Sunday, August 02, 2020

The Wrong Kind of Binary

The Wrong Kind of Binary

Binary of course means two valued.  Ones and Zeroes.  Computer math.  Very useful stuff, but not the subject today.

There is another sort.

Politicians hate making choices.  To make a choice is to disappoint someone, and they want to make everyone happy.  Everyone except their designated enemies, but that is also not the subject today.

One way to avoid the appearance of making choices, even when one must be made, is to pretend that there is no choice.  Rather than explain the trade-offs involved in a decision, simplify to a binary option, where only one choice is the "obviously correct" one. 

In trade offs involving potentially fatal outcomes, there is an easy way to do this.  Simply say that "even one death is too many", and any course of action that might kill a single person is immediately off the table.

It is difficult to overstate the moral bankruptcy of this line of argument, especially because of its deep emotional appeal.  There is a kernel of truth after all, for the person who dies, and the family, of course that one death is a tragedy.  At the same time, it elides a simple truth: choices must be made, and we need to make them in a sensible way. Engineers learn early that there are always tradeoffs. "Fast, Cheap, Correct, pick any two".

However, if there are only two numbers in your number system: Zero, and "too many", you will be unable to make even the most basic computations. Two numbers aren't enough.

Even basic computations are not good enough.  A proper grasp of statistics and probability is essential to evaluate the various paths that are always before us.  How can you compare what you can't quantify?  By feel?  Not good enough. By appeals to emotion?  Definitely not good enough.

Maybe this is the time to come out in favor of replacing Calculus with Statistics in High School Math?  If Innumeracy was rare, the false choice arithmetic wouldn't hoodwink so many, and our leaders would maybe step up their game.

A man can dream, right?