A common complaint about math is that “it has nothing to do with my life”. In this week’s post we will look at the way math lets you understand what’s actually happening. Math not only has everything to do with your life, it can have a lot to do with your misery and death if you ignore it. Math can be used to build policy that might work, as opposed to policy that accomplishes the opposite of its goals.
Today in Occupy Math, climate change, teen pregnancy, and violent crime.
In an earlier edition of Occupy Math, Model Shopping and Climate Change, the problem of picking a small portion of the data that support your own views was discussed. It turns out there is a level below that in the hierarchy of math haters: blatant denial of reality. A story in the New York Times discusses the problem with “sunny day flooding” where a high tide and a brisk wind flood a coastal town, no storm needed. The sea level is obviously higher – if you take measurements you find this is true.
The United States Navy is having serious problems with flooding in their bases. If anyone has an evidence-based view of the water, it’s probably a naval organization. US Representative Ken Buck R(Colorado) got an amendment through the House of Representatives forbidding the US Navy from spending money to prepare for climate change. He calls Department of Defense Directive 4715.21 on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience a part of the radical climate change agenda.
Occupy Math tries to avoid strong language, but Mr. Buck is a
moron, whatever his intelligence quotient.
Simple measurements provide irrefutable evidence that we have an increasing problem with flooding on the American seacoast. Mr. Buck is happy to let the navy lose its bases so they can focus on fighting Islamic radicals, because he will not (not cannot) use simple mathematics to look at the evidence that the climate is actually changing. His plan will prevent his stated outcome: a more effective navy. His math-averse policy accomplishes the opposite of what it is supposed to do! By completely refusing to do the math, Mr. Buck is endangering his constituents, wasting incredible amounts of money, and severely damaging the navy. He gets away with it because a large fraction of his constituents cannot or will not do the math either. He is perpetuating a transparent falsehood with impunity. Math is the right of all free people – and we should insist on it in our elected representatives.
Do you want fewer teen pregnancies or not?
There is a deep religious belief, in the US and elsewhere, that the correct way to prevent teen pregnancy is to convince young people to engage in abstinence. It is also the case that the more an area relies on abstinence, the higher its teen pregnancy rate. The chart above suggests, ironically, that abstinence is strongly correlated with pregnancy. In the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, where birth control is free and freely available, teen pregnancy is quite rare. In the American south, where abstinence-based sex education is popular, the rate of teen pregnancy is about ten times higher. The good news, given how hard it is to do a good job raising a child, is that the rate has come down. The quoted story notes that this is because contraceptives are getting easier to obtain – the rate of teen sex has stayed about the same. The people in charge of sex education in the abstinence-based programs obviously do not care about the teen pregnancy rate. They are intentionally and irresponsibly ignoring the simple mathematical evidence that abstinence-based education does not work – and obtaining the opposite of their stated goal.
Do you look at evidence, or just wish real hard that the world is what you want it to be?
In a classic anti-rational anti-mathematical interview, available on Youtube, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to make the point that the fact people feel there is a wave of violent crime is much more important than the fact that the violent crime rate is way down. There are exceptions – Chicago is suffering under a huge epidemic of gun violence – but the numbers say that Americans are safer, on average, from violent crime than they have been in decades. Facts be damned, Gingrich needs a panic. The nice thing about this interview is that the interviewer calls him on it.
Gingrich is pretty intelligent and also a complete hypocrite.
Newt’s agenda is to win an election, not to spend tax dollars sensibly. This is, after all, the man that said we should teach creationism in U.S. Schools while displaying a dinosaur skull in his congressional office. Suppose we spend a whole lot to combat violent crime when it has decreased? What are the consequences? Well, there are a lot of things you could do with tax money besides waste it. Hire more math teachers. Raise teachers’ pay so that the good ones don’t go do something else in order to send their children to university. Start job training programs and literacy programs that will drop the crime rate farther. Again – Gingrich’s proposed crime policy will make the problem worse by allocating resources where they are not needed.
The amount of math in this week’s Occupy Math is pretty small – and it is all really easy. All you have to do is compare a couple of numbers or look at a graph. In defense of this week’s topic: it is obvious that a lot of people are not doing this math! Politicians like “climate change is imaginary” Buck and “what’s important is how people feel” Gingrich, and the pro-abstinence-sex-education mafia can get away with harming their constituents because they can count on people going with their feelings instead of doing a little math.
Feelings are very useful – when you have to make a quick decision. If you have time, do the math!
The take-home message from this week’s Occupy Math is that math-free public policy isn’t just ineffective, it is often counter-productive. There is a Bible quote set into the stone of the library at a university where Occupy Math used to work. John 8:32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. While the original author was not talking specifically about mathematics and quantitative reasoning, even a very modest willingness to do the math will protect you from being cheated and deceived in many ways. If you have your own examples of places where popular sentiment and “the math” disagree, Occupy Math is always eager for reader-supplied topics. Please comment or tweet!
I hope to see you here again,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics