WEDNESDAY, JUNE 9, 2021
Kudzu devours the land: Ideology is swarming across our discourse like a fast-growing kudzu.
It's devouring our ability to conduct sensible discussions of any serious topic. It's getting harder and harder to watch us make our attempts.
Where does Our Town look more incoherent? On the (current) question of how public schools should teach our nation's brutal history? Or is it on the (current) question how public schools should teach math?
Then too, consider some of the things Anastasia Higginbotham said to The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf in their recent colloquy about whiteness.
Higginbotham wrote a children's book on the subject of whiteness. She said many odd things in the colloquy. but let's stick to one basic question:
Based on the evidence shown below, did she know that police officers shoot and kill twice as many white people, as opposed to the number of decedents who are black?
HIGGINBOTHAM (6/5/21): I started [the book] with a shooting because videos of police officers killing unarmed Black people were coming out one after the other—same as now. Each time the Black community would gather to say “Stop killing our families!,” police would violently attack them too. It’s our responsibility to help children cope with life exactly as it is and grow in the process, whether it’s divorce, death, sexuality, or violent white supremacy embedded into all of our systems.
Whiteness is the reason these killings by police happen—the white cultural mindset that tells us white is good and innocent, while Black is bad and dangerous. Whiteness is the reason cops make split-second decisions to fire their weapons into the body of an unarmed person who is Black, while not even reaching for their weapon during interactions with armed and violent criminals who are white. You ask what is the appropriate age to tell children about police brutality, but which children do you mean? The siblings, cousins, children, and grandchildren of people whose family members are targeted know about it. You mean white children. When is the right age to tell white children about a system so cruel, we fear it will be traumatizing for them to even find out about it? Yes, I think it’s appropriate to teach my book to white kindergartners. (Higginbotham's italics)
Twice as many white kids have had siblings, cousins, parents and grandparents shot and killed by police officers. (We know—that's disproportionate.)
That's "disproportionate," but those are the numerical facts. Leave aside the other things Higginbotham said in the course of her discussion with Friedersdorf. Answer this question alone:
Did Higginbotham know that the numbers are like that? Or did she think that only black people get shot and killed by police officers, perhaps because those are the only videos she sees on Our Town's TV stations?
It would be better if no one got shot and killed? But based upon the things she said, did Higginbotham understand those basic facts? Or is kudzu eating the land?
Along with matters like that, we've been exploring this lofty question:
In his new biography, can Stephan Budiansky explain Kurt Gödel's iconic "incompleteness theorem" in a way the general reader will understand?
We're prepared to announce the answer today—it's a thousand times no! Explanation simply isn't one our species' key skills.
We're reasonably good at inventing things. Our technologies could always be more advanced, but they're quite dependable. (Amazingly so, we'd allege.)
That said, analysis and explanation simply aren't our species' bags. Thought leaders aren't able to explain most things, and other thought leaders don't notice.
Still coming: No, please. Don't ask!
First, a bit of a dodge: No general reader will understand Budiansky's explanation of the incompleteness theorem. At some point, before too long, we plan to re-explore this fascinating topic.
("Phantom explanation" might be an appropriate name for this ubiquitous syndrome.).
For today, here's what Jennifer Szalai said in her review of Budiansky's book in the New York Times. In fairness, she didn't quite say that Budiansky "made Gödel easy." But we'd describe this as an initial dodge, followed by a flat misstatement:
SZALAI (6/3/21): ...Gödel’s “incompleteness theorem,” which he presented in 1930, when he was 24, upended his profession’s assumption that mathematics should be able to prove a mathematical statement that is true. Gödel’s proof landed on a mathematical statement that was true but unprovable.
For interested readers, Budiansky supplies an appendix that moves through Gödel’s proof, step by step, but granular knowledge of formal logic isn’t essential for anyone’s enjoyment of this moving biography. Budiansky—whose impressive and impressively varied output includes a novel, a book about Oliver Wendell Holmes, another about post-Civil War violence and a history of cats—brings a polymath’s interest to bear on a man whose life intersected with the political and philosophical upheavals of the 20th century.
Not only does Budiansky offer a clear discussion of the incompleteness theorem along with the accolades it elicited; he takes care to embed the proof in the life, avoiding the kind of gloomy interpretations that so often made Gödel feel misunderstood. Gödel had smashed the establishment understanding of mathematics to pieces—or had he? Gödel refused the nihilistic conclusion drawn by some from his work: that because there were truths that weren’t provable, nothing mathematical was truly knowable. He drew optimistic inferences instead, choosing to emphasize that there would always be new mathematical truths to discover.
First, we're told that you can enjoy this book even if you don't attain "granular knowledge" of the iconic theorem. Later, we're told that Budiansky "offers a clear discussion" of same. A clear discussion, full stop!
Is that accurate? Does Budiansky "offer a clear discussion of the incompleteness theorem?" We're going to say that yes, he does—if you have no idea what a clear discussion looks like.
Our species is wired for slip-slides like this. All through the precincts of Our Town, the kudzu is gaining ground—fast!