Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Thrill of Being Right

The Aspen Ideas Festival asked a bunch of famous intellectuals, "What Insight or Idea has Thrilled You?" Mathematician John Allen Paulos answered with this story:
I could mention my first introduction to Godel’s theorem about the essential incompleteness of mathematics; or my first encounter with the Banach-Tarski theorem in topology showing that a sphere the size of a pea can be decomposed into a finite number of pieces and put back together to get a sphere the size of a basketball; or Russell’s paradox about the set of all sets that do not belong to themselves; or any number of counterintuitive results in probability theory. All of these mathematical ideas excited me in high school and college, but I will concentrate instead on the thrill I felt in elementary school when I saw that the power of simple arithmetic was sufficient to vanquish a bully, my fifth-grade teacher. It still evokes the same emotions in me that it did decades ago.

I was about 10 years old and enthralled with baseball. I loved playing the game and aspired to be a major league shortstop. (My father played in college and professionally in the minor leagues.) I also became obsessed with baseball statistics and noted that a relief pitcher for the then Milwaukee Braves had an earned run average (ERA) of 135. (The arithmetic details are less important than the psychology of the story, but as I dimly recall, the pitcher had allowed the opposing team to score five runs and had got only one batter out. Getting one batter out is equivalent to pitching one-third of an inning, one-27th of a complete nine-inning game––and allowing five runs in one-27th of an inning translates into an ERA of 5/(1/27) or 135.)

Impressed by this extraordinarily bad ERA, I mentioned it diffidently to my teacher during a class discussion of sports. He looked pained and annoyed and sarcastically asked me to explain the fact to my class. Being quite shy, I did so with a quavering voice, a shaking hand, and a reddened face. (A strikeout in self-confidence.) When I finished, he almost bellowed that I was confused and wrong and that I should sit down.

An overweight coach and gym teacher with a bulbous nose, he asserted that ERA’s could never be higher than 27, the number of outs in a complete game.

For good measure he cackled derisively.

Later that season, The Milwaukee Journal published the averages of all the Braves players. Since this pitcher hadn't pitched again, his ERA was 135, as I had calculated. I remember thinking then of mathematics as a kind of omnipotent protector. I was small and quiet and he was large and loud. But I was right and I could show him. This thought and the sense of power it instilled in me was exciting. So, still smarting from my earlier humiliation, I brought in the newspaper and showed it to him. He gave me a threatening look and again told me to sit down. His idea of good education apparently was to make sure everyone remained seated. I did sit down but this time with a slight smile on my face.

We both knew I was right and he was wrong.
Indeed being proved right is one of the most seductive possible experiences, luring many of us to pursue knowledge as a calling. Unfortunately it also lures many of us into arrogance, or at least it did me. Full of my own intellectual victories over teachers, textbooks and peers, I was at 19 a pompous, insufferable jerk. But I have mostly gotten over it, and I learned a huge amount along the way.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I also have a history of working to overcome arrogance, and I'm proud to say I've come a good ways on that front. (Or at least, I think I have? Maybe I'm fooling myself with overconfidence. Ahh, the irony.)

Personally I want to attribute a lot of the development of said arrogance to the way failure and mistakes were treated by those around me growing up. I think it wasn't just that I was somewhat too clever and intuitive for my own good - it was also that when some authority figure disagreed with me, it was never politely or respectfully.

I can easily think of a number of stories just like the one cited here, where I shared a curious notion that had occured to me, or sometimes corrected a mistake on the part of a teacher or similar, and they responded with vitriol and harassment. They seemed to take my putting forth information that disagreed with their own notions to be a challenge to their authority, and often, I assume, to their own personal self worth.

Whether I was right or wrong was never the initial point. I was just a precocious kid excited by the ever expanding horizons of my little world. Plenty of times I would have a clever thought born from intuition that would prove to be absolutely false. But I think I only started to deeply care about "having to be right" when people mocked me and hurt me for "being wrong".

Thinking back on it, I did have a number of good teachers who were kind and accepting of my unusual bursts of thought and occasional over eager mistakes. But the ones that stuck with me - the ones that even now, decades later, still stir distant ranklings of indignance, resentment, and bitterness deep within me - are the ones who themselves cared the most about being "right", to the point that they, as full adults, would stoop to bullying and belittling a child just to protect their own egos.

My own belief is that the process must be cyclical. I imagine my tormentors only ended up that way because they themselves were once tormented as children, presumably by others who had been treated the same way before them, on and on through the ages.

Children who grow up being hurt and mistreated go on to later hurt and mistreat other children - unless they have the strength of character to fight to break the cycle, and to overcome their own traumas so they do not spread further. Some of us succeed in resisting the darkness we inherit. Others... well... I like to think they are truly unable to suceed because of their various wounds, rather than merely unwilling.