I’m trying hard to not talk about Trump. But it’s so hard. He says it’s OK to abandon the Kurds to the Turkish armed forces because the Kurds didn’t help the United States in World War II. This makes me feel good about watching the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry shred Trump’s presidency, since Trump never lifted a finger to help us in that war, either.
I know it isn’t fair. He didn’t have fingers during WW II. But that’s just the kind of excuse losers make.
Let’s turn to the local news.
There’s the trial to decide who pays for the cost overruns in the downtown Seattle tunnel construction due to tunnel-boring machine Bertha (the world’s largest, at the time) hitting that infamous buried steel pipe. The trial has gone like this:
“We told you the pipe was there.”
“Nuh-uh, did not.”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire.”
As I’ve said before, I know that the state law enabling the tunnel to be built says only Seattle residents who use the tunnel will have to pay for cost overruns. I am never going to use it. Ergo, I don’t have to pay for it.
I said “ergo.”
Speaking of saying “ergo,” “hence” and “quod erat demonstrandum,” a Seattle Times article this week drew attention to the effort to bring ethnic studies to math courses in Seattle schools. I feel like I have a special obligation to bring my math background to bear on this topic.
They would ask, “How is math manipulated to allow inequality and oppression to persist?”
Not only is math manipulated all the time to serve oppressors’ agendas, the way math is taught is designed to keep people from learning to spot the manipulation. Calling out the manipulation is a start.
Mathematics is taught as if the truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is the rules you use to get to an “answer,” which is seen as merely an outcome of the application of the rules. There’s little time spent teaching the fact that the rules are not always applicable. When I taught in college, I had to explain: If the last day of the month is the 31st, and the first day is the 1st, the month doesn’t have 31 - 1 = 30 days.
When people use inappropriate rules of math to draw conclusions from real-world statistics and the conclusions have a major bearing on your life, you need a heads-up.
For example, one of the ways people use data regarding incarceration rates is to observe that people of color are more likely to be in jail, and thus conclude they commit more crimes (invalid), which justifies (by math!) racial profiling. An actual mathematician would not call that an argument for racial profiling. It’s not an argument at all but, rather, the proposed institution of a feedback loop, guaranteed to perpetuate the disparity observed. (Or the tacit admission that the loop is already in place — when did the police ever have to be told to racially profile?)
Ethnic studies should be introduced into math courses by filling out the historical backgrounds.
All math courses include historical background material. It’s a human activity with authors and inventors and discoverers. To not teach that is wrong.
There is a shortage of direct information about ancient African mathematics. However, the indirect evidence of their sophistication in geometric design can more than make up for the lack of recorded history. Every math student needs the kind of inspiration you can get from mind-blowing textile patterns, prefiguring modern symmetry theory. C’mon. Do you want the kids to smoke pot, or do you want them tripping out in the library?
While I’m on the subject of textiles, we’ve been talking about ethnicity, but how about gender?
Which is the crocheting gender? In my day, the female gender. I had someone willing to teach me crochet when I was 6, only to have my mother stop them because “boys don’t crochet.”
Enter Daina Taimina circa 1997: A Latvian mathematician then working in the U.S. She blew mathematicians away by discovering how to represent an important geometric object (a hyperbolic plane, whatever that is) by means of crochet.
The point here is to focus on how it can be that mathematicians were blown away by this. I see a couple factors at work: 1. Usually only women get to learn to crochet. 2. Historically, women don’t get to be mathematicians.
Wow. You let them be mathematicians, and they can teach you things bias prevented you from learning. It’s a win-win.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at drwes (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read the full October 16 - 22 issue.
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