I don’t do math

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How many times have you heard the phrase “I don’t do math.”? Lots, I bet. It’s a common enough sentiment, sometimes stated with pride. On the other hand, I’ve never had anyone tell me, “I don’t do words.” Literacy is considered essential, indeed it’s a marker of how well a country educates its citizens.

In the liberal arts, “I don’t do science” is nearly as prevalent as “I don’t do math.” A playwriting student of mine recently wrote a piece dealing with the science vs. creationism. Almost every single one of her peers wrote included the line “I don’t understand the science, but…” in their critiques of her play. Now, admittedly, I’m talking about Louisiana, where the current governor is one of a long line who are willing to sacrifice the education of the state’s students in order to appease the religious right. But if her topic had been physics or chemistry, I suspect the results would have been similar.

I’m not talking about having everyone do calculus, or forcing each student to memorize the structure of all benzene rings, but survey courses that build on the basics everyone is exposed to beginning in junior high. Conversely, I don’t mean to pick on the liberal arts folks. My undergrad university, much to its shame, allowed me to graduate with only a single English class in the four years I was there.

The point of a university education should be train people to think critically. But if you’re lacking information in how the world works, how to write, analyze, and argue, how is that possible? I’m not saying my generation was any better; my point is not that things are going downhill. I’m saying the world we’re living in demands we understand complexity.

A recent story in a British newspaper suggested that the full moon was responsible for the birth of the most recent British princess, claiming “he moon’s gravitational pull affects amniotic fluid in the same way that it affects the water in the sea and rivers”. This is nonsense for two reasons. One, the moon isn’t any closer when it’s full, and two, there are objects on earth that will generate more gravitational pull on a human than the moon*. Knowing either of those things could have kept that reporter from embarrassing their publication and from spreading bullshit rather than informing the public**.


*Newton’s formula for measuring gravitational attraction isn’t that complex, and I was able to compute in few minutes that the gravitational force between a human (60kg) and the moon (7.3 x 10^22kg) at average distance (384,400km) is about equivalent to the gravitational force between a human and the Empire State Building at a distance of 1 meter.

** Additionally, they could have looked up the statistical studies which show there is no correlation between mothers going into labor and the full moon.



One comment

  1. If you actually use many phrases like “I don’t do math” or “I don’t do science”, you obviously don’t “do English” either!

    I enjoyed reading this, and thinking about the concepts presented.

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