My Thoughts

For nearly three-quarters of a century I have been grounded by certain certainties, absolute absolutes, principled principles. Now, to be clear, I have no special talents when it comes to numbering numbers. Though I assume to know that two plus two equals four, I have come to realize that in any mathematical problem, no matter how simple or complex, there are an infinite number of wrong answers and with any luck at all one and only one is correct. For myself, I have always had an affinity towards any one of the infinities of incorrect choices.

I am fond of this example, because it illustrates perhaps better than most how I reason through a problem which concerns mathematics beyond the most elementary. Years ago, on a Calculus exam, I stared for much longer than I had time or reason to do so at the following problem:

You are traveling in your car in the middle of the desert when your car simultaneously runs out of oil and water. There is an oil pipeline 5 miles due east and a river 10 miles due north. Compute the shortest distance to travel to get oil and water.

Now, for any mathematician this would be simple problem, but not for yours truly. I hate such problems because they are improbable at best and nonsense at worst. But after cogitating on it for some length of time I wrote my answer: “10 miles.” Of course, I then had to explain how I arrived at such an answer, so I did. I wrote: “I would walk directly to the oil pipeline, get some oil, then walk directly back to my car, replace the oil. Then, I would drive the car due north until it overheated, shut the engine off, wait until it cooled down, then repeat the process until I arrived at the river. Thus, 10 miles.”

When I received the exam back, there was a large smiley face beside the problem, along with this comment: “Nice try, but wrong!” Though I tried to argue that my reasoning was both rational and sound, the teacher would have none of it. What it taught me then was that trying to respond reasonably and rationally to an irrational problem was neither logical nor productive.

I ran across a disturbing essay recently, “Why Can’t Winston Count?” which the author answers “Because Socially Constructed Math is Simply Illogical.”[1] In it, the author recalls a proposal to abolish algebra at community colleges, summarizing the argument of Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system:

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree—particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads. It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you’re not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

O’Leary goes on, “It has become clear that a much more ambitious project is now at hand: to replace math with social justice math.” She cites Rochelle Gutierrez, whose specialty is equity issues in mathematics education, “I argue for a movement against objects, truths, and knowledge towards a way of being in the world that is guided by first principles—mathematx.”[2] O’Leary adds, “By 2019, the movement was gaining strength. A preview of the new Seattle math curriculum gives some sense of it. British commentator Douglas Murray noted:

Just one of the sub-questions that students will be invited to consider here is “How can we use math to measure the impact of activism?” Because, of course, what matters most in this world is engaging in impactful activism. Elsewhere students will be invited to consider the following question, “Can you suggest resolutions to oppressive mathematical practices?[3]

It should also be noted that tech writer Kevin Hartnett, writing for Wired magazine, asked of the equal sign, once considered the bedrock of mathematics, “Is the Equal Sign Overrated?”

It seems to make an entirely fundamental and uncontroversial statement: These things are exactly the same. But there is a growing community of mathematicians who regard the equal sign as math’s original error. They see it as a veneer that hides important complexities in the way quantities are related—complexities that could unlock solutions to an enormous number of problems. They want to reformulate mathematics in the looser language of equivalence.

O’Leary comments that for many, perhaps, it is a welcome deliverance from equations that don’t equate. The new element is that mathematicians are getting behind this trend. That is, as she writes, doubtless for a variety of reasons, one of which must be, in these days, the risk of Cancellation.

There is a good deal more to be gleaned from the essay, but even a math averse person sees where this is heading, and it is not two plus two equals four. Full disclosure: I took Algebra 101 three times in college. Not because it was a required course, it was not even a suggested elective. I took it three times because I was stubborn and refused to accept defeat. The first time I got an F, the second a C, the third an A. I finally understood it well enough to tackle geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. I cannot say I have used much of what I learned over the years, but I have always had the satisfaction of overcoming the challenges one faces in life. One final thought, this from a man I most admire, Mr. G. K. Chesterton:

We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-side figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.

The last sounds all too familiar. Sometimes, Winston, two plus two equals five. Sometimes it equals three. It is all in what you want to it be. Wake up America.

Just my thoughts for a Wednesday for what it is worth.

Check me out on Parler @ChuckLanham #dadeacon #wakeupamerica


[1] Denyse O’Leary, “Why Can’t Winston Count?”, Salvo Magazine, Issue 55 Winter 2020, 44-46.

[2] Greg Piper, “Professor proposes ‘mathematx’ to fix pro-human bias in math,” The College Fix (Aug. 21, 2018): https://bit.ly/2QKvKKf. Note: It is not clear that she actually gave the presentation, because the conference page no longer exists. But she is prolific within the discipline, as a list of her publications demonstrate: https://bit.ly/3gS4u7j.

[3] Douglas Murray, “Will maths succumb to the woke wave?”, UnHerd (Oct. 4, 2019: https://bit.ly/2QLF7cF.

Deacon Chuck

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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