The Strange Beliefs of Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, looks like a nice man and seems to be sincere about what he writes. He is no lock—step Democrat and recently broke ranks by commending President Bush for his stand on the Dubai port management issue. He has written with sound common sense about drunkenness.  However, he sometimes comes up with odd and even dangerous ideas.

In a recent article, he advised a young lady named Gabriela to forget about flunking algebra and go on with her life. Mr. Cohen doesn't like algebra and doesn't see why anybody else should bother with it. I sympathize; my wife and son hate algebra too. And even though I'm a scientist and sometime mathematician, I have always been uncomfortable with those little strings of symbols that are so hard to read and so dreadfully unforgiving.

But if you decide to live out your life in a foreign country, you are a fool not to learn the language, even if you don't like its sound or grammar. And like it or not, we live in algebra country. To quote Galileo:

The Universe is a great book which cannot be read until one first  learns to comprehend the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics.

And algebra is, alas, the lingua franca of mathematics and of the technical world we now live in. Ignorance of algebra is as crippling a handicap as being unable to drive a car or use a computer or (as Gabriela would think) not having a cell phone.

Therefore, Mr. Cohen, by surrendering to your instinctive dislike of algebra, you are doing harm to poor Gabriela by giving her bad advice. I beg you to be more careful in the future. Remember the scene in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One where an impatient columnist gives the gullible heroine hasty and sarcastic advice with fatal consequences. If Gabriela follows your advice, she will exclude herself from college and from most of the remunerative and satisfying professions. Note for example the following excerpt from an article about Infosys, India's second—largest software service firm:

'Before even being considered for a job at Infosys each applicant must pass an exam made up of math equations and logic puzzles that many fail' [emphasis mine]

Dare I suggest that this may be one of the reasons why many algebra—hating Americans are losing their jobs by outsourcing to India?

What's more, you go on in your article to utter one of the great bloopers of modern journalism. You say:

'Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence.' [emphasis mine]

I'm afraid that your boast about writing is simply wishful thinking and that your "proof" is  a total non sequitur—the fact that most Englishmen cannot speak French does not prove that French is a 'higher form of reasoning' than English. Thus, you actually disprove your claim by showing how illogical writing can be.
The whole point about algebra is that it is a remarkably concise way of making a statement that is utterly unambiguous and transparently open to logical analysis and refutation. In contrast, language, and especially writing such as journalism, is seductively ambiguous and susceptible both accidental and malicious misinterpretation. By way of example, let's take one of your own recent statements:

The GOP, after all, became a safe haven for Southern bigots who fled the Democratic Party (as Lyndon Johnson knew they would) in the civil rights era. The fight for the rights of blacks turned Dixie as Republican as it once was Democratic. To its everlasting shame, the GOP continues to benefit from raw bigotry.

This is fine writing and sounds good but it is utterly illogical. It implies the propositions that (a) all Southerners are bigoted and (b) they joined the Republican party because it pandered to their bigotry. The former is slander and the latter is widely disputed and was recently refuted in a book. Your claim also evades the fascinating question of why these bigoted Southerners were staunch Democrats during the hundred years of Jim Crow after the Civil War. Therefore, your own writing demonstrates that writing is not 'the highest form of reasoning' but rather an excellent way of twisting and distorting the facts—as I'm afraid you sometimes seem to do.

The intrinsic ambiguity of language is due in part to the sloppiness with which we attribute several different meanings to the same word and to the variety of ways by which we can use clever phrases (or omissions) to evade issues, misdirect the reader's attention, or seem to hit the right nail on the head without actually doing so. Sometimes we try to avoid these ambiguities by using special languages, such as leagalese or technicalese, in which we precisely define each term, avoid ambiguities by tedious repetition, and exclude alternative interpretations by covering every imaginable eventuality. The result is almost always a long boring mess that permits further deception because most readers don't have the patience to wade through all the verbiage. What you call 'a readable English sentence' is usually a vague or equivocal one.

In contrast, algebraic equations can be terse while eliminating all ambiguity. This does not mean that mathematics always tells the truth.  Like any form of communication, it can be twisted and perverted by clever manipulation and omission. Although the Oath of Secrecy of the Mathematicians' Guild prohibits me from revealing these secrets to laymen, some forms of mathematics, such as statistics, are so notoriously amenable to misrepresentation that Sam Weller would have defined them as 'delicate English for lyin' vit numbers.' And if you don't understand algebra, you will be taken in by these ruses.

Perhaps, Mr. Cohen, your state of denial about algebra is indicative of your liberal bias. What exasperates conservatives about liberals is not your ideals, which are often admirable, but rather your mulish insistence on seeing the world as you wish it to be rather than as it actually is. If a truth is ugly or uncomfortable, you simply refuse to see it. And this is what you have done about algebra. Like or not, a knowledge of algebra is essential for dealing with 21st century life. And the same can be said about the Islamic menace, human fallibility, and the other harsh realities you refuse to acknowledge and deal with.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist.