration; nuclear fission; magnetism; basic relativity) within discussion without being called on it, in general. But bring in the most simple of probability concepts (binomial distribution, for example), and suddenly it's all "who cares?" and "that doesn't prove anything!". Those writing political speeches to persuade the masses as to the worthiness of their cause are specifically told to avoid an over-reliance on statistics. We constantly refresh the charge that maths is dull (the closest we've ever come to busting that myth is probably Numb3rs, which wasn't exactly to us what Indiana Jones was to archeology), because if it wasn't dull, why would so many people be unable to do it.

It makes me crazy. I recognise that feeling superior to people because you know more about something is a fairly unpleasant personality trait, and all things being equal, I'd like to be a lot less smug about such things. But to have a superiority complex about knowing less about something is patently insane. It's an attempt to damage that which you can't possess, or more frequently simply don't possess, and it's based on nothing more than a mob mentality that says once you knock someone over for having too theoretical a viewpoint, an awful lot of spectators are likely to cheer you on.

To summarise: what the fuck are people doing trying to wage an us v them war against the smart?

End of rant.

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