|9 Dec 2002 @ 02:08, by Andy Lehman|
This isn’t one of my usual polished pieces or “artistic” rambles. Just a babble about something I found interesting : ). I’m sure its contents are not news to most of you at all. They weren’t to me. I just found it to be a good, solidly supported reminder of things I already know. That can be useful sometimes.
I attended a talk on Saturday given by an old physics professor named Albert Bartlett. He has been teaching physics here at the University of Colorado since before my father was born. He had given this talk 1471 times in the past, though I imagine he’s updated it occasionally. It was about "Arithmetic, Population and Energy", and his thesis was that "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function!" He used concepts such as population growth and energy production (from both coal and oil) to demonstrate how what most people consider to be modest growth rates in those areas will still lead us into huge problems in the foreseeable future. That is, if the problems aren’t huge already. Even discovering new resources that give us two or four times the amount of oil ever consumed on this planet would only extend the whole thing for a short amount of time. That’s the nature of the exponential growth function. If you really want specifics, there’s a link to his site below.
The professor then gave us a bunch of examples of policies made based on an understanding of math that any high school graduate could probably laugh at. Well, maybe not a graduate of public high schools, but that’s another topic entirely. Really, it was a good reminder of how prone some people in the government are to plain, bald faced lying. Not “innocent” misrepresentation or even “good” old fashioned spin doctoring; these are men with PhD's in economics feeding us complete and utter falsities that anyone with some decent math classes under their belt should be able to see past. AND they expect us to actually buy it. It’s a pity that their expectation is so often fulfilled. Several times during his presentation, Professor Bartlett paused and emphatically asked the eternal question: “What is going on here!?” Unless the people in Washington would care to present us with a new system of mathematics in which the rules of the basic arithmetic functions change, they have some serious explaining to do. I’m not usually a big math and science geek, but it’s so bloody obvious. Yet, at the same time, our society as a whole often seems absolutely oblivious to it.
I don't think the professor was EXACTLY right in his thesis. Rather than an “inability” to understand the exponential function, I'd say it's more of an unwillingness to understand or accept the function’s consequences. There might be a wider debate over whether that is our GREATEST shortcoming, but for the sake of argument I’ll give him that one for now. The unwillingness is often deliberate and sometimes almost malicious on the parts of some policy makers and journalists. Once again, if you want the specifics, I’ll direct you to the link below. The distinction between unwillingness and inability is important to make, because when we’re addressing the problem, we need to take make sure we understand the cause as completely as we can. I think we're more than capable of understanding the function and it's repercussions; we just don't want to. Bartlett was correct when he said that, in some ways, growth has almost become our religion. In some circles, that is very true. How many politicians get elected without being “pro-growth”? The man made a very good case.
Anyway, he said education is the answer. No news there either. In a broad sense, I agree with him. I mean, I don't think putting everyone into a remedial math class is going to help all that much. People have to understand, much more deeply than on an intellectual level alone, the consequences of both the exponential function itself AND the motivations behind the very deliberate misrepresentations of those simple mathematical facts that are made by the people who actually make policy and run major portions of our society. The consequences were summed up very well in the presentation with a quote from Isaac Asimov:
"In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies. The more people there are, the less one individual matters."
We are in the process of creating problems for ourselves and especially our children that I seriously doubt we want to have to deal with. Funny how a little equation can have such serious consequences. As for the motivations behind the lies, they aren’t pretty, to say the least, but we still have to understand them if we are to do anything about it. Overall, I think the guy makes some very good points and backs them up with facts that are strikingly easy to understand.
If I haven’t talked your ear off (or eye, as the case may be) enough already, a good portion of the talk Professor Bartlett gave is available here. It even comes with some illustrations, and who doesn’t love those?