There was an article that was recently published by FiveThirtyEight titled ‘The Supreme Court is Allergic to Math’, during which writer Oliver Roeder dives into the aversion that the Supreme Court has to using quantitative methods in their ruling. If you haven’t read this article yet, I would highly recommend reading it (can be found here), and it resonated with me because of my interest in using data science in the policy arena.
Roeder includes a variety of powerful quotes in this article, ranging from Supreme Court justices explaining their distaste for math (‘And Chief Justice John Roberts, most of all, dismissed the modern attempts to quantify partisan gerrymandering: “It may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe it as sociological gobbledygook.”’) to contrasting opinions from those in academia (‘“This is a real problem,” Sanford Levinson, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “Because more and more law requires genuine familiarity with the empirical world and, frankly, classical legal analysis isn’t a particularly good way of finding out how the empirical world operates.”’). Roeder also admits that this aversion to quantitative thinking could also be a facade to justify ideological ruling, which is another issue entirely. Regardless, this is an issue that isn’t limited to our justice system, and I wanted to analyze how this trend has impacted us throughout history.
Since the United States political system is founded off of the principles of the Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic, we’ll start there. I wrote an earlier article on this blog that focused on the blurring of lines between different professions in ancient Greece, and how this led to new and innovative creations. Democracy was one of these creations, for scientists and mathematicians were involved heavily in the democratic process, and shaped the thinking process for all future legislation. By fostering an inclusive and diverse legislative body, the Greeks were able to hear different sides of an argument and make an informed decision on policy. By no means was this system completely perfect and fair, but there is something to be learned from their process. As Christopher S. Vaughn, a mathematics professor at Montgomery County Community College, wrote in a post on his website¹:
A good education in mathematics trains people to listen, and to reason effectively and to make clear and logical arguments. These are exactly the skills necessary to form a successful democracy.
But as Mr.Vaughn also acknowledges, our society doesn’t motivate this type of behavior. People often either ‘love numbers’ or ‘hate math’, and they build an aversion to utilizing skills that are not in their domain. This is the opposite of what the Greeks advocated for, and while it starts with our education, it has grown to manifest itself in our professions and our political system.
The Romans also emphasized the wide application and education of mathematical principles. Quintillian, a famous Roman writer known for his work on rhetoric, recommended the learning of geometry not just for the gained understanding of logical reasoning, but for the real-world application to mathematical problems that arise in the political sphere². While Quintillian was highly respected and his work impactful, mathematics teaching was still looked down upon, for most people still viewed the impact of math being limited to specific professions of lower status. Romans viewed oratory and liberal skills as more useful in society, and this has evolved to the perception that we have today.
This brings us to the world we live in now. The issue is less about how we view skills, or even about how we view education, although those are separate issues in their own right. The problem that we see in our political system is the aversion to broader perspectives, especially from the scientific and mathematics fields. By refusing to acknowledge quantitative evidence and dismissing it as ‘mysterious’ and ‘unreliable’, our politicians are laying a dangerous groundwork for the future. Evidence-based decision processes are emerging in every field, driven by the growth in data and analytics. And while government is traditionally known as being bureaucratic and slow to change, this change is both necessary and urgent. The longer we wait to inform major policy decisions with quantitative methodology, the more citizens suffer.
Let’s also acknowledge the other side of the coin, for over-reliance/uninformed use of algorithms and computation can be equally as disastrous. But this is just further evidence in support of our need for politicians and decision makers who are informed about scientific and quantitative methods, so that technology is used appropriately. Computers have their own biases, since they are programmed by humans and are meant to reflect our world.
Like anything, policy is about balance. Completely disregarding quantitative evidence is incompetent, and relying absolutely on that same evidence is equally as incompetent. But the only way to find this balance is to have this discussion in the first place, which is not happening in our current political system. There is no doubt that the wave is coming, and advocates are working all over the country to get this discussion started, but it falls upon the public to push for this change and make sure that our representatives hear our voices.