Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Wait, What? That's Not Math! Or: Using Algebra in Everyday Life Without Realizing It

Earlier today I was having a discussion about GMO’s on my Facebook wall, and it struck me: sure, we’re chatting about GMO’s.  We’re engaging in rhetoric.  But we’re also following the basic steps employed in algebra.  What does a conversation about GMO’s have to do with algebra?

GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) invoke a complex array of social, technical, and legal topics, on which many people continue to disagree.  I had posted a link to another blog that looked at just one aspect of the anti-GMO movement— the impact of non-GMO labeling on breakfast cereals and nutrition— dissected, and refuted it, politely, but firmly.  One respondent complained that the linked blog (or perhaps my endorsement of it) failed to address additional issues such as Monsanto’s activities, monoculture, gene patents, and other ancillary issues.  In my response, I remarked that I believe the issue is so complex that only by breaking it down could we find the real problem and solve it.  If the main concern is gene patents as a practice, labeling foods as GMO does not address the real problem.  If the main concern is monoculture, only looking at Monsanto is probably not the answer.  If one is concerned about health issues related to Bt corn, labeling human insulin as a GMO product does nothing to enlighten the consumer.

It finally struck me that at the heart of the conversation, we are answering the perennial question . . . “Why do I have to learn algebra?”  What we are doing in this conversation is, essentially, exercising the logic of algebra.  As students dive deeper into mathematics, they learn to break the problem down, then solve for some variable, x.  One of the biggest challenges many students face is identifying what part of the problem is represented by that mysterious x.  With practice, students learn to structure a problem so that when everything else is pared away, they are left with x all alone, and what it represents on the other side.

The GMO debate is like this.  Smart people talk at cross-purposes to one another, not because one side is dim and the other is brilliant, or because one side has a complete grasp of all issues and a single answer for all and other lacks it.  It is because we have the conversations without first solving for x— what is it that we are trying to figure out?  

In his excellent blog post, Prof Keith Devlin points out that the very first algebra books did not even include any symbols at all beyond the ten needed to express digits; they described the logical development of problem solving.  Devlin describes the original algebra text by al-Khwarizmi, written in Baghdad around CE 820, and notes, “The focus was on how to think about problems, and had nothing to do with manipulating symbols. That is algebra. It is exactly the mental toolkit that … is crucially important and should be taught in schools.” (NB Devlin is referring to another work and noting where he and the author differ and agree on how algebra is currently taught in schools).

This process— breaking down the problem, identifying our terms, unraveling the logic of the argument at hand could be considered logic, rhetoric, or debate.  Or . . . you just might be exercising those algebraic muscles.

Thanks for reading!