Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Lottery of Fascinations

I.

Suppose I were to come out tomorrow as gay.

I have amazing and wonderful friends, and I certainly wouldn’t expect them to hate me forever or tell me to burn in Hell or anything like that.

But even more than that, I think they would understand and accept the decision. There would be a lot of not-so-obvious failure modes they could fall into, but wouldn’t.

For example, I don’t think any of them would say something like “Oh, obviously you just haven’t met the right woman. I know this really cute girl Alanna, a friend of my sister’s. I’ll introduce you next time she’s around.”

Or “You must have just had a bad experience with women growing up. Maybe you always got into fights with your mother as a child. But there’s no reason to let that control you now.”

Or “But…but…women are attractive! How could you not be attracted to people who are attractive? That’s just silly!”

Or “You know, I’ve hung out with you a long time. You’re not into drama, you don’t wear flamboyant clothing, and you don’t speak with a lisp. You really have all the signs of someone who should be heterosexual. Maybe you’re just wrong about this whole ‘gay’ thing?”

Or “Don’t you realize how important heterosexuality is? Heterosexuality is responsible for childbirth, for most of the love poems throughout history, and for the nuclear family. How can you not recognize that being straight is better than being gay?”

No, there are a lot of things my friends are far too sophisticated to ever even think about saying if I were to announce something as prosaic and socially acceptable as being gay.

But announce that I don’t like math, and suddenly the knives come out.

II.

It’s not that I don’t recognize that math is awesome. If there were “Pray the lack-of-interest-in-math away” camps, I would totally go to one. But just as a gay guy may recognize the many ways his life would be easier if he were heterosexual but this recognition does not immediately lead to finding women attractive – so discoursing on the beauty and importance of math does not suddenly make math books any more readable to me.

Certainly I love the sort of math that doesn’t involve doing actual mathematics. I love reading about Moebius strips and Klein bottles, discussing the implications of Cantor’s discoveries about infinity, even playing around with fractals and tessellations and other forms of mathematical art. It’s just that when you put actual equations in front of me, with numbers and symbols and variables, my brain melts.

I mean, I’m not terrible at math. I managed to scrape together an A in Calculus II, the last math class I was required to take and not coincidentally the last math class I ever took. I did it by memorizing the algorithms involved and plugging things into them, all the while desperately praying that there weren’t any deviations, however minor, on the test. This isn’t normal for me. In every other field, concepts slide naturally into my mind and I can manipulate them however they want, like fitting a bunch of Lego blocks together to make limitless possibilities.

But math is like constructing a Lego set on a picnic table outside in the middle of a thunderstorm. I grope blindly in the pouring rain for the first piece, and finally put it in place, but by the time I’ve found the second piece and move to connect it to the first piece, the first piece has blown away and is nowhere to be found, and the instructions are sopping wet, and the picnic table has just been carried away by a tornado.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m bad at math, or that I just don’t enjoy math enough to be intrinsically motivated to pursue it. I do know that I have never become good at something – good good, not “scrape together an A in a mid-level college class on it good” – without having intrinsic motivation to pursue it. And my attempts to hack intrinsic motivation, which would be like a instant win condition for everything if I could achieve it, have been mostly unsuccessful and left me with severe doubt it is even possible. So I have pretty much given up on math.

When I try to explain this to people, the responses are eerily similar to the ones they would never give if I said I was gay.

“Oh, obviously you just haven’t learned the right kind of math. I know this really cute proof of the Pythagorean Theorem in my sister’s textbook. I’ll show it to you the next time we have pencil and paper.”

Or “You must have just had a bad experience with mathematics growing up. Maybe you always got yelled at by your math teacher as a child. But there’s no reason to let that control you now.”

Or “But…but…math is interesting! How could you not be interested in a subject that’s interesting? That’s just silly!”

Or “You know, I’ve hung out with you a long time. You like rationality, you’re good at science, and you like analyzing things. You really have all the signs of someone who should be into math. Maybe you’re just wrong about this whole ‘not a math person’ thing?”

Or “Don’t you realize how important math is? Math is essential for statistics, for engineering, for science, for cognition itself! It’s closely linked to art and music and poetry! How can you not recognize that being into math is better than not being into math?”

And yes! I recognize it! Being bad at math is one of my biggest regrets in life! If I were building myself as an RPG character, things would look a lot different, believe you me.

My contribution to the “Scumbag God” meme

But I’m pretty sure this is a skill point kind of thing. I think it’s totally possible for people, even smart people, not to be into math. And I am constantly surprised that people who claim to be experts in evolutionary psychology seem to think it’s entirely plausible that natural selection would evolve gay people with zero interest in procreative sex, but find it totally outlandish that anyone could end up without a math drive.

And if they don’t have the skill points, telling someone to just try a little harder at math is like telling Tyrion Lannister to just try a little harder at basketball. Not only is he never going to beat LeBron James, but he’s going to get upset and frustrated trying, and it’s not his comparative advantage anyway.

III.

This whole “comparative advantage” thing took me kind of by surprise.

Some people have trouble believing in ‘g’, the idea that all intelligence is correlated. I’ve always had trouble believing in anything else. I would see people around me being able to solve complicated math problems effortlessly, and think “They are smarter than me. I am their strict intellectual inferior. There is nothing I could possibly contribute to their conversations.”

And when these people started going out of their way to include me in their conversations, when they started making friends with me and even admiring me, I was pretty confused. For a while I was suspicious. Maybe I just had a few talents that were impressive for someone who was bad at math, like a chimp that has no verbal thought but can still remember where it hid the banana days later?

The idea that intelligence wasn’t monolithic, that I could be much worse than them in proofs and theorems but still be their equal in other areas, was hugely liberating to me, but it took me a very long time to accept it, to believe that I really was as valuable a human being as they were.

And when I tried to analyzed my certainty that – even despite the whole multiple intelligences thing – I couldn’t possibly be as good as them, it boiled down to something like this: they were talented at hard things, but I was only talented at easy things.

It took me about ten years to figure out the flaw in this argument, by the way.

IV.

I remember gossiping about a friend who was really into the worst types of politics – the kind where you’re obsessed about whether the head of the Republican National Committee will cut funding to a representative who said something mildly contrary to what someone else wanted him to say – and somewhere in the middle of the conversation my tone switched from “Yeah, what a loser to be concerned about that kind of thing” to “Yeah, poor guy, apparently he drew the short straw in the Things To Be Fascinated About Lottery.”

Since then I have returned to the idea of this Things To Be Fascinated About Lottery a lot. There are some good draws you can get – people who are honestly fascinated with business and intrinsically motivated to pursue it only need high IQ and a few other subsidiary skills to get super rich. People who draw math can pursue perfect pure and philosophical truth or excel at pretty much any science they choose and advance human knowledge. People who draw science without math have a harder time – I think I’m one of those – but there are still places for them.

And then there are other people who get other straws. There are some people who are really into politics, and find science really boring. There others who couldn’t care less about politics or science, as long as their sportsball team wins the Sports Bowl. Ozy picked a straw and ended up fascinated with gender, which wouldn’t be so bad except that it means ze occasionally has to talk to the other people who are fascinated with gender.

But the thing is, I couldn’t choose to be interested in sports any more than I could choose to be interested in math or a huge sports fan could choose to be interested in psychology or a gay person could choose to be interested in women. I mean, there’s probably some wiggle room, maybe if I put a lot of effort into finding the most interesting sports and learning everything about them I could appreciate them a little. But would I have comparative advantage over the kid who memorized the stats of every pitcher in both leagues when he was 8? Barring getting hit by some kinda cosmic rays or something, I don’t think that’ll ever> happen.

I’d hate to turn this into a “rank which straws are best” contest, but some certainly earn you more money, some certainly help you contribute to the future of humankind more, and some certainly land you in healthy areas of study with nice people and mostly rational thought while others land you in diseased fields full of angry partisans. I wish I had landed in math.

But I no longer blame myself for not having done so. And when anyone starts telling me about how I’d love math if I only did it their way, I now only have a little twinge of guilt in telling them to go away.