Couple of reasons why Math is not the only best way to understand the world.

Opinions on Debatable Issues #46

As math, and STEM, in general, have become more important in the world, many start to claim that Math is the universal language and best tool for humans to explore and understand the world. That statement has lots of merits as shown in economic growth, model predictions, technological advancements, and so on. Yet, I want to discuss some aspects of human society that Math is incapable of capturing and explaining. 

Inc. Magazine

Mathematics can reduce human beings and complicated social issues to numbers. This is demonstrated in the hyper-focus on GDP, income, and inflation. Those numbers completely disregard the historical impacts of oppression on today’s diverse population and inequality that stems from subconscious stereotypes. Math cannot explain why white people are advantaged and have more privilege than African Americans. 

Math does not explain why women are not given the same respect as males. Those important questions cannot be quantified. Numbers that show a disparity only allow us to observe and make a short-term solution such as bridging the gender pay gap. However, this does not solve the root problem, which is the ingrained gender stereotypes of males being the breadwinner and females being the caregiver. Today, gender inequality is still a huge issue, such as shown in the United States women still do almost twice as much unpaid care work as men. Those efforts energy and time not recognized in the form of payment and income require something more complex than math to understand and address. Similar problems exist in all kinds of social issues, thus requiring more detailed correlations to explore through qualitative methods that ask more than just numbers, but reasoning and reflection.            


At the end of the day, math is a human construct to simplify and explain lots of physical or natural phenomena. However, a tool is of no use if people do not have the critical thinking mindset to understand it and the moral compass to act upon it. “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action,” defined by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul at the 8th Annual International Conference. It is through critical thinking that we can discern whether a piece of news is biased and whether a number is misleading. Humans are born biased and prone to irrational reasoning and actions. Biased thinking is costly for our quality of life. Not just in daily lives, critical thinking skills help all professions to become better. It is a skill important for professions ranging from social science to mathematics, including lawyers, analysts, accountants, doctors, engineers, reporters, and scientists. Critical thinking is not a skill that can be trained using numbers or applied through mathematic equations. Critical thinking is not a skill that can be trained using numbers or applied through mathematic equations. 

Using mathematics to understand the world all the time requires too much mental energy, whereas other values and skills can become habits and be more efficient for the general public. According to psychology, few people would use algorithms, which is A system that exhausts all the possibilities before arriving at the solution/answer, to figure out where to find the grocery they look for when entering a new store. Rather, they look for the place that they used to go to and assume that those stores have similar organizations. You would not eliminate anything that is not bread to find bread. Rather, you would guess where the bread shelf is relative to other products in any grocery store to locate it faster. This is called heuristic, which is much more efficient. This can be generalized to other daily tasks. When we see a probability of something happening, we rarely use statistics to calculate the probability to reject the Ho to ensure there is the significance of something happening. Often, we utilize our judgment and experiences. Efficiency is also very important in daily life because nobody can afford to spend hours calculating things. 

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In addition, as human beings, we are born to be emotional and have experiences (5 senses). Our understanding of the world is also largely and well-shaped by emotions and experiences, which is one major thing that defines humans. They help us know what we need and want and make us truly understand rather than simply recognize. They allow us to build better relationships, which takes up a large portion of our understanding of the world. You cannot measure friendship or whether a criminal is truly repenting. You cannot measure the grief someone feels when a loved one passes. Is hearing 10 people are killed more influential or witnessing people getting killed in front of your more influential? Of course the latter is because human brains are wired to be better at receiving and internalizing visual, emotional inputs. Also, you cannot use Math to explain what motivated Putin to initiate an attack on Ukraine. Rather, political theories, precedents, and other thematic analyses are incorporated for such significant tasks. Similar unexplained things include religious beliefs and cultures. One cannot quantify the reason a person believes in God or practice a certain cultural tradition. 

The Keyword

Besides qualitative analysis and reasoning, and experiences, another alternative to math is history, which gives empirical evidence and helps establish precedents that inform future decision-making and predictions. The fact that precedents are significant in the legal sphere has been demonstrated in many countries, especially the UK. The common law that UK employes rely heavily on precedents and traditions. Even in civil law countries, according to the Public Health Law map, “judges try to ensure some consistency in the application of the law by taking into consideration previous court decisions.” Law, which maintains an orderly and safe society, is not completely dictated by numbers but also historical precedents and educated judgments. Thus, many other things in combination are better alternatives to understand the world than math. 

Some argue that numbers help us evaluate the severity of things. For instance, Hitler is identified as more dangerous and brutal than a random serial killer by looking at the number of people killed in the Holocaust. However, though individuals can logically reason that 3 million people killed is worse than 100 people killed, we cannot empathize fully with the victims and feel the authentic horror. Yet, we can do so through watching documentaries, autobiographies, interviews, and so on. It is those anecdotes, rather than numbers, that touch our hearts and evoke real emotional responses. 

The New York Times

Some also disagree with the emotion and experience argument, claiming that psychology is a science-based on Math. One person I know raised a question: if getting slapped 50 times is more traumatic than getting slapped once, then how is math not relevant? Great question, but it does not consider human connections and our innate abilities to form affections for others. Will it be the same for a stranger to slap you once and your father to slap you once? Maybe you got beaten badly by a robber and that was a horrific experience. But it is much more traumatic and detrimental for a kid to be assaulted by a parent or caregiver due to the connections between the two. As a result, a kid faces an increased chance of developing psychological disorders or at least becoming more sensitive and insecure. Therefore, numbers are not enough to capture the world, especially human beings because we are so complex. When everything is reduced to numbers, humanity is overlooked. 


  • AP Psychology Textbook.

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