Only the Best People


“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
— Maya Angelou

In a recent poll conducted by Civic Science, 56% of Americans responded “No” when asked if Arabic numerals should be taught in the nation’s schools. Such breathtaking ignorance, as well as presumed bigotry, is enough to make the other 44% of Americans take to alcohol. Algebra would be more difficult without using Arabic numerals, even if there are a lot of letters mixed into the formulas. Substituting Roman numerals would only make the subject more confusing.

Civic Science also asked if the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre” should be taught in science classes, and 53% said “No”, and of that percentage 73% were Democrats. That theory is actually the basis of the Big Bang theory. While the responses of the majority to both questions point up biases, the two questions do not do it in exactly the same way and therefore the responses are not entirely equivalent.

Arabic Numerals origin
The evolution of Arabic numerals, from top to bottom. Rendering by Vispec.

The key word in the first question is “Arabic”, a term for people living predominantly in North Africa and the Middle East, most of whom are Muslim. By itself, the term describes only an ethnic group. Loading “Arabic” with negative bias is entirely the work of those responding to the term. The wording of the poll question does a good job of not giving anything away to tilt respondents’ attitudes toward the term.

The wording of the other question does not do as good a job since it includes the loaded phrase “creation theory”. It is most likely the case that most respondents had never heard of Georges Lemaitre and his “creation theory”. It is also most likely the case, however, that they had heard the phrase “creation theory” before, a phrase freighted with associations to fundamentalist Christian pseudo-science, even if it was more widely known as “Creationism”.

In as much as the respondents to both questions were reacting with knee jerk tribalism to a word or phrase embedded in each question without really understanding the question, then they are equivalent in their wrong-headedness. In both cases, a more truthful response would have been “Don’t know”, although apparently the poll takers offered only “No opinion” as a third option, a slightly different idea in logic, and not in mere semantics. In that way, both questions tease out the victory of tribalism over knowledge, but it is only the majority responses to the question about “Arabic numerals” that betray bigotry as well as ignorance, much as some might say they are part of the same continuum.

A clip from the “Primacy of Number” section of the 2002 meditative documentary Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. Philip Glass wrote the music, Godfrey Reggio directed the film, and Jon Kane did the editing.

There are a fair amount of assumptions here in parsing the answers to these two deceptively simple polling questions, and assumptions after all play a big part in bigotry. There are also the words of wisdom from the poet Maya Angelou which led this post. We can make educated inferences based on our experience and not have them fall into the well of roiling, unreasoning emotional assumptions and inferences that is bigotry. We can wake up and smell the coffee, as it were, to what only the best people, as they would have us believe they are, are up to in their bad faith quest to subvert the best intentions and best efforts of many, many others to improve human and animal lives and conserve the gifts of the Earth.
— Ed.