Some years ago, the phrase “math anxiety” became popular to describe the difficulty many students had with learning elementary math skills. I haven’t heard it much lately. Maybe because I am no longer in the “ed biz” or maybe because the public discourse has become dominated by politics. But the issue has not gone away. Indeed, I will argue that it is, and has always been, a serious problem for adults -- especially for the adults who govern us and who run the news media.
Sixty years ago, Cambridge scholar and physicist Charles Percy Snow delivered an influential lecture entitled “The Two Cultures,” which posited that intellectuals are divided into two distinct camps, Science and non-Science. There is some overlap, but it is nearly all by scientists who love music or literature, not by poets who love algebra.
A popular acronym these days is STEM, shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. It is generally thought that students who successfully major in these subjects are practically guaranteed decent jobs while those who choose the other culture may face a more challenging future. The problem is that most students are not capable of being successful STEM majors in college because of inadequate math skills. No doubt some of this is due to innate ability, but a large part is due to poor high school math education. It is especially true for girls. Even with all the great efforts of the last few decades, girls seem to get a pass on doing well in math.
Do you think I am exaggerating? I recently saw an episode of Fox News’ “Outnumbered” (you know -- Four smart women in tight dresses on a couch with “one lucky guy” in the middle). They were discussing the college admission scandals and the role of the SAT exam. The women admitted to having had some difficulty with the math portion of the SAT. Some even went to “SAT camp.” It is funny (to me) that they didn’t complain about learning obscure vocabulary or understanding challenging reading selections. I remember hearing on another program Megyn Kelly bragging about failing ninth grade algebra twice before finally passing it and noting that it hadn’t held back or even hampered her career. You rarely hear a man being proud of that. So the cultural divide persists between the genders despite enormous efforts to erase it. This is a sad fact.
I hope you don’t think I am giving men a pass. Men in the public arena are just as bad. They just don’t admit it. The most obvious place is in debates over taxes and spending. Now this does not require college math, nor even high school math. It barely requires any middle school math. It just requires agreed upon numbers and rules. Yet it is a disaster. Just the presence of lots of large numbers seems to drive people crazy. Of course, political agendas play a huge role too, but the numbers help hide that.
Being conservative myself, I see every leftwing proposal as mathematically dishonest but I won’t even bother with the obvious examples. Rather, let me describe one of the things that drives me to distraction by even my favorite pundits. That is the tendency to use ridiculous percentage estimates to make some point. In recent days we have seen the upper echelons of the FBI and the Justice Department disgraced by their corrupt behavior. But the critics nearly always qualify that by exculpating some group they call the “rank and file.” Now I am a trust-but-verify kind of guy. I have no evidence of corruption other than what has been uncovered publically so far. But it strikes me as unlikely that an organization which is rotten at the top is pure at the bottom. So I might guess that 90% of the FBI was honest, maybe 96%. Or maybe only 50%. I just don’t know. I have no hard evidence. But conservative pundits like Sean Hannity are sure. They place the number at 99.99%. Do they know that means that only one in 10,000 is bad? Or did they miss that semester in middle school? There are around 40,000 FBI employees. Do they know that means no more than 4 could be bad? Am I being too pedantic? Maybe, but every time sloppy math pollutes the public discourse it weakens our ability to have a rational discussion.
Nowhere is this situation more obvious than in the current scandal in the “intelligence community.” The President is plagued with seemingly open rebellion by some significant number of supposedly nonpartisan CIA and other intelligence agents who are really partisan hacks. Yes, I am not seeking public office so I can call them what they are. I don’t have a clue if they represent 10% or 90% of the community. If you are a Democrat, you think they are patriotic whistleblowers. But if you are a conservative who has not yet been brainwashed, then you know they are traitors. Who is right? The last time we were this divided it took a civil war to sort things out.
What is the connection of the previous paragraph to the math issue? As with the FBI and DOJ, the question is what percent of the CIA owes more loyalty to the Deep State and the Democrats rather than the America and its Constitution? Again, conservatives like to pretend that the problem is confined to a few senior appointed officials, while the “rank and file” career agents -- almost always described as 99% or more -- are loyal patriots. Would that it were so, but no evidence is ever offered. The same is true of the State Department, particularly the diplomatic corps, and the rest of the permanent federal establishment.
Do you need more examples? The debate among Democrats over the cost of their various boondoggles is mathematically pathetic. How about prison guards? There is hardly a prison in the nation where drugs and weapons are not routinely available to the inmates. Yet guards are rarely charged with a crime. How can that be possible?
I hope I have at least convinced you that the folly of claiming 99% with little or no evidence, while well intentioned, has the effect of minimizing a danger that all conservatives should be aware of. I wish I could offer a simple solution but I don’t have one. I am quite sure it will at least require that patriotic conservative Americans stop deluding themselves with bad middle school math.