January 20, 2020

Thinking Makes it So

Guest Column
By Isiah Smith | Jan. 27, 2018


On May 7, 2016, a 30-year-old woman aboard an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse, New York, had a fellow passenger escorted off the plane for suspected terrorist activity. The suspected “terrorist” was Guido Menzio, a young decorated Ivy League economist.  His terrorist activity? He was busily scribbling math equations on a sheet of paper. Yes, math — a differential equation, to be exact.

In May 2016, Andrew Hacker published a book entitled “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions.” Hacker argued, among other things, that anyone whose job path doesn’t involve math shouldn’t have to take math classes beyond basic numeracy.

These two events are related. In the first instance, the woman on the American Airlines flight was disturbed by a random delusion caused by a danger occurring only in her own mind. This helps prove that it’s not always something “out there” that threatens us; rather, it is often something occurring inside us. Or, as in this case, something missing.

In the second instance, Hacker argues that mathematics is important only insofar as we use it in our careers. That view is myopic. Knowledge isn’t important simply because we use it in our jobs. Literature, music, art, and sciences are important because they enrich us and inform our spirits. Moreover, these disciplines make us better citizens by improving our ability to think clearer and understand how the world works.

Of all the disciplines, math possesses the greatest power to improve thinking.

For intelligent beings, we humans are capable of doing and thinking the craziest things. Words pour from our mouths untouched by logic, unhinged and unmoored from reality. We travel the same roads to ruin that people before us travelled. With mind-numbing regularity, we repeat the same mistakes over and over again without any hint of thought or self-reflection. We cling to bogus ideas, flawed reasoning, and unsupportable assumptions — about people, the world, and ourselves. We resist giving up those ideas because we fear that without them we lose our essence.

Sloppy thinking leads us to embrace fictions over facts, lies over truths.  We follow fools, knaves, braggarts, and the obviously unstable. For example, consider televangelist and prosperity preacher Paula White, who allegedly wants her followers to start 2018 on the right foot. How? By giving her a big chunk of their hard-earned money, of course.

White, who serves as the chairwoman of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, says the money is for God, of course. By starting off the year giving your paycheck to her, er … “God,” the donor is making an investment for a good year. The people who can’t offer money to White won’t be as lucky.

White will likely reap a financial windfall. Nothing shakes the money tree like references to God. But did you ever wonder, if God is all-powerful, why does She need money?

The United Negro College Fund’s motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” seems appropriate here. The failure to use one’s mind effectively can lead to rash decisions and mountains of regrets – not to mention the loss of a month’s salary. We already have proof that sloppy thinking can lead intelligent citizens to vote against their own interest.

My own sloppy thinking and history of making boneheaded decisions (for example, investing valuable time in Facebook) convinced me I needed help. So I read “How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,” by Jordan Ellenberg. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says that the book should be in the toolkit of every thoughtful person, or anyone who wants to avoid fallacies, superstitions, and other ways of being wrong.

Pinker’s wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, writes, “These beautifully readable pages delight and enlighten in equal parts.” Rebecca is a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award, so who am I to argue with her?

No matter how much we might wish it were so, two plus two will always equal four. A loss can never truly constitute a win. Smaller numbers will never be greater than larger numbers. Wishing doesn’t make it so.

Evil acts are still bad, and denying it doesn’t make it so.

I would argue that sloppy thinking imperils our democracy. Such thinking increases our reliance on tribalism, the idea that one’s own group is superior to those whom we consider outside our self-identified group. Thus, as citizens we converge on different sides of a wide chasm proclaiming we are better, smarter, and more virtuous.

Tribalism is often an excuse for not thinking, because who needs to think when our tribes provide the answers to all our questions?

History teaches that this is how great nations crumble from the inside out, collapsing in on itself like a house of cards.

Mathematical thinking teaches us that casinos never lose; the house will always win. It also tells us that ignorance plus arrogance minus knowledge never equals competence.

Mathematical thinking equips us with powerful weapons to detect when things just don’t add up. We can see through the distractions, self-serving miasma fed to us by those who seek to control and manipulate us. It helps us follow the ball, provides us with the skills to figure things out for ourselves.

So has “How Not To Be Wrong” improved my sloppy thinking? Well, for starters, I’m eschewing Facebook. Baby steps, you know.

I’m a work in progress, and I have the rest of my life to practice getting better.

Will you join me?

Isiah Smith Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a master’s degree in psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a deputy assistant general counsel for administrative litigation and information law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife, Marlene.



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