The Quantitative Reasoning Deficit

by proshowersinger2 min read7th Aug 20208 comments


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We can't do math. Now we're seeing the consequences with COVID-19.

Crossposted from Curious Human.

On March 5th, 2020, Brian Williams of MSNBC and Mara Gay of the New York Times Editorial Board accepted without question a viral tweet that said that Michael Bloomberg could have given every American $1 million dollars with the $500 million dollars he spent on his short-lived presidential campaign.

They've since publicly owned up to their mistake, which I do believe was an honest and relatively harmless gaffe.

But it does reflect a troubling trend that I've noticed: an increasing deficit of quantitative reasoning ability in society. If you think - even for a second - that $500 million dollars / 300 million people somehow comes out to ~$1 million / person, you can't do basic division. And if you can't do basic division, there's no way you have a strong grasp of more complex concepts and are able to think rationally about them. And if you can't think rationally, you can't act rationally.

This is a large part of why COVID-19 has hit the United States so hard. People trained in mathematics, finance, and technology are used to ideas like exponentially compounding growth and Moore's Law. Many of them - Bill Gates, Balaji Srinivasan, most of the venture capital Twitter crowd, for example - warned us about the potential devastation of the virus early on while many in the STEM-lacking crowd were complacent and in denial about the situation. This divide was apparent even in my own circle of friends and acquaintances: some began wearing face masks and self-isolating in late-February, while others went out to bars and beaches even as late as in mid-March. Unfortunately, the latter group far outnumbers the former in this country and we now have a pandemic on our hands.

The worst part is this trend of quantitative illiteracy is being led by the loudest voices that govern our society: lawyers, politicians, and members of the media. These are people who specialize in political truths - things that are true if people believe them to be true - rather than technical truths - things that are true even if no one believes them to be true. They're storytellers whose livelihoods depend on their ability to rewrite "facts" in people’s brains.

Our society has way overemphasized the political end of the spectrum. We spend so many resources thinking about and debating each other on vague, irresolvable, and meaningless topics. We've gone so far down that end that we've lost our ability to reason independently and clearly and deal in technical truths. I trust that if Brian Williams and Mara Gay had stepped back slightly and given their "revelation" another thought, they would've quickly realized how foolish the idea that Bloomberg could've easily made every single person in the country a millionaire was. Their error wasn't just due to their shoddy math skills, it was more about being blinded by their political views: perhaps outrage over the idea that a rich billionaire would rather run a doomed presidential campaign to boost his ego than directly help everyone in the country. 

And now we're seeing the consequences with COVID-19. We tried fighting it as if it were a sentient being that could be persuaded by politics. But you can't gaslight a virus. It doesn't care about the polls or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. You can't demoralize it with negative news coverage. Nature doesn't care about our narratives.

A month ago, I tweeted that the virus will inevitably spread and that at some point, a ton of people will be infected and the number of deaths will actually seem "significant". It's going to feel like the end of the world. That will be us hitting bottom. Then we'll come together and rebuild and recover, defeating the virus using science, honesty, prudence, and genuine concern for public safety. I still believe that to be true.

What will happen after is the question.

Naval Ravikant tweeted that this pandemic will end up "shattering many social untruths that we swallow just to get along" and "lead to the emergence of a mainstream movement that's more pro-science, pro-technology, and pro-environment". I sure hope so. Maybe it'll wake us up, even if just temporarily.

But the pessimistic side of me thinks that once this whole thing blows over, we'll return to what led us into this mess. Incompetent bureaucrats who can neither lead nor get out of the way will still be in power. The media will continue to boldly make false statements and predictions and get away with it. New political events and storylines will dominate people's lives. Then we'll suffer through another tragedy and rebuild, and the cycle will continue.

We'll see.

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