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.

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