Friday, September 2, 2011

Facts & Figures: An English Major's Case for Math and Science

Michelle Bachmann has been in the news a lot recently, mostly for her notorious lack of command over the facts -- any facts.   In her hands, facts seem like slippery electric eels that shouldn't be gripped too tightly or handled any longer than necessary lest they mesmerize you with those lidless eyes and bite off your hand.  From Paul Revere to Elvis to some switch she claims is on the wall inside the EPA just waiting to be turned off, Bachmann has clearly staked her claim as the candidate whose knowledge is not bogged down with, well, knowledge.  She "knows" what this country needs and it is $2 gasoline, though she hasn't explained exactly how she will make that happen.

I find her and her purported policies abhorrent for all of the well chronicled reasons that one who cares about reason and justice and the welfare of others and the environment we share would.  Yet, there is part of me that has some sympathy for her clumsiness with historical detail.  Retention of dates and statistics has never been in my wheelhouse either.  Don't ask me when the War of 1812 happened or how long the 100 Years War lasted.  I'm just not going to know.  As for math, the first cousin of factual trivia, I'm not scared of it in the least, but I just don't find playing with numbers all that interesting in and of itself.  I use math when I need too, but I don't seek it out.  It's sort of like a hammer.  I like hammers and have hammered any number of things in my life -- nails, thumbs, mosquitoes.  Heck, I've even gotten hammered, but I don't walk around with a hammer in my hand all day long looking for something that needs to be pounded down.

Like the hammer, mathematics is a highly useful tool.  From financial systems to jet propulsion to Sabermetrics that can tell us which Twin has the best BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), math has kicked some serious ass over the centuries.  (Note: The Twins/Sabermetrics reference is a trick question.  The Twins don't yet use Sabermetrics, which may explain why their record as of this posting is 57 - 79.)  Still, I just don't get that lovin' feeling from math or compendia of factual data, though I admit that the Harper's Index is pretty cool.  This is probably why I was an English major.  I prefer the interstitial bits of life.  The things that can be observed but not measured; sensed, but not recorded.  The invisible structures of experience and narrative and ideas.

Take a baseball game, for example.  If I knew how many baseball games I've attended, that number would not reflect anything about my experience at those games.  It wouldn't reveal whether I enjoyed a particular game, rose to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch, or perpetually harbored a deeply rooted and unrelenting hatred of the New York Yankees.  There is no statistic or measurement that can capture the energy of the crowd, the sounds of the game or the grin that reflexively overtakes my face each time I notice the elderly lesbian season ticket holders who sit in the row in front of us, one of them meticulously completing the box score and the other one yelling, "ring 'em up, Joe!" every time Mauer comes to bat.  And it wouldn't document the pride I feel every time my older daughter sits down, refuses to leave her seat for fear of missing a big play and asks questions about the nuances of the game, like what the pitch count is used for or what a balk is.  Even Ron Gardenhire seems to favor the intangibles of baseball over the bloodless stats that are all around it.  Here's what he said about why the Twins don't use Sabermetrics:

"Numbers are good bases to go off things and try to figure things out, but for every number you throw out there that's not supposed to work, the human element's always coming. Bad pitch, guy gets a hit. But he's not supposed to, still rips a pitch in the gap. Those are all great things and, over the course of time probably prove out pretty good. But I like the human element and I like the heart way better than I like their numbers. And that's what I'll always stay with.''  (From ESPN's Sweet Spot Blog, which I should note, goes on to make a truly sweet, but horribly wrong, prediction about the Twins' season this year.)

Now maybe Ron and I can get carried away a bit and romanticize baseball and the human experience.  But there is no doubt that experiential knowledge is real knowledge, too.  It tells us something about ourselves and our world that can't be captured by numbers or data.  It is why we watch sports, climb mountains and go see bands live at First Avenue.

And yet, I think Gardy needs to get with the program.  Just because there are things that numbers can't tell us doesn't mean that numbers can't tell us anything or even most of what we need to know.  While as a fan I might enjoy the subjective experience of baseball without feeling compelled to read the sports page every morning to update some mental catalog of batting averages, standings and ERAs, as the manager Gardy needs to avail himself of all possible sources of information that might more precisely indicate where the Twins are succeeding and where they are falling short.  If his job is to win the AL Central and then demolish the Yankees on the way to a World Series Championship (and it is), then he needs to field a team of .300+ hitters and 2.00 ERA pitchers (or better).  Yes, heart matters and it can make all the difference when teams of equal skill are battling for a win, but skill is what gets you to that game.  What the Yankees buy with their bloated and obscene $196 million payroll is not intangibles, but numbers. They buy strikeouts and base hits and win games. 

This shouldn't be a revelation.  Data driven decision making is behind most of what makes modern society go.  But we have come to take it for granted to such an extent that we fail to appreciate its presence even while we insist on it.  When we board an airplane, we assume and expect that the mechanics who maintain that plane know the status of every bolt and rivet.  They know the air pressure in the tires and the collective loading the hull can withstand before the catastrophic consequences of metal fatigue occur.  We don't want a plane that the mechanic feels is good for a few more flights.  We want a plane that has been scrupulously measured, chronicled and analyzed. 

In the midst of cell phones, the internet, the space shuttle program, satellite television, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), pasteurization, retinal scans, nuclear submarines and Google Maps with Street View, however, it seems we have lost track of how we know what we know.  We have forgotten about or deliberately disregarded the best tool in the toolbox: the scientific method.

Contrary to what you might hear from Fox News, the scientific method is not some radical, leftist, subversive methodology that will lead us inevitably to lawless squalor, or worse, universal health care.  It is just a fancy way of saying "human smarts."  When my then 10 year-old daughter was learning about the scientific method in school last year, I concocted the following illustrative story:


Imagine back in caveman times a few hairy and hungry cave people are standing around a raspberry bush.  The berries look red and juicy and really yummy.  The first caveman, Glurg, wants to eat some raspberries, but he is cautious by nature and isn't sure whether they are safe to eat.  Up comes Slurg, the Ari Gold of the cave world, who pushes Glurg out of the way as he grabs a handful of berries, tosses them down his gullet and then dips his hand in the pond for a cool chaser.  Startled and now a little pissed-off, Glurg glares at Slurg, struggling for the perfect comeback grunt when Slurg suddenly lurches and falls dead to the ground.  After a brief flicker of joy at Slurg's demise (which will be the subject of years of psychotherapy for Glurg later on), Glurg is overcome with horror at the realization that he almost ate poison berries.  He sits down next to the raspberry bush and slaps his hand to his forehead.  Then, out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glint of some blondish fur that he has had his eye on for a while, peeking out from the other side of the raspberry bush.  He peers around the bush and sees Flurg, in all of her golden-furred, curvaceous splendor, calmly feasting on raspberries.  He watches, waiting for her to keel over.  Then, Glurg cocks his head, runs a few mental calculations and reaches out and pops one delicious raspberry after another into his mouth.

So what caused Glurg to conclude that it was o.k. to eat the raspberries?  The answer is data and the scientific method.  Glurg compared the data from Slurg to the data from Flurg and noticed that while both of them ate the raspberries, only one of them drank from the pond.  This being the only variable between a dead Slurg and a happily full Flurg, Glurg concluded that the raspberries were fine, but the pond was bad news.


Granted, the caveman scenario is simplistic, but then times were simpler back then, except for the lack of language and bathroom facilities and the high likelihood that you would be something else's meal before you could find a meal of your own.  The point, of course, is that the scientific method is nothing new.  If Glurg had wanted to further test and verify his hypothesis that the raspberries were fine and it was the pond that was trouble, he could have conducted a controlled experiment in which he convinced 10 of his cave friends to eat the raspberries and nothing else.  When all 10 lived to thank Glurg for the delicious snack, Glurg's hypothesis would have been validated.  Or, he could have persuaded 10 cave politicians to take a sip from the pond and perhaps left us all better off today.

So now fast forward 20,000 years.  Glurg's logic is still all around us.  The only thing that has changed is the complexity of the puzzles we are trying to solve.  Instead of trying to sort out two variables -- raspberries and pond -- we are tackling problems like what are the long-term effects of cigarette smoking or deforestation or the burning of fossil fuels?  Or what will happen to the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico after nearly 5 million barrels of oil spew from BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and seemingly disappear into the ocean?  Both the number of variables and the time frame during which we might expect to see the effects, if any, of those variables are vastly increased in these scenarios.  Had Slurg not keeled over until two weeks later after a terrible stomach illness, Glurg might never have correlated the pond to Slurg's death and could have starved before realizing that perfectly edible raspberries were right in front of him.

Although the questions today are bigger and hairier than ever before, that doesn't mean that we have no methodology or tools for finding out what's underneath all that fur.  The way to get to the answers is the same way we always have: to sort through the variables and track the data.  Just like Glurg.  Sometimes the initial data will be misleading.  Like Glurg, we may need more data and visibility to all of the variables before we can reach the correct conclusion.  But over time, the data will be right.  Over time, the facts will win out, because they are, after all, the facts.  Science is really nothing more, or less, than testing hypotheses by gathering and following the facts, but it is the essential process behind most of our modern achievements.  It is how we got from the Wright Brothers to The Right Stuff.

Now enter the political arena and the lazy reality of the modern life that science has made possible.  We don't know how to grow our food or fix our machines or make our clothing.  We just go to the store and buy them as if they magically appeared there, nicely packaged in all the latest colors.  We have climbed the ladder of invention and technology so high that we can no longer see the ground we started from.  And from this perch in the clouds, disciplined scientific geniuses like Rick Perry feel qualified to comment on evolution and Michelle Bachmann can threaten to "turn out the lights and lock the doors" at the EPA without any idea of what the fuck she is talking about.

As an English major, I agree that some of the most powerful knowledge we acquire in our lives isn't the kind you learn from textbooks or through memorization of the periodic table of the elements.  Sometimes things happen against the odds or despite what the numbers might predict.  Further, I whole-heartedly endorse the power of storytelling and inspiration and personal human experience.  But you have to be bat-shit crazy if you think that is the only kind of knowledge you need to operate a machine as complex as the United States of America.  I have no desire to have my airplane mechanic, my dentist or my President operating from a place of intangibles and gut feelings.  I want to know that the airplane will fly, that the right tooth will get drilled and that my nation's fiscal, military and environmental policies are based on the rigorous collection and analysis of data.

Apparently, however, the American electorate is bat-shit crazy.  Like Gardy, we want to believe that believing is enough.  That heart will get us through and that we don't really have to do the boring calculations and the lengthy proofs necessary to make sense of increasingly complex streams of information.  We want a shortcut.  What's worse, we continue to mistakenly believe that our "guts" are as good a means for decision making as studied analysis of the facts.  Ironically, the evidence overwhelmingly points the other way; that where hard data is available, the use of it to guide decision making leads to better and more accurate outcomes (and often counter-intuitive outcomes) than non-data driven decision making.  (See, e.g., Freakonomics and The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives for much better articulation of this evidence and point of view.) 

The crowning blow, from my perspective, is that the use of and reliance on math and science has been politicized by the right wing extremists and thereby rendered "suspicious" or somehow biased and non-neutral.  To my mind, this is like claiming that hammers are Democratic instruments and shouldn't be trusted.  Nevermind that they pound nails into wood really well and have been used by Republicans and Democrats alike for centuries, if the Democrats seem to really like hammers, then all self-respecting conservatives should now be suspicious of the hammer as the tool of choice for pounding.  After all, what makes the hammer so special when any of us can just grab a rock and pound a nail almost as effectively? Big deal your fancy, ergonomic handle and solid steel head and weighted design. 

It makes no sense.  Which brings us back to Mrs. Bachmann.  I don't mind that she confused Elvis' death with his birthday or even that she didn't appreciate the difference between Concord, New Hampshire and Concord, Massachusetts (though frankly, I would be thoroughly embarrassed if it were me).  Those particular facts are of no real consequence in and of themselves.  But what I do mind, is an approach to governance that seems to deliberately steer away from data driven analysis.  That you can't remember the facts is no big deal.  That you don't care to ever learn and develop the facts and study the conclusions that flow from them -- that's a whole different ballgame.  And as Gardy will tell you, ignoring the data makes it awfully hard to beat the Yankees.