Before the offending giggle, the speaker was discussing innumeracy. This is a topic that I care deeply about, and in various times in my career a great deal of my energy is attempting to correct innumeracy. Someone who is innumerate, simply cannot understand numerical information sufficiently. An innumerate person is more likely to be misled by or misinterpret statistics, financial products, and scientific studies. An innumerate person is more likely to use emotional anecdotes as a basis for making decisions than dense research on a topic since they simply don’t have the basis to understand (much less evaluate) that research. The term is sometimes used to mean nearly the same thing as “scientifically illiterate”. However, it literally means that they don’t read or write the language known as Mathematics – and a great deal of scientific literature is written in that language.
So, what made me laugh out loud?
The speaker said, “If it weren’t for innumerates, we wouldn’t have great music…” He may have said a few other things, but I couldn’t hear it over the sound of my own reaction. Unfortunately, I didn’t discuss this with him at the talk at length. I just let it go, since I had already been rude enough to literally laugh at him, I certainly didn’t want to derail his talk completely.
In fact, my explanation to him was pretty stupid. So, here is what I wanted to say.
“I grew up on Bach. What the….? Are you high?”
Just by coincidence, a few days later, I was at a forum for work where a book was passed around about how “right brained” people were going to rule the world. It is recommended reading that I have not read. Near the end of the discussions, we were told that someone was concerned that too much money was being spent on out-reach activities surrounding the arts when our organization focuses on the sciences. An interesting discussion followed, that seemed to affirm our organization’s commitment to a well-rounded approach.
With the previous talk still rattling around in my head as well as the idea that “right brained” people will control the world in some sort of dis/utopian future, I sort of lost my shit and said:
“Us science people are not soulless computers!”
And I was informed that the “right brain” and “left brain” thing was just an analogy – and not the pseudo-scientific pile of doo doo that I was accusing it of being. (This reminds me of Deepak Chopra’s assertion that his phrase “quantum healing” is just an analogy.)
Fine. So, is that analogy a good one? – or does it just lead to misunderstanding of the topic and an assumption of undo scientific support for an essentially made-up idea?
Well, would it make sense for me to say that if it weren’t for illiterates, the Origin of Species and the Principia would never have been written and the telescope and the Hadron Collider would never have been built? I mean, if it weren’t for illiterates, we would never have been to the moon.
If it weren’t for people who had no imagination, no creativity, and no acumen for self-expression; we would know nothing about the bottom of the ocean, we would not know what stars are made of, and we would certainly be cooking on wood stoves and lack refrigerators.
Look, if someone is innumerate, illiterate, lacks social awareness, or is completely ignorant of one or many major fields of study or endeavor that doesn’t mean they are not a good person or that they lack value. Nobody knows it all or can do it all.
However, if someone is innumerate, illiterate, lacks social awareness, or is completely ignorant of one of more major fields of study or endeavor it also does not mean that they magically gain other skills, knowledge and cognitive abilities to somehow compensate for their deficiencies. Likewise, because you are a “science person” or a “math person” it doesn’t mean you don’t care about and are incompetent at art, music, theater, and other human activities, it does not make you socially unaware, uncreative, imagination-less, or even faithless.
That’s not how the universe works.