Math is a Virus (Quantified Intro)

Nathan Shedroff
Dec 21, 2019 · 16 min read

This is a series of posts from a book I’m in the process of writing. I’ll be posting more as various chapters are developing, not in any particular order.

Please. Let me be clear right from the start. I don’t dislike or distrust numbers. I find them elegant and useful and eminently important. I’m even “good” at math (or was back in high school) and I’m proficient in Excel so my issues are not that I can’t comprehend or work with numbers.

Like many people, I find numbers reassuring — and therein lies the problem. When you see a numerical “fact” doesn’t it impart a little satisfaction? “Gasoline is now $3.67 a gallon (I live in San Francisco). Well. OK. That’s that. No wonder if things seem more expensive — they are.” I know the price of gas now — no more wondering. “Unemployment is at 3.7%? I thought things were worse. I’ve heard news about how jobs are scarce. Wow, I guess things aren’t as bad as I thought.” The relief that comes isn’t just from thinking the country is doing better than expected, it’s partly that I now know the answer and it’s discrete and convenient. I know something and that feels satisfying. If I can remember the figure, I can share it with others and feel knowledgeable.

This opens the door to a big room with a lot more doors, many of which aren’t even visible. What does it mean to know something or to be knowledgeable? Is the number that I know really telling me what I think it is? Do I know the context for how much unemployment there is in the USA? Does it matter what time of year the figures were drawn? (It does.) Is everyone counted? (They aren’t.) Is this number comparable to, say, the same figure 20, 40, 60, or 100 years ago? (It isn’t.)

Numbers are reassuring. Just seeing them gives us the feeling that the unknown may be knowable. Even when the numbers are bad or not what we want to hear, at least we now know that they are. In this way, they’re seductive — very much so and potentially misleading.

Most everyone has heard and understands that “numbers can lie.” Numbers, by themselves, aren’t relevant nor meaningful. But, beyond this, numbers have a great power to convince. When your friend quotes an economic figure to you — one that seems to contradict your personal experience — how do you respond? She’s got the number. Who are you to say, “that doesn’t sound right” if you don’t have numbers yourself? You would look profoundly naïve — even irrational — to not believe her (unless you know those figures better than she does and are prepared to dispute them). Yet, her figure may still be wrong. Or, the figure is right but the context is wrong. Or both of those are right but the conclusion based on them is wrong. It’s not only your friend. “Experts” of all types, from economists to physicists to teachers to businesspeople to politicians, regularly bully others into agreement (or just submission) using numbers. And, it has had dire impacts on life, society, Nature, culture, and even the advancement of science.

Compounding this is the network effect of numbers: the more numbers you have, the more you can make. You can combine them and measure the sum, contrast them and declare the difference, watch them change over time and have scores of new kinds of numbers. And, what distresses me, is that the more people look to numbers — and trust them — the more they begin to distrust everything that isn’t a number. This creates a culture of numbers — of math — that actively discounts non-numbers and anything that isn’t measurable or describable in numbers.

This is what I mean by the statement that math is a virus. The focus on math breeds an expectation that numbers are the only way to describe a situation. This approach to math and numbers is crowding-out the importance of non-numbers and this builds on itself, growing more pernicious — just like a virus taking over an organism.

As I said before, numbers and math aren’t bad, by themselves. Instead, it’s how we use math and data when we try to understand something and act.

Over the best of the past Century, numbers have been used (by people who aren’t comfortable with ambiguity or complexity) to disregard anything that can’t be easily quantified — or just quantified completely. We’ve collectively ignored important developments and values while, all the while, thinking we were so advanced and that progress had taken us so far.

This is a problem when we try to understand our world and some of its challenges when decision-time comes around. Numbers are fantastic at telling certain kinds of stories but they are terrible at telling other kinds — important kinds. It isn’t just a matter of numbers vs. art or emotions. Meaning and value, themselves, are comprised of both the numerical and the non-numerical and we lame ourselves when we only look at the numbers. It’s like willingly covering one of your eyes when you look at a problem, an opportunity, or just an incredible vista. Actually, it’s worse. It’s more like turning-off one half of your brain when trying to understand or enjoy the world — and then jumping to act with only half of the information needed.

The worst part of all of this is that we’ve done this to ourselves, willingly — though, perhaps, not always consciously.

How would you describe your life if you were required to only use numbers? You can calculate your net worth — the value of the assets you own (and the debts you owe). You could count the years, days, hours, and seconds you’ve been alive (elementary schoolers love to do things like this). You could list your height and weight. You might list the money you need for retirement or your dream vacation or to send your children to college. Now, try to describe your dreams with only numbers? Where would you start? How would you even go about it? Describe your relationship with your partner or children or friends only using numbers. Do you do this by the amount of time you spend with each of them? The money you spend on them? The number of times you interact? How do any of these numbers describe the value of your relationships or the kinds of dreams you have?

Imagine how complex the calculus would be for finding and being in a relationship. How many factors would you need to include? How would you even measure them? As ridiculous as that sounds, there are mathematicians and authors who decry numbers as the way to optimize everything from your weight and health to finding a loving partner. Yet, this contradicts everything we know about both.

This is just the beginning.

What kinds of things can numbers not describe? Oh, only the greatest things in life: powerful emotions like fear or love, poetry, most art, much of design, human behavior (and, thus, human relationships), etc. While we may use numbers in these areas (insert figure on dollars spent on design or art or numbers of poetry books published and poetry slam ticket sales), these don’t describe everything — or even the best qualities — of these activities. In effect, anything that is called a quality is poorly, if not impossibly, definable by numbers — and that’s a lot of things, both in Nature and the human experience.

Now, consider how a society evolves when the main currency of value is limited to numbers. How do you develop relationships with only numbers? How do you decide government policy when you only consider numbers? There are families where love is measured in terms of money and they aren’t healthy families. Now, consider a society where progress is only measured in numbers. It can’t be healthy, either.

But, I want to reiterate: numbers aren’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty neutral. I’m not arguing to stop using them at all. I think we should be more careful and deliberate with when and how we use them, for sure. They are a tool, like a hammer, that can be used to build something great or something terrible but neither is the hammer’s fault. For example, numbers are now telling us that children with peanut allergies have the same number of attacks whether or not their schools ban peanut products. They tell us that the difference between getting many types of back surgery and letting our backs heal on their own are negligible (other than the medical bills, of course), and that yes, childhood vaccinations do work, are important, and absolutely need to be given. Numbers are a key tool in dispelling myth and ambiguity, not to mention the dogma, assumptions, and irrationality we often encounter. But, they introduce their own tyranny, one that breeds absolutism and blindness because they don’t tell the whole story. Numbers will always be important and useful but also tricky and dictatorial when used sloppily. And they are used so sloppily.

How sloppily? Let me share some examples. You may find these ludicrous — nearly unbelievable — but I assure you they’re real.

One of the first things you learn when you take an economics course or crack an econ textbook is one of the most famous assumptions ever made about the world: People are rational actors.

What does this mean?

It means that, all things being equal, people make decisions rationally, based on discrete information, weighing the impact of choices, and choosing (for the purposes of economics) the least expensive choice for the functions desired.

Well, duh. People wouldn’t throw money away unnecessarily — who does that?

Two bottles of wine on the shelf, both Cabernet Sauvignon, both the same size, same rating, but one’s 1 dollar more than the other? Economic fundamentals say that everyone will naturally choose the less expensive one.

Except, they don’t.

Do you?

There’s certainly no evidence in the real world that this is the case. In fact, the thing that seems to have the most impact on wine-buying decisions is the design of the wine label. OK, perhaps this is too complex an example since most people don’t know much about wine anyway. Let’s try milk: there are two half-gallon-sized containers of milk in the dairy case, one is 50 cents more than the other. They’re both 2% skim milk. Naturally, everyone will buy the less expensive one — or so economics would have you believe.

But, people don’t actually do this — at least not everyone. There are many reasons why someone might choose the more expensive one and I’m not talking about the carton design or whether it is organic or not. Maybe it’s a local product and you want to support local businesses. Maybe the “sell by” date is more legible on one and you just can’t make-out the date on the other. Maybe it’s the brand you grew-up with or one you’ve liked the taste of in the past? Maybe it is the color of the carton that just says “ick” to you, looking industrial or bland or lifeless compared to the one that has more personality. If you think that people make decisions only based on functional or financial criteria, there are a bunch of companies with premium brands — from cars to jewelry to make-up to clothes to perfumes to stereo equipment to food to hotels to everything else — that are chuckling knowingly at you right now.

It turns-out that nobody is actually rational (in the economics sense) when making choices in their lives. Well, we may be rational about some categories but definitely not for others. In the research for my graduate thesis (I have an MBA so take that doubters!), I found that people will gladly pay more for products and services that match their social values. The trick is that not everyone cares about every category but everyone cares about some categories. This flies firmly against the dogma of Neoclassical Economics. We aren’t supposed to do this, at least not at the macro level (and that is where policy is made). In order to simplify life’s incredible complexity, economics has been dumbed-down to the most basic, obvious, easiest calculations… which makes them entirely wrong.

And, there you have a history of Western economics in the 20th Century.

The correct response, then, to anyone spouting this line “people are rational actors” is this: “name one.”

In their zeal to operationalize economics and make it simpler and easier to calculate via numbers, economists from the Neoclassical school simply threw-out anything and everything that wasn’t easily calculated in numbers. In essence: people sometimes make decisions “rationally” and sometimes not and when they don’t, we can’t easily measure it so let’s just ignore those times and say that everyone’s rational and leave it at that.

Really. This is what happened.

If a student in High School simply threw-out the hard assignments and only did the simple ones, what kind of grade do you think she would get? But professors of economics with PhDs in influential universities? Apparently, there’s no repercussions when you have enough influence in your field and repeat ad nasueum your field’s historical dogma. In fact, there are Nobel Prizes available if you do.*

Want to challenge the “law” of “supply and demand”? You’ll be branded an ignorant fool (as one of my economics professors was). Even an econ professor at a presitgious international university with a PhD in economics couldn’t get a paper published — or even read — because it challenged the established dogma of the economic line. Now, that doesn’t sound very enlightened, does it?

By the way, the “law” of supply and demand is actually wrong but I’m going to force you to actually wade into the chapter on economics to see why. Don’t worry, it won’t bite you. It might infuriate you, however. These mistakes aren’t scientific, nor academic. They’re human—which is why they occur nonetheless—and they attest to the sloppiness that people can exhibit with numbers and math.

I wish I could say these are the outliers of Economics but, no, most everything else about the subject is built upon the same foundation of faulty, simplistic assumptions. From “Rich People Create Jobs” and “Trickle-Down Economics” to the denial that stagflation could ever happen (until, of course, it did), to trade policy, incentives, tariffs, taxes, quantitative easing, and our entire concept of growth.

One of my colleagues recounted a moment sitting in his economics course at Yale as an undergraduate student. His professor is droning on at the blackboard without ever turning around to address his students. John interrupts, nonetheless: “But, professor, how does this work in the real world?” The response (still without turning to face the students): “The real world is a case of which we are not concerned.” And… John decides law is for him. At least the professor’s grammar was impeccable.

This is the virus that has infected economics and academia, alike — and so much more.

Any economist that complained about the party line being inaccurate, missing something, or too rife with approximations was drummed-out of the fraternity or brow-beaten to get into line. To make any progress in correcting the situation has taken decades of heretics trying to challenge these foundations and describe actual, real human behavior. After all of these decades, the field of Behavioral Economics is lively and trying to readdress these mistakes and their work is fascinating. What is still the most difficult part, even for these economists and researchers, is that what they find is often not definable simply by numbers. And, that’s the point. Numbers have their limit in describing natural behaviors and systems and we need to move beyond the numbers in order to understand them and proceed. But, at least, these behavioral economists are willing to dive into the deep end of ambiguity and qualitative data. If you want to understand human behavior (and the economy is a human construct), you can’t throw-out everything interesting because it’s hard.

Here, again, is that virus. It has infected economics and spread for decades to the point where anything that disagreed with the virus was extricated and superceded. The result has been an infection that has distorted reality itself — our understanding of the world and how it works. And, the antidote has been rejected for just as long. Only recently, the rise in popularity and fascination of behavioral economics has gained traction to the point where it’s beginning to eradicate the infection.

Teen Talk Barbie: “Math is Tough!”

In 1992, when Mattel got into trouble with feminists (as well they should have) for programing Barbie to say “Math is Tough!” they got it exactly wrong. Math is easy. Numbers are discrete. Adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing are so simple that most children, given any amount of exposure, can master them by 3rd grade. Calculus may be hard, for most. But, Barbie wasn’t referencing differential equations.

Who’s been to space?

What’s truly hard is understanding people and I bet Barbie beats the pants off most economists at this. By the way, I’m neither a Mattel nor a Barbie apologist. She’s unrealistic and mostly focused on the wrong things in life (makeup, cars, and clothes) but she “gets” friendships and people, even if she can’t make it work with Ken. Besides, she’s been to space, dammit. How many economists can say that?

And, to be fair to the economists reading this book, it’s not just economics. This virus is progressively eating through every aspect of human life and society that has been infected with the idea that numbers are the only part of the story that needs attention and that they describe everything we need to know in order make decisions about our lives, institutions, and systems. Numbers have helped recast history, business, education, food, sports, and just about everything important to us. This is why I claim they have distorted our vision of reality. In the process, we’ve increasingly lost indivisible parts of our humanity, itself.

Food is astonishingly less expensive than in the past but surprisingly less nutritious and less tasty. That’s what we get when we pay attention to price and macronutrition and let taste, micronutrition, and other qualities fend for themselves. The Slow Food movement is an anti-viral injected into society to beat back the infection there.

Sports teams famously didn’t pay attention to numbers, then did, and now have to look beyond them again in order to find and compete for the best players. The book and film, Money Ball, tells the story of baseball scouts who didn’t care to look at statistics and how they were bested by a numbers jock who crunched the numbers for the Oakland Athletics — helping them to world championships. Now, however, every team has been infected with this strategy and pays attention to the same statistics so it’s become an important but ultimately undifferentiating strategy. To continue to hire the best players, scouts now have to look beyond the numbers which, correspondingly, usually uncovers better player “stories,” as well.

It’s not that numbers have never been used to try to describe many of the qualities that defy them. Numerology was a “field of study” as recently as the 20th Century that tried to use numbers to legitimize some whacky concepts about our brains and personalities. Astrology and phrenology are others. This goes back a long ways. The philosopher, Pythagoras, promoted the idea that numbers were better than other physical concepts because they were classifyable. In the 1st Century, St. Augustine of Hippo explained: “Numbers are the Universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth.”

There it is: numbers are the path to Truth. They’re the only truth worth paying attention to. And they’ve been given to us directly by God.

This virus has been active for a very long time.

Most of us chuckle at these “uninformed” attempts but you would be surprised how many similar assumptions and approaches lie within fields like economics, physics, business, and sports. Religion and faith just aren’t going to be quantified because they aren’t focused on things that can be. If you’re a doubter of numerology, astrology, and phrenology, you need to become (at least) a skeptic about business, medicine, nutrition, physics, and economics, too.

As humans, we naturally try to make sense of our world. We just have some funny ways of going about it, sometimes — maybe even most of the time. Humans are eminently weird — and wonderfully so. We aren’t consistent. We aren’t often analytical (though a few of us really, really are). We aren’t computers or programs and, therefore, we feel things that aren’t numerical. And, therein lies the challenge, again. We are both sides of the equation, the numbers side and the non-numbers side, the quantitative and the qualitative. But only one side, now, seems legitimate. That’s been the effect of this virus attacking society for so long.

To deny qualities and the qualitative aspects of our lives is to turn a very blind, ignorant eye to what it means to be human — and to understand human systems. When old people (and, sadly, I guess I need to start putting myself into that category) decry how the world has changed for the worse, it’s often because they feel like the world has become less enchanted, less personable, less human. Humanity doesn’t only live in a numerical world so it can’t possibly be enough to contain or describe everything in our lives that we care about—or that are important. The two sides, together, are incredibly powerful and using only one half of the equation, solves for only one half of the answer.

Still not convinced? Hear me out.

This same story — this infection — plays-out, over and over, in various industries and disciplines, as you’ll find in the chapters following: Business, Sports, Food, Education, Culture — even Physics. At least, let me show you and then we can debate the premise.

Then, we can talk about the cure.

*Not that the Prize in Economics in Honor of Alfred Nobel is a “real” Nobel Prize. It wasn’t an original one and it was created by a bunch of Swedish bankers who were miffed that there wasn’t a way to recognize what they held most dear. So, they made their own, labelled it “Nobel” and the rest is history. Really, it’s as legitimate as, say, a bunch of producers in Las Vegas getting together to launch the “Prize in Pornography in honor of Alfred Nobel.”

Nathan Shedroff

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Nathan is a serial entrepreneur, including the new SEED digital currency: www.nathan.com & www.seedtoken.io

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