The Dangers of Innumeracy

Innumeracy is a term meant to convey a person’s inability to make sense of the numbers that run their lives. It’s not the same as being bad at math, but rather the inability to comprehend the significance of numbers. As an example, people who are innumerate are likely to think they are due to win the lottery soon. Also, I find that people who dismiss evolution as a silly and unlikely way for complex life forms to arise, or can’t fathom the big-bang as the origin of the universe are often innumerate.

I submit their poster child, Janet M. LaRue, who writes the following in her column. This is her slam-dunk argument, which apparently leaves science-mongers so agog that they often convert to Creationists. Frankly, I suspect it leaves them so slack-jawed in the horror of the ignorance expressed, they simply make a timely retreat to the bar for a shot and a beer.

Janet posits:

I’ve enjoyed several memorable encounters with atheists that encourage me to continue sharing the Gospel. I like to ask the “No God–Don’t Know God” crowd to respond to the following hypothetical.

Suppose you awaken alone in your house with its doors and windows locked to find your table set with a scrumptious breakfast awaiting you. Which explanation satisfies you? Your breakfast always existed in its present form, or your breakfast organized itself from lesser matter? Maybe the eggs, ham and cheese just evolved into an omelet, the muffin popped itself into the toaster then rolled around in the butter, the oranges squeezed each other, and there’s coffee but no Mr. Coffee.

The response is usually an ontological admission, as in, “Somebody came into my house while I was asleep and fixed breakfast,” or a simple “I don’t know.” I’m amazed at the atheists who find it easy to swallow the big bang but not the evolving breakfast.

The evolving breakfast? We’ll ignore that evolution doesn’t apply to inanimate matter, that’s just a further illumination of her ignorance. I want to focus on the innumeracy of the argument. The universe is over 14 billion years old. The Earth, a comparatively young, 4 billion plus years old. That’s a really really long time. Really. The creation of galaxies, stars, planets, and life forms occur over immensely large time scales. Happenstance is further progressed by the volumes of attempts involved. For every pair of amino acids that bind with the the requisite environment and energy to create life, trillions of them fail to do so. For every gas cloud that coalesces into a star, millions do not. These are stupidly large numbers. And billions of sites across billions of years result in quintillions of attempts.

For a little perspective, a billion seconds is over 31 years from now. There have only been a half-quintillion seconds since the universe began. If you bought a billion NYS lottery tickets every week, on average you’d have 20 winning tickets/week. When you employ even remote chance across so many opportunities, the seemingly unlikely becomes almost certain.

Now, even with these large numbers, the likelihood of a naturally occurring ham and cheese omelet is pretty remote. It would fly in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, but that’s another discussion. Instead, let me recast Janet’s essential argument using the Infinite Monkey Theorem.

It is very reasonable and likely that if a billion monkeys typed on a billion typewriters for a billion years, that one of them would accidentally hammer out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. (Note: I would not want to have to clean up after that experiment.) But if I left a monkey and a typewriter locked in my house overnight and found a sonnet on my desk in the morning, I might be inclined to suspect divine intervention. The difference between those two scenarios is in the mind-numbing magnitude of the numbers involved. It is also the difference between “the big bang and the evolving breakfast“.

I feel for the innumerate, I really do. They are ripe to be taken advantage of, and many do. Just listen to any politician spin their statistics. It’s much like illiteracy, just with numbers. And like illiteracy, it can be cured. The only odd part is, that I’ve yet to find an illiterate person who will argue with you over what a written passage says.

Is the Hatter Mad?

If you’re not aware yet, the NY Times has finally dropped their silly “Select” program when they discovered that not too many people were willing to pay for the privilege of reading their paper online. The result is that Maureen Dowd is once again available to read. This is great as I love Maureen. Well, her writing… anything else would just be creepy. Whenever I’ve seen her in person she’s like fingernails on a blackboard. She has the personality for print media. But I digress.

This week she wonders if Cheney will manage to lead/drive us into attacking Iran before the end of the Bush reign of terror. I share her concern. There’s a lot of writing on the wall. Exaggerated claims about how Iran will precipitate World War III, citing them as the new greatest threat and sponsors of terror, etc. Not to mention that attacking Iran would certainly be the Republicans best political shot in 2008. The American public has repeatedly demonstrated they can be whooped into a patriotic frenzy when there’s butt-kickin’ to do. And we all know how soft the Democrats are on war and the military. Imagine how bad it would have been if WWII, Korea, or Viet Nam had happened on Democratic watches… ummm… wait a minute… But I digress.

But there’s a part of me that thinks we can’t possibly get fooled again. Can we? Bush’s approval rating is dismal, in large part fueled by the Iraq debacle. The majority of Americans now believe we were misled into that war. Would they buy it again? I’m inclined to think they wouldn’t. But I’m also scared their opinion wouldn’t matter. Congress has proved disappointingly impotent, and Bush & Co. seem to be more and more determined to do what they believe is right and dare Congress to do something about it. It’s very conceivable that an Iranian attack could be launched without any sort of national debate. Which begs the question, if that happened, would we as a people take action, or just blog about it? I suspect we would just suck up yet another quagmire of a war. The alternative would be to stage a revolution of sorts and take back our government. But doing so with a fresh war front opened would divide the country even further, possibly spawning our own civil war. But I doubt it would be a war of guns. We lack the commitment to action and, frankly, the stomach for that. Rather it would be a war of words and rhetoric. AM Radio vs. the Blogosphere. Oh wait, that war is already going on. But I digress.

Ten Reasons Gay Marriage is Un-American

I found this, but there was no attribution to an author. Still, it’s pretty funny, in a sad sort of way. It’s gotta make Dumbledore glad he’s British.

  1. Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.
  2. Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.
  3. Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.
  4. Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn’t changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can’t marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.
  5. Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britany Spears’ 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.
  6. Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn’t be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren’t full yet, and the world needs more children.
  7. Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.
  8. Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That’s why we have only one religion in America.
  9. Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That’s why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.
  10. Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven’t adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong??

Clearly a must have item in any home, the bed mounted shotgun rack advertises that it makes your gun available while still lying down! If it only also held a beer and the TV remote, this would be the perfect product. Note at the end of the commercial when they say that many customers are ordering one for both sides of the bed. They don’t say so, but I suspect this means this product also cures snoring.