Leaders' Poor Math Skills Add Up to Bad Public Policy

People should stop picking on certain politicians just because they have poor syntax. Far more troubling are their problems with math.

Consider the simple matter of multiplying 2 times 2. Doubling is as simple as it gets, and it's something that happens to everything growing at a given rate. If your money is earning 7% interest, the "doubling time" is 10 years. If the rate is lower, the doubling takes longer, but sooner or later, it doubles just the same.

The same simple math is behind everything from population growth to increasing rates of energy consumption. And doubling adds up astonishingly fast.

My favorite dramatization of this ever-present phenomenon comes from University of Colorado physicist Al Bartlett. He tells the tale of two bacteria that take up residence in a Coke bottle at 11 a.m. (Call them Adam and Eve.) They beget and beget, doubling numbers once a minute. At noon, their bottle is full.

What time would it be, Bartlett asks, when the most farsighted politicians in Bacterialand notice that they are running out of room? The answer is 11:59, when the bottle is still half empty. (One doubling time away from full.)

Suppose, Bartlett says, that the bacteria decide to drill offshore for new Coke bottles and turn up three pristine, never-before-inhabited bottles. How long before they run out of space again? You got it: two more minutes.

Play with the numbers how you will, no matter how many new resources you discover, so long as the rate at which you are using the resource continues to grow, you run out sooner than you think.

(And, as Bartlett points out, there's geometry involved here as well. If we lived on a flat Earth that extended infinitely in all directions, we might never run out of energy or oil. But a spherical Earth has a finite surface area. For this reason, Bartlett likes to call those who think we can grow forever the new Flat Earth Society.)

It's not just misunderstandings about multiplication and geometry that make bad public policy. It's probability as well. For example, cigarette makers long argued successfully that, since you can't predict which smoker will die when, it's merely a matter of probability that someone will get lung cancer or heart disease from smoking. Similarly, gun supporters argue that having a large number of guns in people's hands only increases the probability of murder: Guns don't kill; people do.

Both these arguments rest on the assumption that probability isn't a cause. But any Las Vegas casino operator can tell you different: The only reason that seven comes up more often on a throw of two dice than any other number is that it's the most probable combination. Then again, it's probability that made Humpty Dumpty impossible to put back together again.

Many important insights have also emerged from a lesser-known branch of mathematics known as "game theory." True, an understanding of game theory can help you win at chess, but it's also discovered some curious truths about, for example, the relative merits of competition and cooperation. In a series of now-classic studies, competing computer programs (computers can "play" faster than people) tried out various strategies for long-term survival. Those that put an emphasis on cooperation fared much better in the long run than those that employed competitive, confrontational tactics.

Game theory may give some insight, in other words, into the reasons arms agreements have led to 40 years of nuclear peace--and why politicians should do the math before altering that balance.

It's probably wishful thinking to suppose that an administration that hasn't yet hired a science advisor will trouble itself with a math tutor.

Still, at the expense of alienating English teachers, it's a lot more important for politicians to be able to multiply 2 times 2 than tell a potato from a potatoe--or even what the meaning of "is" is.

A few lessons in math could easily reveal the folly of thinking we can solve our energy problems by searching for new Coke bottles in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example.

The only lasting solution--at least so long as we live on a spherical planet--is to slow the rate at which we use up those bottles.

It's as simple as 2 times 2.

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