February 17, 2006

Algebra for all

from - RSA

Richard Cohen has a strikingly anti-intellectual column in the Washington Post, on the value of algebra. He writes a number of things that a self-respecting adult should be embarrassed to say in public. I'll focus on just three passages.

You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it.

I think Cohen is being a bit of a dolt here; he would probably recognize the source of this analogous comment: "Well, what do you know about that! These forty years now, I've been speaking in prose without knowing it!" For example, if you ever ask yourself how much more money you'd need than you have now to buy something, you're using elementary algebra. Basically, if you're able to deal with unknown values without completely coming apart, you can do some algebra. If you hear that your friend John has a brother Jim who is two years older, do you say, "That doesn't make any sense, because I don't know how old John is!" No, of course not. John's age is a variable that you're perfectly comfortable with.

Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence.

Oddly enough, Cohen does not seem to understand the difference between fact and opinion. (I would say, for example, that writing is not the highest form of reasoning--it is not a form a reasoning at all, but rather the expression of reasoning.) Diving further into incoherence, Cohen bases a proof on the poor writing skills of math whizzes in his high school. (I didn't know logical reasoning was so easy! Let's see what I can prove based on memories of my high school classmates!)

Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit.

Computers can certainly write thank-you notes, and they actually can reason even a little bit. Does Cohen use a computer program to do his taxes? Does his mechanic rely on a computer to diagnose problems in his car's engine? Has Cohen ever played chess against a computer? I'll make no claims for general computational intelligence, but these kinds of tasks have certainly been associated with reasoning abilities in the past.

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Posted by RSA at February 17, 2006 12:58 PM
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