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Hackers fight against algebra in the New York Times

While hackers in various cybercriminal organizations are sophisticated enough to use some algebraic tricks to break into other institutions' computers, hackers hired by the New York Times seem much less intelligent.

Willie Soon has reminded me about an unusually dumb article by one of these low-brow hackers named Andrew Hacker:

Is Algebra Necessary? [Hacker answers "No."]
I've previously noticed comments about this unusually weak article at Clifford Johnson's blog which also recommends you to read a criticism of the NYT article at Good Math Bad Math.

Relatively to typical U.S. rightwingers, I have enough respect for the Grey Lady, especially when it comes to their writing about complicated enough science which they cover much more sensibly and cleverly than other sources, especially other left-wing sources. But this article is just horrible. Why?

Hacker says that algebra is unnecessary and should be abolished because kids are getting bad grades, they suffer, and some of them drop out of schools because of algebra. I believe that if you read the previous sentence, you may save your time and skip reading the rant in the Grey Lady because it contains no other ideas, just vacuous meaningless babbling and unsubstantiated anti-mathematical screams.

These observations that the math class is tough are surely correct, statistically speaking. The average grade in algebra is worse than the average grade in cheaper subjects. Mathematical subjects are much more likely to be the reason why young people drop out of schools, and so on and so on.

The deterioration of the society is fast. A year ago, such stupid opinions would be a domain of fictitious beauty contestants in satirical videos. In 2012, however, they're what hackers seriously advocate in America's most prestigious newspapers.

However, what is wrong is Hacker's conclusion (and the conclusion of most of the Miss USA contestants in the famous funny video above) that these observations imply that algebra shouldn't be taught. In fact, they imply exactly the opposite.

There are many independent reasons why mathematics must be taught. I am convinced that no person whose IQ is closer to average people in 2012 than to average people in the Idiocracy Movie doubts that mathematical subjects are essential for people to independently exist, and especially lead others, in a civilized world – especially in all those human activities where people make living differently than by getting money from others "for nothing tangible". Most of the "vital parts" of the human activity that the civilization couldn't survive without crucially depend on mathematics; the other human activities are pretty much about the redistribution and "funny flows" of the wealth created by the activities that do depend on maths.

Algebra is needed to calculate which mortgage is better for you, it is a cornerstone of economics as well as physics and some other natural and technical sciences and engineering, and it is crucial for trillions of other things I don't want to list here. Some other people have discussed those self-evident things.

But I want to focus on Hacker's arguments that remind me of arguments of a spoiled and lazy teenager whose buttocks should be severely spanked. (I would recommend this treatment even if Mr Hacker weren't a teenager anymore; however, his emeritus status may earn him an exception, after all.)

He says that in other subjects, everyone gets a good grade, and that's why schools should emphasize those subjects. But this is complete rubbish – a proof that Mr Hacker has made an algebraic sign error in his reasoning. If all people are getting good grades in a subject, it shows that these students and schools are really wasting their time (or times if the time isn't the only one). Why? Well, it really means that schools are spending more time with that than what is needed for most people to get it.

On the other hand, if only some people manage to reach a certain level of algebraic skills, it shows that the teaching process makes a difference. Needless to say, the right way to level the field – and make algebra more analogous to cheaper subjects when it comes to the grades – is to increase the time dedicated to algebra so that even the slower students increase their chance to get from an F or a D to a B.

However, I am afraid that Mr Hacker won't be able to understand my argument – concluding that bad-grade subjects should be dedicated more time, not less time, and easy good-grade subjects could be shrunk – based on the law of diminishing returns if he hasn't even understood why algebra is important.

The same comments apply to the issue of dropouts and all other "arguments" by Mr Hacker. The fact that mathematical subjects are the reason why some people are dropouts while other people aren't is what makes mathematical subjects important at school, what inserts meritocracy rather than nepotism and emotions to the grading process and to many other phenomena in the real world.

The deficient and utterly illogical character of Mr Hacker's argumentation only helps to emphasize how completely inadequate his knowledge and thinking is. People who want to preserve the civilization and avoid the future according to the Idiocracy Movie are facing a double challenge: they must improve the teaching of mathematical subjects so that the deterioration helped by unchecked populism is stopped; and they must protect the society against the influence of breathtaking dimwits such as Mr Hacker himself who were unfortunately taught how to write (e.g. for The New York Times) but they have never learned how to think and who can no longer be efficiently treated in the way that spoiled lazy kids should be treated.

See also Czech conservative president Václav Klaus regrets declining prestige of maths and try to figure out whether the leftwingers or conservatives are more anti-science.

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reader Honza said...

Well, it (the NYT drivel) is quite typical opinion of the intellectuals. If they hate something, than it is reality check. And just as you can put lipstick on the pig, and it will remain a pig, you can slap the college diploma on a moron, but you cannot teach him even simple algebra.

Recently I have heard the nice expression which is appropriate for the situation and for Mr. Hacker: "Often wrong but never in doubt."

reader Gene said...

Mathematics is nourishment for the brain. Without math the brain slowly deteriorates into a vestigial organ serving no useful purpose. Algebra, of course, is the very heart of mathematics. I cannot envision granting a college degree to any person who cannot do simple algebraic manipulations for such people can never make creative contributions to society. It is not possible.

reader cynholt said...

A political science professor questioning the value of mathematics?
Gimme a break! To quote the great American physicist Richard Feynman,
"In my experience, I find social scientists to be neither."

I concur.

reader Werdna said...

I love mathematics. I hated doing it in school because I felt I was doing busy work-I hadn't found a level that actually intellectually challenged me. But in College, I finally took a physics class, (science classes at lower levels were the same, un-descriptive, qualitative crap at every grade level-but I did like biology in spite of that-and chemistry might have been nice, but I had a piece of shit liberal teacher who showed Al Gore's movie (this was not the sole thing that made him shit-he was just an objectively bad teacher) that I really began to appreciate the use of mathematics for describing the physical world (actually, I got this a little earlier in High School from sources outside the educational system, but didn't get to learn how to use it myself extensively). Truly mathematics is wonderful.

It is interesting to hear that the coverage of advanced science is relatively good in NYT. I get my coverage of high level physics from you Lubos. Why would I go for "relatively good" when I can get the best? ;)

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Unfu@king believable! With the dumbing down of teaching and mark inflation, we have kids working at cash registers who can't make change. The register makes the change and dispenses it. Anyway, just why do we learn things in school? Isn't it to be able to think rationally, create the ability to evaluate and continue to learn things, and perhaps function in society. I would argue that innumeracy and illiteracy are equally hobbling. Without some minimum understanding of math and science, even the best writers, historians, etc
are horribly mentally unprepared to live in the 21st century and to understand things that aren't simply surface scum of human virtual reality that they call "society". Just think what would happen if all of the mathematically/scientifically/engineering literate people
disappeared leaving only people like poly sci professors who don't know simple algebra....
I also argue that numerate folks should also be required to take writing courses, but really, without some math and science literacy you are back to the dark ages.
The argument that students don't "need" algebra is like the spectator in Paris watching the ascent of a hot air balloon who vented to Benjamin Franklin--"What good is it?" Franklin famously responded, "What good is a newborn baby."
Articles like this NYT one are frightening. The idea that everyone should get great marks is frightening. There was an article on some local girl getting a Phd in some social "science" for sampling an elderly population who regularly walked, and a sedentary sample and concluding that exercise improved elderly cognition.
GAD. Astounding! Just compare this with the effort involved in obtaining a Phd in math, or physics, or computer science, or engineering. And there are much much worse examples in "X studies" programs....enough of a rant....

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Hmmm, much more concise than my rant, cynholt.

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Agreed Werdna, even if we disagree on politics etc. I like reading mathematics, but find that most people find this to be quite weird.

reader Honza said...

Talking about dark ages coming, some are welcoming, inviting them. See the quote from Texas GOP 2012 platform:


Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values
clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

I guess teh democrats want to stay competitive. ;-)

reader cynholt said...

I don't know about you, Gordon, but I'm also getting rather sick and
tired of being bombarded with news headlines like this one entitled,
"Alcohol Harms Thinking in Older Adults, Researchers Say" (see link
below) -- coming out of the medical-industrial complex, no doubt --
making claims that if you do this or that, or if you don't do this or
that, you'll either live longer or be healthier or happier. Such broad
and sweeping claims are either frivolous, biased, or both. I don't know
who's funding this research, but if the taxpayers are ( thanks in part
to medical Keynesianism, I'm afraid), then I say stop the funding of it!
Let it fall off the fiscal cliff, along with all of the outrageous pork
and subsidies going to Big Ag and Big Oil!

Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of funding research that leads
to better understanding of diseases and better drugs to treat diseases.
But funding research that tells you such things like drinking alcohol is
good for you under one set of circumstances, but is bad for you under
another set of circumstances, is a total waste of time and money.

Bottom line: all research studies that meet the definition of common
sense should be classified as pseudoscience, and thus banned from
scientific research, especially research that's being funded by the
taxpayers. Now if private corporations want to waste their money on
research, that's based on pseudoscience, they should be free to do so,
but they shouldn't get tax breaks for it.

Where is Richard Feynman when we need him. We need him here to beat
the drums that pseudoscience is nothing more than a Cargo Cult.

reader Shannon said...

Algebra is fun when it is well explained, with a teacher who truly enjoys it too. As a kid I remember how excited I was when I could find the unknown number out of an algebraic equation for the first time. It felt really cool. Where it gets complicated is when one hits calculus :-/ ... On this 3mn TED video this math teacher thinks that instead of learning calculus we should learn statistics. What do you think Lubos ?

reader cynholt said...

Gordon -- Perhaps Kansas board of education is right about evolution being just a
theory. Retards all over the place are proving Darwin is wrong.

reader Luboš Motl said...

There's exactly one short tiny paragraph - the paragraph with the algebraic identity, the only truly valuable part of the article (I am sure that the whole social science department worked on it for months) - that tries to discuss what the math teaching is actually said to be good for. He wrote:

What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² - y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.

So in his viewpoint, the purpose of the school system is to make people have "credible political opinions" and able to make "social analysis". Quite a professional deformation for a political scientist. However, I don't believe that this viewpoint on the role of school is really compatible with education in democracies. It's not schools' business at all to prescribe the political opinions - and not even ways how to reach the political opinions - to the students. Political opinions and modes to do social analysis depend on the person's experience, innate aptitude and character, education in families or by people who are "personally trustworthy", and simple interests depending on the person's status and "classes" where he feels to belong. Schools are just not meant to be shaping students into one of those categories. They are meant to help them do things at all and do them right and use technically right arguments to think about them, and this is really brought by exact enough subjects only. Social science subjects are only able to prescribe the resulting beliefs to the students.

In some sense, what he openly calls for are "schools as tools of political indoctrination about easy things" instead "schools as institutions where one learns the things that would be otherwise hard to know".

reader Bernd Felsche said...

How can one have a sense of proportion without mathematics?

Does that explain the actions of those guided by naked social scienceless?

reader Smoking Frog said...

I don't have anything of real importance to say, but Hacker's article boggles my mind so much that I feel I HAVE to cast a vote. This guy is a pernicious moron. I'm reasonably confident it's true that some people can't do math, but Hacker blows this way out of proportion. He seems to want effort-free school.

I'm baffled by his idea "citizen statistics." It seems to be something for which there's no need of a mathematical grasp of things, or any ability to make inferences.

reader physphilmusic said...

"Most philosophy" is not "junk humanities". I'm not talking about post-structuralist bullshit by Derrida or Foucault, the darlings of English and X studies departments all over the Western world - I'm referring to Western analytical philosophy. Have you ever taken a class in it? Western analytical philosophy is so rigorous that it has become irrelevant, as no one has ever been smart enough to build an airtight theory for anything - but I think it is a worthwhile subject to study since it teaches very rigorous critical thinking skills which can be applied to all kinds of fields.

reader Gordon Wilson said...

not really--eventually many of them win Darwin awards :) (or become politicians)

reader sirernestbarker said...

Student: Coach, I got 4 E's and a D this semester!
Coach: I think you spended too much time on one subject.

reader jim said...

That is a correct assessment and description of CUNY. Feel-good-ism is the new know-nothing-ism. Those are the same old regressive, or retrograde ideas as are now ascendant in Islamic fascism.

Back to the ignorant future!

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