Math anxiety turns political

In a recent interview, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was asked about the problem with his party’s proposed “budget” (if we may loosely use that word for a set of proposals that refrain from actually saying how much money will be raised, or how it will be spent), and suggesting that it would “take me too long to go through all the math”. He actually spent a couple of minutes avoiding wasting time by going through all the math. And in an interview the following day he further expatiated on his mathless mission of mercy: “I like Chris [Wallace, the interviewer]. I didn’t want to get into all of the math on this because everyone would start changing the channel.”

Sure, you may think you want to know how I’m going to be covering the pension and health care you think the government has promised you (“federal government legacy costs”, as his running mate might term them), but trust me, the answer involves MATH! MATH, I TELL YOU! Imagine Jack Nicholson at the end of A Few Good Men yelling, “You want the math? You can’t handle the math!” Paul Ryan is a selfless soul who has descended into the pit of reckoning, done battle for your sake with the math demons, and returned with a golden budget for all our sakes. Surely we cannot be so cruel (and so self-destructive) as to demand details of the horrors he encountered there. Maybe Obama has done okay protecting us from bin Laden and alQaeda, but only Paul Ryan is going to be able to save us from Euclid and alGebra.

You’d really have to go pretty far down the UK political food chain to find someone this inept. It’s not just that he’s manipulative and treats the journalists he’s talking to (and the public) with contempt — those are common traits of the zoon politicon — but that his excuses are so transparent. British politicians might play a shell game with a few tens of billions, but no one is going to try to paper over a trillion pound hole in a so-called budget by saying, in effect, trust me, I’m the only one standing between you and the numbers.

I’m reminded of an (entirely apocryphal) encounter between Euler and Diderot reported by E. T. Bell, quoting de Morgan (who probably invented the story himself). Diderot, who had been invited to Petersburg by Catherine the Great, got on people’s nerves with his outspoken atheism, and Euler was commisioned by Catherine herself “to muzzle the windy philosopher”, taking advantage of the fact that “all mathematics was Chinese to Diderot”:

Diderot was informed that a learned mathematician was in possession of an algebraic demonstration of the existence of God, and would give it before all the Court, if he desired to hear it. Diderot gladly consented. . .  Euler advanced toward Diderot, and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction:

Sir, , hence God exists; reply!

It sounded like sense to Diderot. Humiliated by the unrestrained laughter which greeted his embarrassed silence, the poor man asked Catherine’s permission to return at once to France. She graciously gave it.

Now, while the image of windy philosophers being publicly humiliated by a shrewd mathematician has certainly endeared this tale to generations of suffering school-age mathematicians — even those with atheist leanings themselves — I never thought an actual adult would try this in public: You have to believe me, because I have knowledge so profound that it involves math. Then too, even if Euler had been such an asshole (which he was not), at least he would have compensated in part by being one of the great geniuses of the age. Ryan’s claim to this status is decidedly less certain.

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