Larry Summers on Charlie Rose recently lamented the social acceptability, nay pride, of mathematical illiteracy even within academic circles. (The entire interview is good, but you gotta be happy hearing Larry wax on. Larry likes to elaborate at length.)

His comments reminded me of this interesting but long (*) post, The Discovery of Ignorance, about the scientific revolution.

In medieval Europe, the educational curriculum consisted of logic, grammar and rhetoric. Teaching mathematics seldom went beyond simple arithmetic calculations and geometry. Nobody in Medieval Europe studied statistics. The undisputed queen of the sciences in middle ages was theology, not mathematics. Today in the world very few students study theology or rhetoric. …More students in more departments are motivated or obliged to study more and more mathematics.

The statement made me uncomfortable. Reflect on many Americans’ outlook and compare it with the above statement. How many Americans view events and decisions through a theological lens? What about the orthodoxy and confirmation-seeking of most highly politically partisan people? How many people who got excited about Nate Silver ever really understood the basics of his rigorous, statistical approach successful?

I later noted that the author was based outside the United States…

Side note: You may remember that Larry was a victim of voracious anti-enlightenment, innumerate outrage while he was Harvard University President. He openly speculated about some research that could help us (partially) understand an important observation, namely that there are far fewer women than men in elite science and mathematics positions. The trouble was that a) a largely innumerate audience / population could not understand his very elementary statistical terminology and b) any interpretation would not lead to acceptable preexisting conclusions.

* Unfortunately the post is in need of a good proofreader. [Me too!] It also goes a bit off the rails at the end.

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Thank you for linking to my course notes from Dr Harari’s lectures. I do these voluntarily to help students whose first language isn’t English. The words are not my own but the spelling punctuation etc are. Any volunteer for proofreading would be gratefully accepted 🙂