I was at a little social gathering, speaking with a young man who’s an undergraduate student in math. He said he planned to pursue the subject at the graduate level.
That’s fine, I told him. However, you should be aware that it will not be possible to communicate with normal people any more. In any serious discussion of ideas, you will be tempted regularly to yell, “Shut up. Shut up. Just shut up! Shut up and listen to me!”
The young man gave me a nervous smile and walked off, without comment, to sit quietly beside his grandmother and some other elderly ladies.
Of course, what’s special about math education is that it provides a concentrated form of training in logical reasoning. And I realize it’s not logical to yell “Shut up and listen !” at people. (They won’t comply.) But the temptation is there. Because people are just so damned illogical. It’s exasperating. They don’t make the most instinctive, totally elementary connections. And frankly my dears, they really don’t want to.
Illogic perpetuates itself. Although it’s a root cause of the biggest problems in the world, the lack of logical thinking — basic reasoning — makes people ignore root causes. Instead, do-gooders devote their energies to battling its ubiquitous effects: the urgent need to exit from a war that allows no exit, political and corporate corruption, the disappearance of old-age pensions, the overmedication of children, poor educational results, obesity, widening depravity and malaise.
I don’t think it’s even occurred to many people that there’s any connection between logic — something to do with mental stuff — and anything that happens in the concrete, physical world. Sixty years ago, the connection was dramatized when arcane hieroglyphics written on a blackboard by a nutty old guy with wild white hair produced an atomic explosion. But few such demonstrations have gotten much publicity recently. Of course, technology marches on, but that’s seen as something coming out of black-box corporate R&D departments, not the live thinking processes of individuals.
And certainly it occurs to few of us that logic has anything to do with politics, or with the way society is or should be run.
The result is: an urgent need to exit from a war that allows no exit, political and corporate corruption, the disappearance of old-age pensions, the over-medication of children, poor educational results, obesity, widening depravity and malaise.
Were there a little logic, these problems would be nonexistent in America. Everyone would be far better off materially and spiritually. There would be opportunity for all. No child would be left behind. And the nation would be respected.
The situation today, of course, is the opposite. The US is the object of near-universal contempt and loathing. More remarkably, it’s helping bring the ideal of democracy itself, which it represents, into disrepute. How impressive is this democracy thing when the elite can steer the nation whichever way it wants — to the point of initiating a war in defiance of the public interest? But the war is only the most flagrant item in an endless panorama of violations of the public interest. Meanwhile, the great non-democracy, China, continues its march to world dominance, while exploiting its intrinsic advantages in image management.
Here I am, speaking of “public interest” as if that were generally understood to be the very point of democratic government. It’s not, so addled by illogic are we. The following almost laughable piece of stupidity nicely illustrates the self-obsessed, local, gimme, gimme conception many voters have of democracy:
To the Editor:
Re ”Tax Panel Says Popular Breaks Should Be Cut” (front page, Oct. 12):
I invested a great deal of money to buy an apartment in Brooklyn last year. One of the principal reasons I was able to do so was that my mortgage interest deduction made the purchase more comparable to my previous cost for renting.
If any elected official tries to weaken the benefit of the mortgage interest deduction, he should be prepared to reap the whirlwind at the ballot box from furious voters.
[Letter to editor published in New York Times, October 19, 2005.]
Were there so much as a scintilla of logic in the way our government was expected to work, everything would be so radically different it would be unrecognizable. Were we a logical citizenry, living in that different world, this one would make us laugh and laugh — if someone could actually conjure it up for reflection. Our New York Times would be a madcap comedian’s febrile inventions. This item, for example:
Penlac Nail Lacquer rarely cures the nail fungus it is designed to treat, yet it costs $130 a thimbleful. As a result, more than 20 state Medicaid programs and dozens of private health insurers require doctors to get advance permission to prescribe it. But not New York Medicaid, which spent $12 million on the drug last year, more than eight times as much as any other state.
New York spent $74 million last year, far more than any other state, on Nexium, the “new Purple Pill” for heartburn. The drug is virtually identical to Prilosec, available at one-sixth the cost over the counter, and so at least 20 state Medicaid programs and many private health insurance companies severely restrict its use. Only now, two years after other states began imposing limits on Nexium, has New York moved to restrict it.
And those amounts are pocket change compared with the $348 million or more that New York could have saved if it were as aggressive as a state like Michigan in setting the prices it pays pharmacies for the drugs they dispense. New York frequently pays many times more for drugs than Medicaid programs in other states.
For years, New York Medicaid, the state’s health care program for the poor, has been an open-air bazaar for drug companies and their wares. Prescriptions that are severely restricted in many states are often dispensed freely here, and at higher prices, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
As a result, the state program spends more on drugs for each Medicaid recipient than any other state but West Virginia, according to federal statistics. While other states have tried to fight soaring drug costs, New York lacks even the most basic controls that dozens of other states and private health insurers have used.
“They call it the gold card,” said William Scheer, president of the New York City Pharmacists Society and a pharmacy owner, referring to the state health care program. “You get anything you want with it.”
[Excerpted from "Drug Costs Run Free Under New York Medicaid," New York Times, November 23, 2005.]
The article goes on to note — who would have guessed it? — the “years of industry lobbying in Albany”:
The nation’s pharmaceutical companies have spent millions persuading state lawmakers not to adopt the kinds of controls that other states began instituting more than a decade ago. And pharmacist organizations have pressured the state program to pay pharmacies more than most other states for the drugs themselves.
In a logical world, any politician involved in this theft of public money — and yes, theft in that wildly different world would be called “theft” — any politician involved would be finished — utterly terminated — in politics.
It wouldn’t matter that he’s done a lot of good otherwise; that he played a small role; that everyone was doing it. People would understand there’s a principle involved: Don’t steal from the people. It’s black and white. If you do it once — hasta la vista.
Black and white. There’s another aspect of logic to which we’re oblivious. We hear the charge, then the responding evasion, and then … Well, at that point it has become “complicated.” And we think of Brad Pitt’s next girlfriend.
Our prominent liars are brazen. They know that demeanor is everything, that logic has nothing to do with it. Folks can’t distinguish an airtight argument from rap lyrics.
Demeanor. To think that’s how we judge an argument in the modern age! To think our leaders are still selected according to magnetism, the ability to mesmerize, the gift of the gab, theatrics! Our leaders in the modern age are the very same individuals who’d be leaders in a pre-literacy society. And they’re the same individuals who would be leaders in a pre-language society of grunts and screeches.