The Mr Spock Fallacy

There is nothing illogical about fun, humour and forming good human relationships- and there’s nothing cool about being crap at maths.

I haven’t watched Channel 4’s Countdown since it was presented by Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman. Apparently one of the presenters is now someone called Rachel Riley and all I know about her is that she wrote this rather marvelous article in this week’s TES. Maths has an image problem in British culture. Perpetuating this problem is a national sin many otherwise very clever people frequently end up committing usually, I suspect, without really thinking about it. For most of us, our own experiences of maths lessons at school were such that we see learning the subject as a totally different process to learning more creative or expressive skills such as speaking, writing, drawing or debating. Perhaps because of the way these other disciplines are traditionally tested (and the knock-on effect this has on the way they are taught), many people have come to commit what I call the “Mr Spock Fallacy” in their attitudes to maths and I will need to explain this in more detail.

In the original series of Star Trek, Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise had two main confidants: Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (an endearingly flawed, emotional character who for many people was the most relatable character on the show) and Mr Spock: an extra-terrestrial from the planet Vulcan. In Star Trek, one of the characteristics of Vulcans that distinguishes them from humans is their devotion to logic above all else. Yet the conclusions Star Trek drew about what prizing logic would mean are very strange. For  a start, Mr Spock is almost completely humourless. It’s repeatedly suggested that this is because humour is somehow “illogical.” Is it? Humour must have evolved for a reason, it seems to enhance the quality of our lives and many of the best jokes require clever sleights of logical thinking in order to be understood. Mr Spock rarely shows affection to other people, he rarely seems to want to have fun and often appears visibly annoyed by the frivolity of his crewmates when they engage in such things. Again, no convincing reason is ever offered as to why these dispositions should follow from a commitment to being logical.

This perception reflects a problematic bias many of us have if we grow up in the UK. You may have been familiar with the characters I’ve discussed for years and never thought to question those assumptions about Mr Spock before. I know I didn’t for a very long time, growing up watching Star Trek reruns avidly on BBC2. This is because the depiction of Mr Spock in Star Trek conforms to the story we have told ourselves repeatedly about being logical, mathematical or scientific and so no part of our brain usually feels the need to challenge it. We have come to instinctively associate being logical with being cold, unimaginative and serious and we have cast creativity, enjoyment and expression as being somehow illogical. To say you are “crap at maths” is like saying “I’m more like Dr McCoy than Mr Spock.” Of course all of this ignores the fact that Dr McCoy is a doctor and would have had to study maths and science extensively just to be accepted into Starfleet Medical! But the serious point is a significant one: creativity, imagination, making jokes, having fun and expressing our love for one another are entirely logical. To succeed in maths is merely to better-understand the world in which they rightly (and logically) flourish.

The challenge for educators is to break down the associations we’ve built up between maths and seriousness/coldness (as opposed to between arts subject and fun/imagination.) Some ways to do this are:

  • using role play in maths to demonstrate how it can support creative or imaginative enterprises such as starting a small business, measuring up and building something you’ve designed or planning a fundraising event.
  • encouraging pupils to have a debate in maths about a controversial topic using statistics in a rigorous, meaningful way to support their arguments.
  • Providing pupils with open-ended questions that lead them to aesthetically-pleasing mathematical conclusions such as producing a golden spiral, using geometry to create satisfying shapes or finding equations that can be plotted as lines on a four-quadrant coordinate grid to form a particular image.
  • Exploring the way maths occurs in nature (this is a fun place to start.)
  • Prioritising the sort of open-ended discussion that has sometimes been the preserve of arts subjects in the past by requiring pupils to explain their methods, assess one another’s conclusions, find a faster way to a given answer or testing the hypothesis of another learner.
  • Bringing more fun to maths lessons with resources about topics that interest pupils, competitive games and open-ended problem solving tasks.

There are many more examples and please feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments. Of course, all of the above rely on the solid teaching of basic mathematical principles so they can be applied. This will often mean learning by rote, working independently and demonstrating understanding through measurable assessments with right and wrong answers. But if we want to create a generation of competent mathematicians and improve our national conversation about STEM subjects in general, we need to challenge some of our assumptions about how different types of subjects should be taught and assessed. Of course the problem affects both sexes but, in my experience, it is a bigger problems for girls than for boys. I believe addressing this problem effectively would be a great way to promote gender equality and yield more female scientists and engineers in the future.

Just as learning to write well requires a rigorous body of knowledge about spelling, grammar and punctuation, learning to do maths well requires a body of knowledge about place value, calculation and mathematical notation. But just as learning to write then lends itself to poetry, persuasion and storytelling, maths lends itself to hypothesizing, debating and exploring possibilities. Being crap at maths is no more something to be proud of than being crap at writing. If you’re creative, imaginative and free-thinking, your ability to express those attributes can only be enhanced by being good at maths.

We must challenge the Mr Spock Fallacy in ourselves and others. Being crap at maths doesn’t make you more fun or more of a “people person.” It just makes you crap at maths. It’s highly illogical, Jim.

2 comments

  1. My wife’s a scientist and has this all the time:she’s expected to be a poor communicator and is berated for a lack of common sense and only considering things as black and white. It couldn’t be further from the truth! I on the hand are all of these things at times and even though I’m a teacher.

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  2. this is a most interesting piece… but I think you miss part of the appeal of Mr Spock. He embodies the otherness of science, its objectivity, as opposed to the extreme emotionalism of Kirk and Bones. Spock assures us that no matter how messy our lives are, there is a purity and simplicity that we can reach if we calm down, and learn. The clean abstracted world of pure maths is a consolation in the confused human world, and Spock knows it.
    Some people would rather be Kirk than Spock, but an awful lot of people want MORE SPOCK. Education would be SO much simpler if everyone was the same, eh?

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