Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

Another reminder that Republicans don't have a monopoly on offensive anti-science stupidity, from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who declares algebra useless in a column directed at a high-school drop-out.

If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

(And again, I consider dusting off the Poetry for Physicists entry, and re-working it for the Chronicle of Higher Education or some such...)

I could spend a bunch of time ripping into Cohen further, but I've had too many mornings ruined by idiots already, and I'm leaving town right after this morning's class, for a much-needed break. Happily, PZ has it nailed:

In Richard Cohen we have a 21st century man insisting that an 18th century education is too much for our poor students.

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Here is a serious problem: Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know—never mind want to know—how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two…
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I'm a little late to the party on the Richard Cohen "who needs algebra anyway?" column in the Washington Post. As others have pointed out, the column itself is fairly lame. Piling on at this point would be a little mean. Instead of piling on, I would like to follow the admirable example set at…
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That's pretty...special. I know people think "Math is hard!", but honestly, at that level, the abstraction is minimal and there's no reason why any normally intelligent person can't learn it. As for it's usefullness, knowing a bit of elementary logic and how to actully do some math is critical in the world we live in. If more people stopped believing that math is hard (and hell, if maybe we stopped telling them this when we're teaching it to them initially), they'd spend less on lottery tickets and more on things that will actually help them in the long run.


Richard Cohen is not a liberal. He's one of the many 'former liberals' who has achieved prosperity through the technique of 'even the liberal X hates this idea...'. Recently, (I just checked his most recent Post columns) he's had an attack of sanity, but that doesn't qualify one as liberal, just sane.

IIRC, Cohen was the sort of Kausite who'd bash 'feminists' for not fixing some problem, and 'liberals' for not fixing some other problem. Totally ignoring both the efforts that both groups were making to fix things, and the fact that they don't run the world.

I do have to say that a quick skim of his latest columns at the Post show that he might have pulled his head out of his *ss, and figured out both who's running things, and what they're doing. It wouldn't surprise me to see, in a few years, that he might actually become a liberal.

If you want to see a very funny take on "Math is Hard",
watch the Colbert Report's segment titled "Nerd Patrol"

Remember kids, equations are the Devil's sentences!

By Tracy P. Hamilton (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

I dunno, I think high school algebra is 80% useless, too. Because, yes, algebra in the "symbolic manipulation" sense is useful and essential. But most of high school algebra is Stupid Factorization Tricks. It's all about breaking down polynomials into solvable linear equations in ways that are totally unnecessary once you know the quadratic equation (which they withhold until the end so that the pointlessness of the other methods is concealed).

Seems like you could strip out all that dumb factoring and make the course both more popular and more relevant.

I agree with Mike. The point of his article is not really that algebra is useless, it's that not being able to grok it has denied this young girl a diploma. Which is sort of a point, although you risk going down the slippery slope of justifying no algebra for more and more people.

...and in fact, it may make sense to deny her a diploma, so that employers can assume basic competencies like algebra and symbolic manipulation. Still, she was not meant to go to college; does she deserve further to not have a diploma?

By hugechavz (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

(For a minute, I was confusing Richard Cohen with Randy Cohen, thinking, "But wait! Randy Cohen's columns usually make sense!")

Wow. That's one of those rare columns in which I cannot find within myself the ability to agree with the main tenets of even one paragraph. I particularly liked that smarmy bit about ditching math in favor of actually knowing something about the world. Oh, that's choice. The bit about writing, rather than mathematics, being the highest form of reasoning? You've got to be kidding me.

But the sad fact is, he's not. He's not kidding, and he manages to turn his great, self-confessed arrogance into written authority. (And his boasts about not being able to do percentages puts him in the same class as the person I had dinner with a few weeks ago who bragged about not being able to figure out the tip. Yeah, great.)

There is something outright demented about making the written claim that writing is the highest form of reasoning after making the written admission that you lack even a high school level understanding of other modes of reason.

And all through, he manages to hit my highest complaint against his sorry sort: He'll rightly denounce anyone who concentrates on math and science to the exclusion of language and history as a moron, unfit to be let off the leash in public, but he won't accept the rightful derision for being the mirror image.

I will maintain to the end of my days that if I, as an engineer and a computer scientist, need to have some knowledge of history, need to be able to write and read well on command, need to have at least (at least!) a passing familiarity with art and literature in order to be civilized...

...Then I have no problem requiring the writers of the world to be able to grasp the fundamental theorem of calculus, be at least glancingly familiar with 20th (or even 19th!) century physics and chemistry, and perhaps have a mild appreciation for how computers do what they do.

Or at least be able to estimate a 15% dinner tip without pulling out a fucking pasteboard tip calculator, and have the grace to sit down and be quietly embarassed if they can't.

By John Novak (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

Mike, I think the problem is a bit deeper than that. The LA Times article this whole fracas is based on talks about kids getting lost with equations like 37 - X = 36.

The real problem is not California requiring algebra in high school, it's allowing kids with 2nd grade math skills into high school.

Sorry Mike, but all that boring drudge work we all hated? It IS necessary. Until you understand how the underlying specifics work, you're not going to get a proper handle on the more general abstraction. Those equations are nothing more than stupid memorization tricks if you don't understand how you got to them. You might as well not have bothered.

The drudge-work also helps (sometimes) to keep necessary bits in one's head after years of non-use. A friend and I were discussing a Flash game. When I was asked to look over the equations for an object's position, all kinds of, well, all kinds of crap from trig and beginning calculus came oozing back, not all of it relevant... but it was a pleasant surprise after 12-15 years. There's a similar use to learning some grammar by rote, I think.

How do people expect to estimate budgets without a little algebra? Never mind factoring--having a couple variables and adjusting so they aren't negative is helpful.

Mike, I think the problem is a bit deeper than that. The LA Times article this whole fracas is based on talks about kids getting lost with equations like 37 - X = 36.

The real problem is not California requiring algebra in high school, it's allowing kids with 2nd grade math skills into high school.

The problem, it seems, is the brain atrophy.

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

I don't know, I think the stupid factorization tricks can be useful for visualizing polynomials off the cuff in my head, and especially figuring out where the roots are. Getting a feel for how functions behave is more important than getting answers, and something I use in my work and life all the time; but the only way I know to get that horse sense is to grind through a whole lot of math homework.

I've also noticed a lot of political arguments, on subjects that properly have a quantitative element, in which many of the participants don't even think of taking a quantitative approach--even one based on rough order-of-magnitude estimates.

E.g. "it's absurd that humans could have an effect on climate--the world's so big and we're so small! It's just a delusion of grandeur." Well, no: Arrhenius did a rough calculation in 1896 using basic physics that got the climate sensitivity to CO2 to the right order of magnitude (probably a little high but not outrageously so); and if you plug current global production into that formula, you may not have gotten exactly the right answer or proven anything without doubt, but you do discover that the idea is not *absurd* at all. But this won't register if you've never had the experience of letting numbers inform your gut feelings.

Mistrust of math in the general population is, I think, actively dangerous.

The point of his article is not really that algebra is useless, it's that not being able to grok it has denied this young girl a diploma.

I think it has a bit more to do with this than anything.

Money quote:

Seidel did not appear to make a difference with Gabriela Ocampo. She failed his class in the fall of 2004 � her sixth and final semester of Fs in algebra.

But Gabriela didn't give Seidel much of a chance; she skipped 62 of 93 days that semester.

By John Dilick (not verified) on 20 Feb 2006 #permalink

With respect to Matt McIrvin's comment, I'd have to say that IME the attitude that he describes isn't limited to people who are uncomfortable with mathematics. I've run into an awful lot of engineers, a fair number of CSICOP-style skeptics, lots and lots of hard-sf junkies (esp. Niven-Pournelle fans) and even a few professional physicists and chemists whose default assumption is that "of course" man's impact on the global environment is a drop in the bucket compared to volcanoes, solar flares, termite mounds, etc. Their primary problem is not an unwillingness to do the math, but a total lack of familiarity with the relevant data.

By Robert P. (not verified) on 20 Feb 2006 #permalink

Their primary problem is not an unwillingness to do the math, but a total lack of familiarity with the relevant data.

But where are those data? I've been trying to find some objective (i.e. not Greenpeace website) source for data on global warming. Where are they?

There are journals if you really want to read the original research. On the internet, RealClimate is written by climate scientists and is a great resource.

By Aaron Bergman (not verified) on 21 Feb 2006 #permalink

the mathematics used in climate science is mostly bullshit, climate scientists are having as much success predict future climate as economists have predicting the stock market.