Innumeracy and Coherence

By and large, I am intellectually grounded in the humanities. My science and math background is more or less nonexistent. What little is there is there because I’ve cobbled it together in my thirties and forties, while practicing law, writing poetry and teaching English. My intentions are good but I remain – in the lexicon of John Allen Paulos – innumerate.

Innumeracy breeds a sort of incoherence that can be quite dangerous. Take, for example, this brouhaha. If you read John Dickerson’s article at Slate (and his response to Dr. Wang), you’ll see these words:

It’s a fool’s game to guess whose momentum is greater. But Romney is peaking at just the right moment.

Focus in particular on that qualifying phrase – “fool’s game.” I know exactly what Dickerson means by it – I could have written it myself.  In the world of the innumerate – at least those who are sophisticated literates – one’s intuition or gut feel is predominant and trustworthy. They have to be because math and science are of no use. Anecdotal evidence is hard data, from which whatever conclusion we draw that “feels” right is right.

But Dickerson is ignorant because the notion of momentum in politics can in fact be measured – and is in fact measured. It is neither a game nor an exercise in foolishness. If one is aware of it – and capable of interacting with it – then one can construct a narrative  grounded in numeracy that is both accurate and helpful. Instead, Dickerson has essentially misled his readers – not with malice but with ignorance. The result is journalism that is objectively untrue and – given the importance of literate and numerate journalism in a democracy – unhelpful.

This sort of incoherence is readily addressed. First, we have to see it – in others perhaps but most importantly in ourselves. It’s good to recognize that there is a gap in our thinking – a deficiency in the way in which we measure and respond to the world. It is like trying to write a letter to a friend in a language she doesn’t read. We can pretend it works – we can even assume it is working – but sooner or later we have to accept that we are simply hiding from a meaningful alternative.

The thing is, when we perceive the gap in our knowledge, then it becomes fixable. We can stop it through through formal or independent study. We can resolve that our actions going forward – as journalists, doctors, teachers, what have you – are guided by coherence. Dickerson’s article, for example, could have measured his perception of enthusiasm amongst Romney supporters against the mathematical realities of the election. That would have been interesting – and helpful.

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