John Allen Paulos: A Few Reflections on “A Numerate Life”

John Allen Paulos in Scholar Commons at the University of South Florida website:

Zck1uQlELawyers, journalists, economists, novelists, and “public intellectuals,” among others, are all frequent commentators on both contemporary social issues and our personal lives and predicaments. And as someone who majored at one time or another in English, classics, and philosophy, I say rightly so, but I still bemoan the fact that scientists and especially mathematicians are not on this list.

People often pay lip service, of course, to the importance of mathematics and sometimes even express an undue reverence for mathematicians, but these attitudes are usually accompanied by a casual dismissal of the subject and its practitioners as irrelevant to matters of real importance. Mathematics is deemed esoteric and outside the ongoing public and private narratives and conversations that surround us. If mentioned in a general context, it is usually used to provide decoration, rather than information.

As I’ve tried to argue in several of my books, these attitudes are profoundly wrong. They seem compelling, however, because of still rampant innumeracy, which prompts people with little or no mathematical background to view mathematicians’ remarks and insights as always either completely trivial or forbiddingly abstract or else beside the point. Of course, these traits characterize many of the remarks of more traditional commentators, but here the remarks’ familiarity disguises their irrelevant banality. How many times do painfully fatuous points get repeated day after day by TV and newspaper pundits?

Sometimes, however, mathematicians’ habits of searching for abstraction lead them to make trenchant observations about, say, survival bias, Simpson’s paradox, or the unpredictability of nonlinear systems that are unlikely to be made by more traditional commentators. Periodically their deployment of basic arithmetic, even simply about the relative sizes of budget items or causes of death, leads to similarly revealing insights. So at times does an oblique and quirky approach to an issue such as a complexity-theoretic assessment of politicians’ speeches or an analysis of Gone with the Wind via systems of differential equations.

More here.