Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, October 19, 2012

Some People Just Don't Get Math

I think a lot of people don't really get the math of climate change.  I like this story that illustrates how seemingly small numbers can add up:

A king in India was greatly impressed by the game of chess, which had just been invented.  He offered the inventor any gift he could name, within reason.  The inventor said, "Give me one grain of wheat for the first square of the chessboard, two for the next square, and so on."  The king was delighted that he had asked for such a paltry prize.  However, the king's treasurer soon had bad news:  although the prize seemed small, if you add an additional grain of wheat for each square, by the time you get to the last square, you are adding 64 grains of wheat.  And that's on top of all the wheat for the squares that came before.  In fact, the last square has more wheat on it than the first 10 squares combined!  Outraged, the king had the inventor put to death.

And climate change is the same way.  As we add carbon to the atmosphere, the effects are cumulative.  It is quite possible that we will add more carbon to the atmosphere in 2012 than we did in the entire 10-year period from 1500 to 1510.  Like the king who was nearly bankrupted by the clever inventor of chess, we are bankrupting our planet due to our failure to think quantitatively.  So interestingly enough, the answer to climate change may not be in the laboratory but in the classroom.  Just as Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, so the battle against climate change will be won in Algebra II.


Blogger Grobstein said...

This is an interesting thought, although I'm actually not clear on what link you are drawing between innumeracy and failure to understand climate change.

Regardless, one problem is that people are very compartmentalized. Someone who understands high school math may still not understand how high school math explains the disaster around them (especially if in some sense their livelihood depends on not understanding).

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