That online poll about Arabic numerals in Brookings Register showing the utter ignorance and likely bigotry of lots of respondents appears to be associated, alas, with a guy who calls himself a “serial entrepreneur“, a term that generally makes me turn the page. But survey trickster John Dick provides some data worth looking at. Not only did Dick’s group Civic Science put out a poll asking whether public schools should teach Arabic numerals; he also put out a poll asking, “Should schools in America teach the creation theory of Catholic priest George Lemaitre as part of their science curriculum?”
Dick found that, on Arabic numerals, the split came from party affiliation, not education:
Seventy-two per cent of Republican-supporting respondents said Arabic numerals should not be on the curriculum, compared 40 per cent of Democrats. This was despite there being no significant difference in education between the two groups.
“They answer differently even though they had equal knowledge of our numerical nomenclature,” Mr Dick said. “It means that the question is about knowledge or ignorance but [also] something else – prejudice” [Chris Baynes, “Most Americans Say ‘Arabic Numerals’ Should Not Be Taught in School, Finds Survey,” UK Independent, 2019.05.20].
The question about the originator of the Big Bang Theory produced a similar partisan split, with Democrats jumping to conclusions:
Seventy-three per cent of Democrats answered “no”, compared to 33 per cent of Republicans – with some respondents on either side presumably assuming Lemaitre’s theory was related to intelligence design.
In fact, the Belgian priest was also a physicist who first discovered the universe was expanding and proposed its origins lay in the explosion of a single particle – an idea that became known as the Big Bang theory.
“While Lemaitre is more obscure than Arabic numerals, the resulting effect is almost identical,” Mr Dick said. “Dems are biased against Western religion, if latently.
“This kind of blind prejudice can happen on both sides” [Baynes, 2019.05.20].
Folks who dismiss Lemaitre’s theoryDick’s attempt at bothsideism warrants some criticism. The Arabic numerals question—”Should schools in America teach Arabic Numerals as part of their curriculum?”—contained one potential error-triggering word: Arabic. The Lemaitre question—”Should schools in America teach the creation theory of Catholic priest George Lemaitre as part of their science curriculum?”—contained five: creation, Catholic, priest, Lemaitre, and science. Sure, folks who harbor a “bias against Western religion” could have bit on Catholic, but the other words invite other distinct causes of opposition: some people may be fine with Western religion but don’t like priests; some may hate French-sounding names, some may think a “creation theory” is fine for school but not in science class; and some may hear “creation” and be led to think, as Dick acknowledges, that the question refers to efforts to sneak religious origin myths into public education.
I will grant that Dick’s second question signals biases that kept the respondents from checking the facts. But the greater complexity of Dick’s question does not support concluding that tricked respondents hate Western religion. To truly support his bothsideist wisecrack, he would have to have designed his questions more rigorously identically. To match the Arabic numerals question, Dick would have had to ask something like, “Should schools in America teach creation theory as part of their curriculum?”
The fact that you can trick Democrats as well as Republicans into revealing some prejudice does not excuse maintaining your prejudices. We should all analyze claims rationally, check facts and evidence, and not apply rash judgments based on antipathy toward a particular religion or group.
Arabic numerals, the Big Bang theory, progressive taxes, and Medicaid expansion are all useful concepts. Dismissing them just because someone throws a distasteful sectarian or partisan label on them is substandard thinking. But so is suggesting that Democrats are as prejudiced as Republicans based on two mismatched questions that test different knowledge sets.