There must be some unwritten law that journalists for the mainstream media are not allowed to write about a topic that involves numbers unless they first establish that they dislike, fear or are unable to understand math. Setting aside the issue of whether their narcissistic belief that their own math problem really warrants discussion, these math dummy confessions disqualify the writers from covering the very subject they are supposed to be exploring.
We see the latest example of a math dummy confessional in “Retirement Reality Is Catching Up With Me,” the lead story in the New York Times’ latest “Retirement” section. The article is supposed to be about how the writer, John Schwartz, began his own retirement planning at the age of 58, so we can forgive the narcissism (that is, once we accept the premise that we should care about this one writer’s retirement planning travails).
Schwartz is a long-time Times journalist who has written on such math-heavy subjects as climate change and space travel. And yet he claims to be scared of numbers. Here’s his extended quote on the topic, which we might consider a masterpiece of quibbling, except that it’s exactly the train of thought that Charles Blow used a month ago to attempt to qualify himself as disqualified to write about math education:
“Why has it taken until I’m nearly 58 to open my eyes? My excuse is simple: Numbers scare me. I am not alone in this. Scientists who study math anxiety say that the anticipation of crunching numbers can lead to the kind of agitation that, on a brain scan, looks a lot like the perception of physical pain. As a reporter, I can be stirred to learn what I need to know to cover numbers in science and business and other topics; if I don’t, somebody will fire me. (Incentive!) But I’ve largely kept out of my own business.”
We’re supposed to believe that of all the talented journalists at the disposal of New York Times editors to cover climate change and space travel that they selected someone who is afraid of the language of science? That someone who infers he is “agitated…a lot like the perception of pain” by the very thought of crunching numbers wouldn’t quickly get himself reassigned to cover stories that didn’t involve something that scared him?
I think it’s more likely that Schwartz is taking a little poetic license: trying to turn himself into an average person, to empathize with his audience, which in this case seems to be people in their 50s and older who haven’t started serious retirement planning. To make himself this average guy, however, he turns to that old canard that math is hard.
As the article progresses and he and his wife confront retirement issues, Schwartz never circles back to the math challenge, never lets us know that most of the math involved in retirement planning is arithmetic or simple algebra, or that the financial planning industry has hundreds of calculators and formulas that do the work for you. He does mention completing a long survey and plugging numbers into a model, yet he never admits that the math was easy or nonexistent. We never see the resolution of his math anxiety. He has no need to, I guess, since his math anxiety was just a scene-setting detail, only important in so far that it carries the hidden message that math is hard to learn.
As I have discussed numerous times in OpEdge, asserting that math is hard is part of anti-intellectualism, which is one of the great ideological principles underlying virtually everything seen and heard in the mass media since the end of the Second World War. Day by day we’re bombarded with anti-intellectual statements and ideological subtext such as “math is hard,” “math causes anxiety,” “math isn’t fun,” “smart people are bad athletes and socially inept,” “college is only about getting a job,” “science isn’t fun,” “geniuses are usually mentally ill or extremely eccentric,” “the cool kids like to party” and “intelligent design is a valid theory,” just to name some of the more frequent variants of the anti-intellectual ideology. The cumulative effect is to create a culture that does not strive for or respect intellectual achievement.
Schwartz begins his article with the sentence, “I am an idiot.” He’s not, but he must think his readers are.