Many neologisms have inherited the connotations of literacy, some of which are formed by the addition of a prefix, like “science literacy”; others are shameless perversions of English, like “numeracy”. The latter is generally interpreted as competence in basic mathematical skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I have come to believe that there is a level of competence even more fundamental than numeracy, and I have invented a disgustingly postmodern name for it:

Quantitacy: the ability to distinguish between a little and a lot.

A majority of First World adults seem to lack this competence, and are failing spectacularly to teach it to their children. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is catching on.

The first example that comes to mind was in the 1960s, when selenium (Se) was identified as a cause of heavy metal poisoning (analogous to lead poisoning); showing its capacity to be proactive, the US Congress passed a law making it illegal to sell foodstuffs containing a detectable amount of Se. “Detectable” was an incautious word to use; at the time, it was possible to detect parts per million (ppm) of Se fairly easily. But Se detection technology improved until a few years later it was possible to detect parts per billion (ppb). Shortly thereafter it was found that Se is an essential mineral, making it illegal in the USA to sell food that would keep you alive. Oops.

A more recent example is the Fukushima disaster. Within a few months of the reactor meltdown in Japan, isotopes specific to that event were detected in sea water on the West coast of North America. In no time, many entrepreneurs got rich selling iodine at huge profits to panicked citizens who believed they were about to perish from radiation poisoning. None of these people thought to ask how much radiation was washing up on our beaches, or how sensitive the detectors were that made the identification. For comparison, they should inquire how much more radiation is routinely injected into patients’ veins for diagnostic radiation infusion scans at their local hospital.

Similar misunderstandings result from the increasingly widespread policy of zero tolerance, which see. The problem with zero tolerance is that zero is a very small number. Nature does not contain zero of anything. Not selenium, not radiation, not cyanide, not E. coli, not “insect parts and rat hairs”, not viruses or cancer cells in your body. Thank goodness, since at least some of these are now understood to be essential to life.

As a society, we seem to have given up any sense of balance or ambiguity, in favour of a binary sorting of all things, people and ideas into good or bad. This makes decision-making easy, but it makes wisdom impossible and it makes life hell for everyone. One might imagine that this is due to the bad example set by American politicians in recent years. The definition of Republican policy is “diametrically opposite to Democrat policy” and vice versa. Compromise is seen as weakness; s/he who compromises will not be reelected. Which lays the responsibility back at the feet of the electorate; perhaps we have exactly the government we deserve.

Comments are Closed