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):