Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Help Fight Math Illiteracy!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


There are those who complain the Bush administration‘s federal budget proposal is wildly unrealistic, that they undercount war casualties, and that Bush's proposed escalation could actually run up to 48,000 troops, double his claims.

Those so quick to condemn Bush would do well to remember Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity (or ignorance).

Can anyone not blindly partisan doubt that George W. Bush wants to be the very best president he can be? Can anyone doubt his commitment to excellence, and his desire to command every relevant fact on every pressing situation?

The Bush detractors are wrong. George W. Bush and his top officials are not evil, or even misguided. Instead, like millions of Americans, they hide a shameful secret: They’re not good at math.

Critics like to mock Bush reading My Pet Goat and his affection for The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But while Bush does have a consistent tendency for malapropisms, this past summer he also “read three Shakespeares.” He is not illiterate in the conventional sense. But he very well may be math illiterate. And in his administration, he is far from alone.

Consider the case of chief Presidential Advisor Karl Rove, nicknamed “Bush’s Brain,” “The Architect,” and “Turd Blossom.” He’s widely considered, by Republicans and Mark Halperin, to be a “genius,” one of the smartest of the current movement conservatives. Yet who can forget this famous exchange between Rove and NPR’s Robert Siegel shortly before the 2006 midterm elections? (Full transcript here.)

MR. SIEGEL: We're in the home stretch, though. And many might consider you on the optimistic end of realism about --

MR. ROVE: Not that you would be exhibiting a bias or anything like that. You're just making a comment.

MR. SIEGEL: I'm looking at all the same polls that you're looking at every day.

MR. ROVE: No you're not. No you're not!

MR. SIEGEL: No, I'm not --

MR. ROVE: I'm looking at 68 polls a week. You may be looking at four or five public polls a week that talk about attitudes nationally, but that do not impact the outcome --

MR. SIEGEL: -- name races between -- certainly Senate race

MR. ROVE: Well, like the polls today showing that Corker's ahead in Tennessee; or the race -- polls showing that Allen is pulling away in the Virginia Senate race.

MR. SIEGEL: Leading Webb in Virginia. Yes.

MR. ROVE: Yeah, exactly.

MR. SIEGEL: Have you seen the DeWine race and the Santorum race and -- I don't want to --

MR. ROVE: Yeah. Look, I'm looking at all these Robert and adding them up. And I add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math. I'm entitled to "the" math.

MR. SIEGEL: I don't know if you're entitled to a different math, but you're certainly entitled to --

MR. ROVE: I said you were entitled to yours.

After the GOP lost both houses, vultures such as Dan Froomkin pounced:

How did Karl Rove get everything so wrong? And shouldn't we take anything he says from this point forward with a big grain of salt?

Rove's divide-and-conquer political strategy, his insistence that Republican candidates embrace the war in Iraq as a campaign issue, his supremely self-assured predictions of victory -- all were proven deeply, even delusionally wrong last week.

His prediction that Republicans would retain both houses of Congress, in particular, is hardly explicable by "bad math" and Mark Foley.

Either Rove lied or he's clueless. Or both.

Froomkin goes on to quote Mike Allen’s interview with Rove, where the "boy genius" explained his failed predictions:

"[H]e does not believe his data let him down. 'My job is not to be a prognosticator,' he said. 'My job is not to go out there and wring my hands and say, "We're going to lose." I'm looking at the data and seeing if I can figure out, Where can we be? I told the president, "I don't know where this is going to end up. But I see our way clear to Republican control."

And apparently, although Rove loves playing head games, he wasn't just projecting confidence. He really believed what he was saying. As Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe reports:

Rove's miscalculations began well before election night. The polls and pundits pointed to a Democratic sweep, but Rove dismissed them all. In public, he predicted outright victory, flashing the V sign to reporters flying on Air Force One. He wasn't just trying to psych out the media and the opposition. He believed his "metrics" were far superior to plain old polls. Two weeks before the elections, Rove showed NEWSWEEK his magic numbers: a series of graphs and bar charts that tallied early voting and voter outreach. Both were running far higher than in 2004. In fact, Rove thought the polls were obsolete because they relied on home telephones in an age of do-not-call lists and cell phones. Based on his models, he forecast a loss of 12 to 14 seats in the House—enough to hang on to the majority. Rove placed so much faith in his figures that, after the elections, he planned to convene a panel of Republican political scientists—to study just how wrong the polls were.

His confidence buoyed everyone inside the West Wing, especially the president. Ten days before the elections, House Majority Leader John Boehner visited Bush in the Oval Office with bad news. He told Bush that the party would lose Tom DeLay's old seat in Texas, where Bush was set to campaign. Bush brushed him off, Boehner recalls. "Get me Karl," the president told an aide. "Karl has the numbers."

If a certified super-genius like Rove can be so wrong, what sort of advice must Bush be getting? And given the number of mathematical errors by the Bush administration, it can’t be just Rove. Most importantly, given that Bush hasn’t caught these mistakes, he himself must surely share in this dread, shameful condition of math illiteracy.

Bush critics bash Bush for being in a “bubble.” but perhaps they’re being very unfair. Bush constantly claims he doesn’t read the polls. But given the evidence, it may not be that he doesn’t want to. It may be that — he can’t.

Bush and Rove are honourable men — so are they all, honourable men— so what else could explain these lapses? Consider the current war in Iraq. ABC conservatively puts its current cost at one trillion dollars (and the CBO estimates that a phased withdrawal would save a half-trillion). Yet Bush administration officials said the war would pay for itself, or that Iraq would generate 18 billion in oil revenues. Alternatively, they said it would cost 100-200 billion, under 50 billion, or as Andrew Natsios, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development repeatedly insisted, 1.7 billion. Of course, anyone can make a mistake, and ABC’s current estimate is only 589 times larger than Natois’ figure, leaving him a mere 998.3 billion off the mark (and rising). However, a trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. It seems that many neocons and other Bush officials fit what Washington Post reporter Peter Baker said about Karl Rove: “mortal after all, and not always so good at math.”

This epidemic is not limited to math, however. Over at the Food and Drug Administration, Bush appointees struggled valiantly against with the science of Emergency Plan B. Likewise, the bold efforts of Bush appointees to rewrite NASA scientists were met with cruel derision in the reality-based community, never mind that the appointees were at least as qualified as most staffers in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Reasonable conservative Jon Swift agrees with Blogger-for-Bush Mark Noonan that 'science is dead' while far left radical Gary Trudeau argues for “situational science.” But however well-intentioned, these efforts will only embolden the enemy. If we do not fight for solid math and science education here in the United States, we’ll have to fight for it in the Middle East. There is no winning the “Long War” against terrorism without long division.


Some might argue, perhaps these Bush officials were taught, but they forgot. But surely not all of them can suffer from the poor memory of unfortunate public servant Scooter Libby. Surely it must be poor instruction. Most likely these poor men were assailed with liberal propaganda in their schools instead of being taught basic reading, math and science. They were being taught the words to “Free to Be You and Me” and forced to make macaroni pictures instead of learning basic, fundamental aspects of American law. How else can one explain the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, not understanding habeas corpus as outlined in the Constitution? How else can one explain Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and current head of the CIA, not knowing what the 4th Amendment entails even though it's absolutely central to his job?

This is not even to bring up the horrible educational wrongs inflicted upon poor conservative pundits and rightwing bloggers. How can Frank Gaffney be expected to find out what Lincoln actually said, or to characterize him accurately? Research is a learned skill, not passed down instinctually from conservative parent to conservative child as is a trust fund. Intellectual rigour is not a birthright in the manner of a think tank position. Bush’s foes charged him with cronyism for his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and for his appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA. However, this misses the point. Given the breadth and depth of this dire educational gap, it’s not Bush’s fault that he simply cannot nominate a single qualified candidate for anything.

Leadership in combating this problem must start at the top. That's why I propose that we immediately start a program of remedial education for our public officials that covers basic tenets of science, basic principles of American government, basic techniques of research and verification, and of course, basic math literacy. It will be similar to No Child Left Behind, except designed for politicians, their aides and allies.

Some may doubt the need for such a program. Let them consider that the Republican party represents nearly half the country, and that in 2000, the Republican party deemed that out of their entire party, George W. Bush was the individual most qualified to lead our country and the world, a colossus John Hinderaker anointed "A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius." Bush was exposed to some of the best education our nation has to offer, at Andover, Yale, and Harvard. If a man of his obvious gifts could receive such opportunities yet emerge unscathed, unchanged, uninformed and uneducated in such basic, essential knowledge — what chance do the rest of us have?

There can be no delay. Every errant keystroke on the calculator is a tiny victory for Al-Qaeda. Help Fight Math Illiteracy. Leave No Politician and Leave No Bush Official Behind!

1 comment:

thepoetryman said...

Pride goeth before the fall...Closely followed by Sloth, Gluttony, and Rove....