Monday, June 27, 2005

Fun With Math
Oh Yes, and The Decline Of Western Civilization Too


Just when you think society can't get any stranger. From Opinion Journal, via Atlas Shrugs:



In the early 1990s, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued standards that disparaged basic skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, since all of these could be easily performed on a calculator. The council preferred real-life problem solving, using everyday situations. Attempts to solve problems without basic skills caused some critics, especially professional mathematicians, to deride the "new, new math" as "rainforest algebra."

In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 "contemporary mathematics" textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter "F" included factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions and functions. In the 1998 book, the index listed families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises and fund-raising carnival.

Those were the days of innocent dumbing-down. Now mathematics is being nudged into a specifically political direction by educators who call themselves "critical theorists." They advocate using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice.


Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction. One of its precepts is "ethnomathematics," that is, the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture.


I remember reading about Ethnomathematics a few years back in an article in the LA Times Book Review section. There was a review of a book which explained a "Base-20" number system which was centered around the human body. There was much technical jargon and professorial language.

But what it boiled down to is a certain tribe of people were counting their fingers and toes.

I was amazed at the stupidity of the idea even then, when I was in the throes of my leftist brain seizure. However, I just figured it was some wacky theory concoted by a Professor who was trying to get attention. It is frightening to find that it is actually being used.

The idea that I read about was referred to, if I recall correctly, as Body Mathematics. I just Googled the idea to show you what I mean. Sure enough there is an Ethnomathematics Digital Library.

Here's an intro to an article discussing the base-20 number system of the Mesoamericans:


This website has 12 short descriptions of the influence of mathematics on culturally relevant activities and products from around the world. These include women as the originators of mathematics, using such evidence as the lunar calendar, the Ishango Bone from Africa, and the Isturitz Baton from France; the Mesoamerican vigesimal (base twenty) number system; the Incan quipu as a counting tool; African counting words based on the human body; Native American petroglyphs; Amish quilts;

Other terms: menstruation, Paleolithic, pipe lagging, knitting, sock heel, angle, knot, cord.


See, I'm not making this stuff up.

Here's an introduction to a paper by Berkeley professor Geoffrey Saxe:



This paper looks at the interplay between cognitive development and culture change. This interplay is illustrated with information about economic exchange in the Oksapmin people of Papua New Guinea’s West Sepik Province. These people have a traditional body part counting system that begins with the thumb on one hand, enumerates 27 places around the upper periphery of the body, and ends on the little finger of the opposite hand.


So, does that mean the people of Papua New Guinea's West Sepik Province have a "base-27" number system? That must be very confusing.


UPDATE: CUANAS reader Dustin sent me an email regarding this post:

... It's moronic. What they're saying is that a Mexican kid will intuitivelyunderstand base-20 better because his ancestors (someof them) were Aztecs.

Or whatever.

In other words, it's not just moronic, it's inherently racist.

Base-10 is the system our society uses. Think about it, since age 2-3 the kid has been hearing about channels 3, 7, and eleven on TV. He knows that theyear is 2005. 2005 in base-20 is like 16005. Or something. The point is, it's truly idiotic to think he was somehow born "understanding base-20 better" because his DNA may have come from some tribe that used base-20 to count coconuts. It's ascribing something about a person's mentality/thought processes to his *race*.

I cannot emphasize this enough: that is frickingracist. It doesn't do the kid any favors, either. Any kid unfortunate enough to be under this kind of regime is probably hella confused for many years.