Aug 072017

This post is the first in a series on education which will, of course, sprawl all over the map.

In these days of vile politics preying on fear and bigotry amongst the general population I often hear the cry: “They need more education.” Really ???? That’s the solution? Somehow if people were “better” educated they’d stop succumbing to fear and make more reasoned judgments about who they elect, and what propositions they vote in favor of? It’s going to be hard for me to sum up all the flaws in that argument in a short post. In the simplest terms, “They need more education” is as sensible a statement as the phrase I see written on social media from one person to another all the time: “You should write a book.” Sure. Writing a book, finding a publisher, and selling hundreds of thousands of copies to eagerly awaiting readers is a breeze !!! Anyone who airily makes such a statement is clueless.

The hardest nut to crack here is to decide what exactly people mean by “education” followed by getting some grasp on why these people think it’s a good idea. Education comes in a host of flavors. Should we all learn more about certain subjects? Mathematics? History? Physics? Geography? Anthropology? Which ones? Which are most important and why? We can start with these questions before moving on to more challenging ones.

I can see a crying need in the West for the general public to have a better grasp of mathematics but I’m not certain at all how to achieve that goal. Simply taking more classes in mathematics is not going to help. Most of my college students had a blind spot when it comes to mathematics and their eyes would glaze over when I introduced even the most basic of mathematical equations in my classes. They were all required to achieve a certain level of mathematical competence on entry or in their first year, but it did no good. Simply taking classes is not the answer.

Knowing more than the most basic arithmetic is not only useful in such arenas as personal budgeting and planning, but also in more arcane areas such as statistics which forms the cornerstone of climate science, medicine, polling and the like. For example, when my wife was pregnant at age 36 doctors told us that she should have amniocentesis because the risk of Down syndrome in babies doubles for women over age 35. DOUBLES. Wow !!!! This is actually completely useless information unless you know the statistics that this statement is based on (and can interpret them). If the normal chances of having a Down syndrome baby are 1 in 10, then doubling would mean 2 in 10. That’s a pretty serious increase and one would be foolish not to take note. But if the normal chances are 1 in 10 million, then doubling would be 2 in 10 million. I certainly wouldn’t waste my time worrying about those odds. This reminds me of a favorite saying: “Lottery tickets are a tax on the stupid.” Some people will blow $100 per week on $1 lottery tickets because they have 100 times more chances of winning than buying just 1. True. But 1 versus 100 out of tens of millions are just not great odds. They fall back on the old chestnut, “Someone has to win.” Also true; but it’s not going to be you. The odds are heavily against you no matter how many you buy. If you take the same money weekly and invest it in indexed stocks you will be a guaranteed winner, but few seem willing to take that lack of risk. Education might help there, but I doubt it.

Many people continue smoking or eating fat-strewn diets etc. on the grounds that they had an uncle who smoked 2 packs a day and lived to be 90 (or whatever). What is their brilliant conclusion? This one case “proves” that statistics are useless. Rubbish. The statistics are not saying that EVERYONE who smokes will get cancer or heart disease. Many do not. But the CHANCES increase if you smoke. Are you willing to take the risk? I wouldn’t be surprised if these same people go to casinos even though it is a statistical CERTAINTY that they will lose more than they will win over time. Casinos get rich on this public ignorance. I will concede that some people like the atmosphere of casinos, and don’t mind losing because they like the thrill. Fair enough. I don’t.

I will also point out that you need to understand statistics to use them wisely. They have no end of problems in themselves (sampling error being the prime one), and their interpretation is not simple. For example, statistics can tell you about correlations but are silent about causation. I can tell you from statistics that 9 out of 10 New York businessmen wear black shoes to work. I can’t tell you WHY.

Enough about mathematics. What about other subjects? Being a professional anthropologist I could tout anthropology as an antidote to xenophobia, bigotry, racism etc., but I know very well that it isn’t. At my university it was a general education requirement that all students take a course from a list called “Other World Cultures” most of which were anthropology classes. It was great for my department’s numbers but I doubt that taking an anthropology course changed anyone’s behavior. Racism etc. are deeply held beliefs that are generally rooted in family and cultural experiences. Anthropologists and biologists have shown over and over that there is no biological basis for racial classifications. The concept of race is a cultural prejudice. Will pointing that out to students eradicate racism? Of course not.

Maybe you believe that getting people to think more clearly in general is the great panacea. Also a huge problem. Many people believe that thinking clearly means “thinking like me.” For starters, that’s the last thing I want as a teacher for many reasons. I want my students to think for themselves, not to think the way I think. About the only thing that ever made me angry as a university lecturer was having a student agree with me because he/she thought I would like it. I didn’t. I was more than happy to have students disagree with me, but . . . they had to support their arguments.

Here’s the meat of the problem. What is thinking clearly? Reasoning comes in a host of flavors too. Logical reasoning is only one and it is not always applicable. Nor is reasoning from self interest (the bane of classical economics). There is a good case to be made in economics and anthropology that self interest is NOT the normal driving force in culture, although it has its place. Pundits are frequently puzzled as to why people vote for candidates who are quite obviously going to work against their self interest. Are these voters blind or stupid or both? Not at all. For many people self interest is secondary to other values. Whether we find these other values important or relevant is a judgment call, not a matter of clinical logic. Candidate A’s policies will help me directly whereas Candidate B’s will help a number of other people, but not me directly. Must I inevitably, therefore, vote for Candidate A? By no means. If I think that the needs of the people that Candidate B will help are more important or urgent than mine it would make sense for me to vote for Candidate B. To vote for Candidate A out of self interest also requires that I trust Candidate A. Here intuition and experience may play as large a part as logic.

I’m going to have more to say on the subject of education if coming weeks, but this should serve as the appetizer.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 4:39 am

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