The Innumeracy of Intellectuals

Why is it acceptable for professors outside the sciences to feel no shame or even to take pride in their lack of knowledge of math and science, wonders Chad Orzel.

August 4, 2008

I know nothing about art or music.

OK, that's not entirely true -- I know a little bit here and there. I just have no systematic knowledge of art or music (by which I mean fine art and classical music). I don't know Beethoven from Bach, Renaissance from Romantics. I'm not even sure those are both art terms.

Despite the sterling reputation of the department, I never took an art history class when I was an undergraduate at Williams College, nor did I take any music classes. They weren't specifically required, and I was a physics major. My schedule was full of math and science classes, and I didn't feel I had time for six hours a week of looking at slides. It's a significant gap in my education.

Given my line of work, this is occasionally ... it doesn't rise to the level of a liability, but it's awkward. I'm a professor at a liberal arts college, putting me solidly in the "Intellectual" class, and there's a background assumption that anyone with as much education as I have will know something about history and philosophy and literature and art and classical music. I read enough to have literature covered, even if my knowledge is a little patchy, and I took enough classes in college to have a rough grasp of history and philosophy, but art and music are hopeless. When those subjects come up in conversation, I just smile and nod and change the topic as soon as possible. On those occasions when I'm forced to admit my ignorance (or, worse yet, the fact that I don't even like classical music), my colleagues tend to look a little sideways at me, and I can feel myself drop slightly in their estimation. Not knowing anything about those subjects makes me less of an Intellectual to most people in the academy.

I was reminded of this by a recent blog posting at Republic of T, which puts into stark relief what is missing from that list of background assumptions: math and science.

Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say -- in public faculty discussions, no less -- "I'm just no good at math," without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.

Ignorance of math can even be a source of a perverse sort of pride-- the bit of the blog post that reminded me of this is a call-back to an earlier post in which he relates his troubles with math, and how he exploited a loophole in his college rules to graduate without passing algebra. To me that anecdote reads as more proud than shameful-- less "I'm not good at math" and more "I'm clever enough to circumvent the rules."

It's not entirely without shame, of course. In the paragraph immediately after the algebra anecdote, the author gets a little defensive:

Or is it worth considering that perhaps not everyone can "do" algebra, trig or calculus? Is it worth considering that perhaps there are even some smart people who aren't great at math and/or science?... [A]re we to force every peg, round or square, into that hole at the expense of forcing students, who may be gifted in other equally important subjects, to drop out after a long series of demoralizing failures?

This is the exact same chippiness I hear from physics majors who are annoyed at having to take liberal arts classes in order to graduate. The only difference is that students seeking to avoid math or science classes can expect to get a sympathetic hearing from much of the academy, where the grousing of physics majors is written off as whining by nerds who badly need to expand their narrow minds.

In fairness, it’s worth noting that some academics are against mandatory liberal arts instruction for science majors, and so are consistent in allowing the educated to avoid some subjects. But the avoidance of math and science is a common and accepted part of many core curricula, and this attitude gets my back up.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think the lack of respect for math and science is one of the largest unacknowledged problems in today's society. And it starts in the academy -- somehow, we have moved to a place where people can consider themselves educated while remaining ignorant of remarkably basic facts of math and science. If I admit an ignorance of art or music, I get sideways looks, but if I argue for taking a stronger line on math and science requirements, I'm being unreasonable. The arts are essential, but Math Is Hard, and I just need to accept that not everybody can handle it.

This has real consequences for society, and not just in the usual "without math, we won't be able to maintain our technical edge, and the Chinese will crush us in a few years" sense. You don't need to look past the front section of the paper. Our economy is teetering because people can't hack the math needed to understand how big a loan they can afford. We're not talking about vector calculus or analytical geometry here -- we're mired in an economic crisis because millions of our citizens can't do arithmetic. And that state of affairs has come about in no small part because the people running the academy these days have no personal appreciation of math, and thus no qualms about coddling innumeracy.

I'm not entirely sure what to do about it, alas. I half want to start calling bullshit on this -- to return the sideways looks when colleagues in the humanities and social sciences confess ignorance of science. I want to get in people's faces when they off-handedly dismiss math and science, in the same way that they get in people's faces for comments that hint at racial or gender insensitivity. I suspect that all this would accomplish is to get me a reputation as "that asshole who won't shut up about math," though, and people will stop inviting me to parties.

Sadly, I don't know what other solution there is. It simply should not be acceptable for people who are ignorant of math and science to consider themselves Intellectuals. Somehow, we need to move away from where we are and toward a place where confusing Darwin with Dawkins or Feynman with Faraday carries the same intellectual stigma as confusing Bach with Beethoven or Rembrandt with Reubens.


Chad Orzel is an associate professor of physics at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y. This essay is adapted from a posting on his blog, Uncertain Principles. He is currently working on a book explaining quantum mechanics to a general audience -- through imaginary conversations with his dog.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top