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Darwin Day, Innumeracy, and Irreligiosity(?)

This past Tuesday (12th) saw the coming and going of Darwin Day – the celebration honouring the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809. Nothing particularly extravagant or noteworthy occurred this year, but the astute among you may notice that this means it will be his 200th ‘birthday’ next year, nicely coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. This has got me wondering what publicly funded celebrations will be held to celebrate this rather monumental event; whether or not I may go and join in any festivities; and if there will be controversy surrounding any events due to the beliefs of certain movements.

To cut a long story short, I have now pencilled-in a trip to Shrewsbury for the weekend following next year’s anniversary as not only is Shrewsbury Darwin’s birth place, but it’s also the location of an annual, month-long celebration of his life and work, and also where my father currently lives. Two birds, one stone, and all that jazz.

On a slightly different note, all this talk of hard science is making me want to mention the book I’m currently reading: John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences. Initially sceptical that it would be written for the maths-newcomer, I became impressed as Paulos describes with gusto the common – and frankly dangerous – pitfalls that everyone faces when living in an innumerate country. Encouraging his readers to view the world in a more quantitative way, I found myself grasping for paper and pencil a few times as he succinctly describes potential consequences of innumeracy:

  • Inaccurate reporting of news stories and insufficient scepticism in assessing these stories
  • Financial mismanagement and accumulation of consumer debt, specifically related to misunderstanding of compound interest
  • Loss of money on gambling, in particular caused by belief in the gambler’s fallacy
  • Belief in pseudoscience: “Innumeracy and pseudoscience are often associated, in part because of the ease with which mathematical certainty can be invoked, to bludgeon the innumerate into a dumb acquiescence.
  • Poor assessment of risk, for example, refusing to fly by aeroplane (a relatively safe form of transport) while taking unnecessary risks in a car (where an accident is more likely)

It’s a book I definitely recommend for both the innumerate and the mathematically proficient. The former will learn a lot and hopefully gain a renewed sense of wanting to brush up on those GCSE maths skills, while the latter will get introduced to some interesting topics – a couple of which I covered in my previous post on mathematical ‘paradoxes’.

Off on another slightly related tangent, I recently came across an interesting article Prof. Paulos wrote for ABC News: 12 Irreligious Questions to the Candidates (via kottke):

Is it right to suggest, as many have, that atheists and agnostics are somehow less moral when the numbers on crime, divorce, alcoholism and other measures of social dysfunction show that non-believers in the United States are extremely under-represented in each category?

Ah to hell with it, have another tenuously-linked topic… The above book (Innumeracy) has renewed my interest in performing mental math and better thinking – a personal development subject I first started working on about 12 months ago with the help of the Mentat Wiki – an interesting website from the author of Mind Performance Hacks. Providing you with new memory ‘systems’, you can use these to perform some useful (and not-so-useful) memory feats and improve your maths, all without the use of a calculator or other aid.

Yeah, that’s right baby: squaring and cubing large numbers… in my head! Hell yeah, that’s how I roll!

And seeing as it’s Valentine’s Day, have some VD cards you can send to your ‘loved’ one. Perfect. (Bitter? Me?  No.)