Math anxiety turns political
1 October, 2012In
a recent interview, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was asked
about the problem with his party's proposed "budget" (if we may loosely
use that word for a set of proposals that refrain from actually saying
how much money will be raised, or how it will be spent), and suggesting
that it would "take me too long to go through all the math". He
actually spent a couple of minutes avoiding wasting time by going
through all the math. And in an interview the following day he further
expatiated on his mathless mission of mercy: "I like Chris [Wallace,
the interviewer]. I didn't want to get into all of the math on this
because everyone would start changing the channel."
Sure, you may think you want to know how I'm going to be covering the
pension and health care you think the government has promised you
("federal government legacy costs", as his running mate might term
them), but trust me, the answer involves MATH! MATH, I TELL YOU!
Imagine Jack Nicholson at the end of A Few Good Men yelling, "You want
the math? You can't handle the math!" Paul Ryan is a selfless soul who
has descended into the pit of reckoning, done battle for your sake with
the math demons, and returned with a golden budget for all our sakes.
Surely we cannot be so cruel (and so self-destructive) as to demand
details of the horrors he encountered there. Maybe Obama has done
alright protecting us from Osama bin Laden and alQaeda, but only Paul
Ryan is going to be able to save us from Euclid and alGebra.
You'd really have to go pretty far down the UK political food chain to
find someone this inept. It's not just that he's manipulative and
treats the journalists he's talking to (and the public) with contempt
-- those are common traits of the zoon politicon
-- but that his excuses are so inept. British politicians might play a
shell game with a few tens of billions, but no one is going to try to
paper over a trillion pound hole in a so-called budget by saying, in
effect, trust me, I'm the only one standing between you and the numbers.
I'm reminded of an (entirely apocryphal) encounter between Euler and
Diderot reported by E. T. Bell, quoting de Morgan (who probably
invented the story himself). Diderot, who had been invited to
Petersburg by Catherine the Great, got on people's nerves with his
outspoken atheism, and Euler was commisioned by Catherine herself "to
muzzle the windy philosopher", taking advantage of the fact that "all
mathematics was Chinese to Diderot":
Now, while the image of windy philosophers being publicly humiliated by
a shrewd mathematician has certainly endeared this tale to generations
of suffering school-age mathematicians, but I never thought an actual
adult would try this tactic: You have to believe me, because I have
knowledge so profound that it involves math. Then too, even if Euler
had been such an asshole (which he was not), at least he would have
compensated in part by being one of the great geniuses of the age.
Ryan's claim to this status is decidedly less certain.
Diderot was informed that
a learned mathematician was in possession of an algebraic demonstration
of the existence of God, and would give it before all the Court, if he
desired to hear it. Diderot gladly consented. . . Euler advanced
toward Diderot, and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction:
Sir, (a+bn)/n=x, hence God exists; reply!
It sounded like sense to Diderot. Humiliated by the unrestrained
laughter which greeted his embarrassed silence, the poor man asked
Catherine's permission to return at once to France. She graciously gave