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Not So High on Intellectualism

November 10, 2011

Every now and then, someone will pass a poll around Facebook asking for the answer to something like “4 + 4 + 4 – 4 + 4 + 4 x 0 = ?” Inevitably, the answer “0” will be winning. Any attempts to explain order of operation to those who answered 0 is rejected. There is one of these polls going around right now which contains a particularly spectacular rant by an adult male of about my age who insists that he has not used order of operations since leaving high school and that he is working in a profession in which math would (in theory) be really quite useful.

Online polls are notoriously unreliable. Hell, PZ Meyers makes poll hijacking such a regular feature, than it spawned the term “pharyngulate.” But most of the time, those polls are opinion based and the only grounds for a “right” or “wrong” answer is your moral/political position.

But this? This is MATH. BASIC math. And there are STILL a large majority of people who get it wrong. Not just get it wrong, but get defensive when they get it spectacularly wrong. In the most recent one, fully 62% of the people who responded got the question wrong in some way. If this were an election, 56% of voters would have voted for the cardboard cutout of a dude wearing a white cowboy hat wrapped in an American flag because he was “the obvious choice.”

I think that polls like this illustrate, in a frighteningly simplistic way, just why votes like the Personhood Mississippi amendment are so fucking scary. Despite all of the science contradicting the concept of “personhood” at fertilization, despite the clear inaccuracies of the claims made by its supporters, despite the very plausible consequences raised by the objectors, there were still people who blindly supported this amendment. All on ideology.

The man who ranted at length about his 0 answer did so in a manner that suggested that anyone who told him he was wrong was questioning the very foundations of his world view. This sort of frothing defense of a factually incorrect stance has the exact same feel to me as people who declare that it feels right to call a single cell organism a person, and therefore it is. Which is all well and good when you’re defending your own personal ideology, but is not so good when making policy decisions which effect other people.

It has often been noted that there is sometimes an undertone of anti-intellectualism to certain political discussions. Climate change isn’t really happening, because some denialists managed to find one scientist out of a hundred who disagrees. The other 99? Man, who even believes scientists, anyways? Intelligent Design should be taught in schools because a story written 4000 years ago by people who believed that a woman having her period was sinfully unclean is more reliable than 150 years of rigorous scientific inquiry. Women shouldn’t have abortions because it feels right to believe that life begins as soon as the sperm breaks through the ova’s cell wall and its head explodes. Never mind how frequently a woman’s body rejects that single cell. Never mind how often a woman’s body rejects more than that single cell. Never mind that the woman in question might have a completely different ideology. It feels right to them, therefore it is, and therefore all policy must stem from there.

These sorts of things are complex, I know. Determining that 4 + 4 + 4 – 4 + 4 + 4 x 0 = 12 is quite literally so easy that a child can do it. Children, with their more recent education on the concept of order of operation are probably more likely to get it right. Children are also less likely to be offended when you teach them the correct method. At some point in the teens and early twenties, the concept of trusting someone who is an authority on a subject becomes verboten.

Which is why it makes me uncomfortable when we put ideologically driven issues up for vote, especially ones that ignore good science. It’s like putting your tax records online and passing around a poll as to what you should pay the IRS. Me, I’d be more likely to take that sort of thing to someone who is educated on the complexities of the situation and trust that they know what the fuck they’re doing. I’d still try to educate myself as much as possible, but I do not expect the professors in my department to be able to babble on about the pros and cons of perl verses php verses ruby, and my accountant does not expect that I will be able to pull from memory the bit of tax code that allows us deduct the taxes paid on my shiny new, better gas mileage car.

Instead of doing research for ourselves and giving more weight to people whose claims are open to review and testing by others with similar backgrounds, there are far too many people who put their faith in the person whose statements feel right. Where this is especially dangerous is when trust is put in a person whose statements feel right, but which do not hold up to even the most superficial scrutiny. This is not a good way to make decisions about your life, but if you choose to do so for yourself, more power to you. You feel free to tell the IRS that you don’t have to pay anything because anything times 0 is 0. Have fun with that. But when you start forcing me to use your terrible math, too? That’s where you and I are going to have a problem.

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