What If It’s Math?

It seems weird to just turn back to education given that less than a week ago the U.S. Capitol was ransacked for the first time in two centuries by a lawless mob braying about fictitious election fraud and God knows what else.

So today instead here’s a half-formed thought I have – or perhaps you might call it a “wondering” if you’ve been to a non-profit meeting in the past few years. In times like this we tend to default to civic education as a remedy our sector can deliver. And I’m all for doing a better job teaching about America’s civic traditions, institutions, processes, and American history in all is majesty, malice, and complexity. I taught civics for an experiential program early in my career and have written about the issue in a few different venues over the years. At Bellwether we do some work on the issue. I take little convincing.

Yet I am not sure our failure to teach civics or history is an immediate cause of what happened last week. The mob that stormed the Capitol was not there to offer a different take on the direction of American politics in the way that progressives, socialists, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, or libertarians might disagree about politics or political issues. And I’m not sure a better understanding of our civic traditions might have dissuaded them. They were there because they believed the election was stolen or were opportunists hoping to create chaos, launch a race war, or set up a white or Christian ethnostate – among other toxic and batshit crazy theories. At best vulgarians, at worst straight-up racists or theocrats.

Seems like that is more about a toxic blend of misinformation and ideology more than it is about civics? I’m not arguing the rioters were paragons of civic knowledge. Some of them seemed not to know the difference between the House and Senate, for instance. And bringing a Confederate flag to a rally to accuse your elected officials of being traitors to the Constitution is moronic. But to say last Wednesday owes to a failure of civic education seems like blaming a shooting on a lack of understanding of firearms laws.

This episode, it seems to me, owes to something larger. My sense is that three things are really killing us in modern American politics, polarization, lack of proximity, and a distorted sense of prevalence.

Two of these – polarization and prevalence do seem to have an education root (and in different ways our K-12 schools and colleges and universities are a reflection and driver of the third). But what if it’s math, logic, probability, and statistics more than civics that offer the most promise to address polarization and a misunderstanding of prevalence? Or put differently, what if our challenge today is largely about helping people resist misinformation as they navigate the fastest rushing and deepest river of information humans have ever experienced? And what if math and logic are a more powerful intervention than civics?

You might not know it from the tenor of our politics or social media, but reasonable people can disagree about a wide variety of policy issues, the size and scope of government, boundaries between the public and the private, and the applicability of various constitutional language to contemporary issues. In recent years we’ve weaponized some of that – health care reform, abortion, and gun control spring to mind as issues where opposing positions are often characterized in stark terms that leave little room for good faith argument and disagreement.

But what’s happening now is not about viewpoint diversity or disagreement. You can’t disagree about whether Joe Biden won the November election or not, as President Trump did in his hostage video-like speech the day after the Capitol was attacked. You might disagree with Joe Biden on various issues or in total. And you might wish he didn’t win, but the outcome of the election is a fact. Facts can be disliked but are immune to your disagreement. Try gravity as a thought experiment there. Republicans who opposed the effort to raise objections to the election certification pointed this out (in vain) to their colleagues. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted that everyone is entitled to their own option but not their own facts. It’s hardly a new idea. John Adams made much the same point about how facts are stubborn against our inclinations.

Moynihan made that observation at a time when disagreeing with facts was more widely regarded as ridiculous, not part and parcel of the post-modern information nightmare we’re living through. The election is just one example of the parallel universes many Americans find themselves in. And while there can be no “both sides” about the lines crossed last week, this misinformation problem transcends party and ideological lines.

A lot of that owes to social media and a media business model built around spinning everyone up all the time. But with all of those problems the remedies are generally worse than the problem – and many cures would be, for good reason, constitutionally impermissible.

So what if, to use the election as an example, someone with a good sense of prevalence might say, sure there was probably some fraud and some errors, after all more than 340 million votes were cast, that’s a lot. But it’s small bore stuff that cuts both ways and has no bearing on the outcome. (Instead, what we got was a mostly insipid debate about whether there was loads of it or none). Or one might logically ask why members of Congress would object to elections in their own states – the very elections that sent them to Congress? And one might conclude it was  a cynical stunt and political theater. And perhaps Americans with a better grounding in these things might not be so constantly amped up by all the distorted and absurd statistics and claims flying around on this and a host of other issues.

This kind of education helps people make some sense of the world around them and what is being thrown at them. That matters because what should worry us as much as the idiots who rampaged through the Capitol on January 6th is the millions of Americans who believed the election as stolen or at least fraudulent to a degree that would invalidate the results. Even after the insurrection the polling is discouraging. That’s a crisis for any democracy.

My friend Karim Ani has a book coming tweet about how math helps us understand the world. A core idea in it is that we tend to use life to teach about math – everyone remembers the questions about trains leaving two cities right? But actually, that’s backwards. Math teaches us about life. It’s all around us.

No one is going to accuse us of doing a good job teaching about any of these things. And some of this is of course just human nature. In our sector, school shootings, for instance, are exceptionally rare. I can point out that my daughters are statistically more likely to be child brides than be killed in a school shooting but even the idea of school violence is somehow more terrifying. It’s also obviously not a short term solution to a boiling point that has Americans regularly fighting in their streets.

I’m left wondering if over time from an education standpoint one of the ways out of the jam were in is to look at math, logic, prevalence, and probability as interventions that might prove more resilient and effective? After all, people are always going to disagree, civic processes just help us keep that disagreement on the rails and hopefully non-violent. Disagreeing more productively and less stridently is the problem we need to solve. And better quantifying our disagreement in common terms and frameworks grounded in actual evidence might be an essential first step?

One Reply to “What If It’s Math?”

  1. Thank you for your sanity.

    My favorite bumper sticker: “Gravity: It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.”

    Is there an argument-based curriculum out there? I did four years of expository writing in English during the Stone Age. We learned to write a thesis statement and support it. (Math was all about those two trains leaving the station …) What if history, science and math also stressed how people argue about what’s true and support their arguments? What did people believe in the past, why did they believe it and how did that change over time?

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