Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

For a long, long, long time...

... I've had the nagging feeling that we are in the midst of some weird, unexplainable mass institutional insanity.

Unfortunately, I keep getting proof for that suspicion. For example, we have Ms. Martha Roby, Congresswoman from Alabama, who was apparently so traumatized by irrational numbers in school that she wants to rid the country of them.

NASA might as well close up shop if this becomes law, along with who knows how many engineering firms, big and small.

Still, it's symptomatic of something much larger and much more insidious at work in this country, the definition of knowledge as elitist. Okay, start off with the acknowledgment that scientific knowledge is mutable and subject to change as better evidence is revealed to us. After all, the natural philosophers of three or four hundred years ago thought that some aethereal substance known as phlogiston was responsible for fire. When Joseph Priestley stumbled upon the element, oxygen, as the reason for fire, there was plenty of hawing and harrumphing, but, eventually, repeated experimentation and related study showed the rightness of his discovery.

That's the way science works. And the sciences need mathematics. Undermining mathematics produces errors in science, which is the ultimate ambition of legislation such as Roby's. Once scientific method can be discredited, it can be discarded, to the great relief of fundamentalist crackpots everywhere.

But, what's mystifying about this is the presumption for Roby's legislation. It's the notion that making children more ignorant, more sure of being right when they're horribly wrong, is going to increase their collective standing on international measures of educational effectiveness. Roby is trying to be helpful to our struggling students:

"It's no panacea, but this legislation will point us in the right direction. Looking at hard data, we know our children are struggling with a heck of a lot of the math, including the geometry incorporating pi.... I guarantee you American scores will go up once pi is 3. It will be so much easier."

Calling this moronic offers it dignity it does not deserve.

I once had a math instructor in college who had spent thirty-five years teaching math in the public schools, and then another fifteen teaching at the college level, who, when encountering a student who could not resist the urge to argue from a false premise, would draw herself up to her full 5'5" and say, forthrightly, "the inability to let go of a bad idea is the sign of a weak mind."

I think that's where we are today as a society. We cannot let go of the bad ideas with which we have been bombarded for several decades. We have ample proof, for example, that trickle-down economics and the aptly-named Laffer Curve were, at best, cruel jokes played on a public woefully uneducated in economics, and, at worst, devious and deceptive principles whose objects were to move money upwards into the hands of the already wealthy and powerful (these ideas, at their best and worst, were enormously successful--a substantial minority of the public believes in them as if they had been written on stone tablets and brought down the mountain by Moses himself).

Even today, with the wreckage of financial speculation and wretched imperial excess all around us, a significant portion of the public buys into the rank propaganda that our problems are solely due to the federal deficit, and that they will be good citizens by supporting legislation which will impoverish them for decades to come, even when historical data contradict the lies they've been told.

There are bad ideas seeping through this society, like toxic waste through subterranean streams of drinking water, promoted by weak minds with loud voices. Some of them, like Martha Roby's, will eventually encounter obstacles such as a Presidential veto or death in Senate committee, but others, such as the many bills currently in state legislatures around the country to legitimize creationism as science, or to destroy representative government, or to transfer wealth to corporations from the public coffers, may yet prevail.

Eventually, we are going to have to come to terms with the reasons why we have allowed ourselves to be governed by a minority of the weakest minds among us who have been busily promoting those bad ideas. We can do that before or after the crash, it's our choice.


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    By Blogger James Pereira, at 6:32 AM  

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