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Steinberg: Mathematics and arguments that don’t add up

Visitors pass outside the front of a replica Noah's Ark at the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. | AP Photo

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Being mathematically inclined is considered a good thing. But I’m not so sure. Spend time on Facebook and a ready grasp of numbers can be the bell clanging dully at train crossings. An annoying warning of limited practical use.

I was scanning the posts of my Facebook friends, just seeing what is on people’s minds for want of a better word. There was a photo of that $100 million Noah’s Ark Ken Ham has built near his Creation Museum in Kentucky, along with the observation that the money could have been used to “buy a house and a car for every homeless person in Kentucky.”

The dull clang started up. I sighed and slid over to Google. There are an estimated 30,000 homeless people in Kentucky, a state of 4.4 million. About one in 150 persons. Sounds right.

Divide $100 million by 30,000 and you get $3,333. Not bad, but not enough to buy a house and a car — even in Kentucky.

I shared that thought on Facebook and turned off the post’s notifications, not wanting to be drawn into conversation about how many cars/houses one Ark replica could buy. Even to make the suggestion shows, not only innumeracy but a category error, a fundamental misunderstanding about why the Ark was built. It isn’t as if Ham was rooting around for some way to help the people of Kentucky and thought, “Not low-income housing . . . an Ark! That’s it! For when the Flood comes!” It’s a profit-making tourist attraction — $40 a pop for adults, $28 for the kiddies. To suggest Ham should have done otherwise is like saying Walt Disney could have used the cash spent on “Dumbo” to support actual elephants instead. Yeah, sure, had his goal been helping elephants. But it wasn’t. He was making a cartoon.

OPINION

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Kudos to Ham, then. His Ark will draw in the rubes and skim off money they might otherwise give to the National Rifle Association. As someone who goes to opera, I allow others their fantasies. Yes, it’s galling when they insist they’re true. I don’t go around pretending that Carmen is real. But why rain on their parades? As much as I like Bill Nye, Science Guy, his poking holes in the dinosaurs-and-man Bible-based BS that Ham’s museum peddles is like Nye pointing out that the mass-to-surface ratio between an elephant and its ears means that Dumbo could never really fly. Thanks professor.

The news is filled with these category errors, people who think they’re discussing one thing when the true problem is something very different. From a mathematical point of view, focusing on mass shootings misses what’s important, entirely, since mass shootings represent about 2 percent of the butcher’s bill presented each year by guns. Most gun deaths are suicides, familial murders and accidents. But we are transfixed by the big numbers; a 100-car pileup makes news, while 100 scattered fender benders does not. If we want to save lives, sure, ban armor-piercing bullets such as those used in Dallas. That would help, a bit. But etching a suicide prevention hotline number on the stock of guns would help more. Yet who advocates that?

Another category error is when the Right tries to counter Black Lives Matter by chanting that black-on-black crime is a far greater source of death than police shootings. Yes, indeed, it is. But their argument implies that people should only be indignant about the most statistically significant problems, and that’s not how people work. If that were true, we’d all be rallying against heart disease. Those who are protesting police shootings aren’t upset because police shootings are reducing the population of innocent people. It’s the message implied by these shootings — black lives don’t matter — that sparked this movement. If I spit in the soup, and you object; my pointing out that it’s still mostly soup is not much of a defense. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup.

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