Friday, February 3, 2017

Religion, politics, and math

Recently, I saw an article about Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies protesting Trump's executive order regarding immigration.  These companies are upset because so much of their workforce comes from the Middle East and South Asia.  Queen Mom remarked that she agreed with the idea that tech companies should hire Americans, and stop importing their talent.  My response?  "You couldn't find enough people in this country who could do the work."
Since the proliferation of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s, tech jobs have held a certain panache in the public's mind, and the increased emphasis on the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has become a major educational issue.  However, we as a society will never accomplish this in any meaningful way for one reason--it is socially acceptable to hate math.
I am currently studying for a second bachelor's degree in actuarial mathematics, and I run across this a lot.  Here's how the conversation usually goes:
"What are you studying?"
"Actuarial mathematics."
"What do you do with that?"
"Assess and manage risk for financial institutions, banks, insurance companies, etc."
"Sounds fascinating.  I could never do that, though.  I hate math."
End conversation.
Being a math major is a lonely life.  You can't discuss your coursework with anyone, because they get bored with it.  If I accomplish something, like properly negate a statement, or remember a Taylor expansion, I can't tell anyone because they'll laugh at me.  But if my artist friends paint a piece, or get cast in a role, or write a story, they can show it off without risking public derision.  I've started joking that the three taboo subjects for mixed conversation are religion, politics, and mathematics.  Religion and politics, are of course, invitations for controversy.  Math is not controversial.  It's just all but universally hated.  Even educated people with advanced degrees feel this way.  Donald Trump has a higher approval rating than math does.  Most people I've run across outside of my math classes would rather spend a day with their most hated political figure than take a calculus class. 
The sad irony is that math isn't even that hard.  I consider myself a mediocre mathematician at best, and yet I still grapple with differential equations and proofs as part of my coursework.  Math is more about perseverance than raw talent.  But so many people shrug it off as boring and useless.

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