Posted tagged ‘quantitative reasoning’

What Does the Public Really Need To Know?: Science/Math edition.

July 14, 2008

So, last week I have the good fortune (a) to junket in LA (thanks, History Channel — look for their latest Einstein documentary sometime between October and the new year) and, thus geographically advantaged, the chance to raise a glass or two with Sean Carroll and Jennifer (new digs) Ouellette (familiar haunt) — two of the brightest lights among those who blog the physical sciences.

Among much other discussion (how to do good science on television, whether there is any useful algorithm available to help navigate LA traffic) we drifted into that hardy perennial: what, really, does the general public need to know about science. Not for the greater good of science, not to secure more complaisant support for big accelerators or stem cell research, but for them/ourselves?

There are lots of facts that I think would give people pleasure — I love knowing that Albert Einstein patented a hearing aid (with Rudolf Goldschmidt); that chimpanzees fashion tools in the wild; that the first reaction written down in something like the modern form of a chemical formula was that describing the fermentation of alcohol. There are ideas that are enormously powerful — and some of them are clearly of value as part of anyone’s mental apparatus in confronting daily life. (Natural selection, offers insights well beyond the history of life, for example, (though great care must be taken, as we know, to our sorrow) and as general a heuristic as Ockham’s Razor would help people deal with silly season stories like this one.)*

But while these and much more are part of what I think any education should provide, the question I asked over something-or-other in martini glasses last week,** and re-ask here, is what the minimal body of knowledge is that every adult should possess.

Regular readers of this blog will guess the answer I gave: the bare minimum is arithmetic, or more broadly, a grasp of quantitative reasoning and a set of simple rules to apply such reasoning in everyday life.

For example — these posts sought to illustrate of the value of remembering to do something as basic as converting a cardinal number into a percentage, to make it possible to compare different data points.

Another example: the habit in this country of focusing on miles-per-gallon as a measure of fuel efficiency leads systematically to bad decision making. If we instead looked at gallons-per-mile (or hundred miles), it would make it clear that replacing a 16 mile per gallon SUV with a 20 mpg station wagon is a much better choice than replacing a 34 mpg compact with a 50 mpg hybrid, assuming equal miles driven for each vehicle. No one reading this needs much help figuring out why — but for the details, listen to the NPR story from which this particular example came. (See — I had to say something nice about NPR after slagging them for their Shakespeare follies.)

In sum: I’ve been at the popular science game for a quarter of a century now. I’ve written about climate change and physics and cancer research and precision guided weapons and big telescopes and the origins of the pentatonic scale and I can’t remember it all now. I hope everything found some audience who got something out of it. But more and more now I look for stories that in their telling express some of the basic habits of scientific thinking — whatever the body of facts with which I may be dealing.

There is much more to such habits than a quantitative turn of mind — notions of observation, of framing answerable questions and lots besides . But more and more the starting point seems to me to be conveying how much mastery of the world one can get from astonishingly simple acts of counting and comparing.

What do y’all think?

Update: See Chad Orzel’s recent post on John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy for another swipe at the same problem. (h/t Bora)

*For an antidote to the “Who wrote Shakespeare” tomfoolery, you can begin here with James Shapiro’s latest — one of the best of a spate of Shakespeare-as-window-on-the-birth-of-the-modern books that have appeared recenlyy.

**Fortunately, the waiter in the very chic bar in which the three of us chatted had never heard of what I tried to order, a French 75, which is the only reason I remained unfogged enough to have any kind of a conversation that night. Just the mention of it makes me feel a little shaky. Enjoy, but at your own risk.

Image: Codex Vigilanus, 976 C.E., in which Arabic numerals first appeared in a Western European manuscript. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Welcome to Cosmic Variance folks — and a question

March 11, 2008

Welcome to all coming via Sean Carroll’s very kind shout out.

Come on in, look around, enjoy yourselves.

And if you have a moment, consider answering this prompt. In this post written a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a complaint about some lousy reporting on the housing crisis — but my larger point touched on one of the big themes of this blog, how applying even the simplest quantitative reasoning makes a huge difference to one’s ability to make sense of (detect the bullshit in) everyday experience. I argued that this was one of the foundations of what is often miscalled (IMHO) scientific literacy as it applies to the public. I pointed to a couple of examples, one from Freeman Dyson, and another by J.B.S. Haldane to show how such minimal math makes a difference in real science as well.

And then I made this request: Perhaps readers could be persuaded to post examples of what they think are elegant, simple insights about everyday experience such simple applications of math can give us?

Anyone want to belly up to the bar?

In any event — glad to have you all here.

Image: Hans Holbein, “Portrait of the Astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer (detail)” 1528. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Why Can’t Republicans (and Harvard Economists) Count? Housing edition

March 8, 2008

I’ve focused a lot on the importance in thinking in numbers in a variety of blog posts.  (This one is my personal favorite). As I’ve done so, I’ve emphasized that this kind of thinking is one of two real pillars of scientific thinking. (The other one is empiricism — actually going out and in ways you can check getting information about the real world.)

The larger point I keep sniffing around is the notion that this is what a real definition of science literacy means: it’s not what facts you know (or think you know — see this post for a gory view of truthiness in science). Rather — its how you approach facts as you learn them, what sense you or I make of our experience that counts.

Counts — there’s the word again. Apparently uber-economist Martin Feldman, late of Ronald Reagan’s administration and now professing to unsuspecting Harvard undergraduates, doesn’t do that so good. He’s got a nifty proposal to address the mortgage crisis in America — a massively complex scheme of government intervention and subsidy (waittaminute — ain’t that for Atrios’s DFHs?) that will, in the end, in the real world, add up to…

Bupkis. Tanta over at Calculated Risk has run the numbers. Putting the absolute best possible framework around Feldman’s idea (he wants the feds offer a 15-year second mortgage loan at a highly subsidized rate, with a number of restrictions, to cover 20% of existing mortgages), Tanta works out what all the details actually mean.

You can mess about a bit with the assumptions in the examples worked out there, but the bottom line remains the same. The sucker don’t work. Plausibly, it will increase monthly payments for many borrowers (total interest will go down; but the real-world economic crisis derives from the fact that folks can’t pay what they owe now, not fifteen years down the road). One case study ends up with a home owner forced to buy 12 fewer lattes per year … which, as Tanta notes, hardly advances the cause of economic stimulus.

Not to spill two many bytes on this — after all, this is a proposal so dumb it has nowhere to go, despite the bar being set pretty low on stupid over the last several years — but why is this so hard to figure out?  Feldman can in fact do his sums — I’m sure.  Why not actually run a few tests against his hypothesis (subsidizing a fraction of mortgage interest costs will make a difference to the economy — yes or no?) and quietly trashcan the idea himself, without wasting time the rest of us could use …say … meeting the book deadline whose breath I feel hot against my neck.

Count, man! Count.  (You’ll still respect yourself in the morning.)

(h/t Atrios)