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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

fuzzy math

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “creative accounting,” “fudging the numbers”)

The first thing you need to know about fuzzy mathematics is that it is a genuine discipline, invented in the 1960’s and well established. I’m no mathematician, a rather ancient B.S. in the field notwithstanding, but the idea at the heart of fuzzy mathematics is that it is non-binary, or rather superbinary. This branch of mathematics or logic allows for states between absolute membership or non-membership in a set or truth or falsehood of a proposition, for example. I’m sure it’s every bit as incomprehensible as most advanced math or physics, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less rigorous than that old-time mathematics that’s good enough for us. The foregoing is a bit fuzzy, so allow me to append an example from Professor Bart Kosko, relayed in the New York Times (November 7, 2000): “A good example of a fuzzy concept is cool air — it has a clear meaning, but it is not black or white. Fuzzy logic builds rules out of such fuzzy terms and then embeds those rules in a computer. One rule might be ‘If the air is cool, then set the motor speed to slow.’ Another might be ‘If the air is warm, then set the motor speed to high.’ Fuzzy math lets an expert program a computer in English, but helps the computer interpret ‘cool’ according to a number of interacting variables — just as a human being does.” Cool example, dude!

In the mid-1990’s, “fuzzy math” began to be directed at a new mathematics curriculum for elementary schools based on collaboration among students, word problems aimed at practical contexts rather than memorization, and permitting the use of calculators. In some ways, the curriculum was descended from the new math of the 1960’s, and in some quarters it was called “new new math.” Critics began referring to it as “fuzzy math” in the mid-1990’s, and according to LexisNexis the term really took off in 1997, when it was used regularly in major media to deride this pedagogical approach. Culture warriors Lynne Cheney and Diane Ravitch adopted the expression; editorialists and columnists soon followed suit. At that point, the phrase had a very limited ambit, referring — invariably derisively — only to methods of teaching mathematics, and there was no sign of it in LexisNexis in any other context before 2000. The same charges are made today against Common Core’s method of teaching math, merely the latest chapter in a debate that has raged for fifty years.

October 3rd, 2000: That’s when George W. Bush vaulted the phrase into everyone’s vocabulary during the first presidential debate with Al Gore. He accused Gore of employing “fuzzy math” in his tax and budget proposals in an effort to cast doubt on promised surpluses and revenue increases. According to many commentators, Bush’s arithmetic was equally dubious, but he landed the punch. Bush can claim honors in two categories: pushing the relatively new expression into ubiquity and changing its meaning. He may not have been the first to use “fuzzy math” to mean suspect accounting, but he was the first one to use it on a national stage at a moment when most of us were paying attention. In another post I have sketched the impact of recent presidents on our vocabulary. Bush was not known for facility or felicity with language, but he gets credit for “fuzzy math,” along with “faith-based” and “surge.”

Right after Bush cannonballed the phrase into the lexicon, others took it up, and almost immediately it became a synonym for misleading calculations or misuse of statistics. Bush used “fuzzy math” to impute not just incompetence, but intent to deceive, and the phrase retains that implication, as well as a strong tendency to turn up in political discussions. It is also much more habitual on the right side of the political spectrum, like “junk science,” and it has the same quality of quick dismissal that is not required to justify itself, a quality sired by Bush in that fateful debate, when he dismissed Gore’s numbers without disputing them. The expression rarely has an affectionate side, for all that it contains the word “fuzzy.” (No word on what “warm fuzzy math” might look like.) It’s fuzzy as in imprecise, of course, not cuddly. But for all I know, the critics of new new math in the 1990’s intended it the other way, at least partly, as in coddling the children rather than giving them a dose of good old-fashioned multiplication tables.


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