Monday, March 8, 2010

Culture: The Context of Numbers

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Anyone who has spent time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) understands that things are numeric there to an extreme degree. All buildings are numbered, which is not all that uncommon, but while many buildings were named, everyone called them by their numbers, not the names. One didn't become a Physics major; one joined Course VIII. (I wasn't in Chemical Engineering; I was in Course X.) In perhaps the most extreme example, on one of my first days on campus, I sat down in a computer lab, and noted that the IP (Internet Protocol) address for the computer was for the MIT domain (since released), 56 for the building number, 129 for the room number, and 2 for the computer number. It was almost too organized for me to stand.

While numeric literacy was certainly widespread on campus, the ability to understand the context of numbers was remarkably rare. The classic mathematician's view that there was some sort of absolute truth in numbers seemed to be widespread. Even something fairly accepted in scientific circles, like that a given part per billion of a given substance in the atmosphere might be a problem or not depending on what else was in the atmosphere, seemed to bother people, who would have rather set an absolute maximum for that substance, regardless of what else was there.

A really great example of the importance of context was highlighted by a Nate Silver post on last week. Silver explains it better than I could, but in short form, the absolute popularity of the health care plan put forth by the Democrats in the United States had not changed since November. However, since the political landscape had significantly changed in that time, Silver argued that the same numbers were viewed completely differently by lawmakers and could result in a very different vote taken by Congress, even though public opinion was, at least in quantifiable terms, the same.

I don't know what it is about the human condition that prefers absolutes to context-sensitive evaluation. From politics to atmospheric science to (famously) quantum mechanics, most of the world simply doesn't exist in absolutes. If people would keep that in mind, I suspect they would make much better decisions in many aspects of their lives.

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