Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fuzzy Math

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 27, 2013

When you read or hear about fuzzy math, what’s being suggested is that the arithmetic doesn’t add up. It’s a phrase that’s oftentimes used to dispute government programs and taxes.

Paul Krugman wrote about fuzzy math in his book, “Fuzzy Math: The Essential Guide To The Bush Tax Plan” published in 2001, and the phrase has appeared in a number of newspaper headlines over the past decade.

On July 3, 2010 the Boston Globe published a Letter To The Editor written by J. Whitfield Larrabee of Brookline, that addressed the subject of the risks of using painkiller medication. The article was entitled, “Fuzzy Math Used To Help Make Case” and the first sentence read:

Even though I am just a lawyer and not a mathematician, it seems to me that biotech entrepreneur Christoph Westphal used some fuzzy math in his recent op-ed, “The Myth Of The Perfect Drug,” June 28.

The L.A. Times opinion staff (yes, that’s the actual designation) provided an OpEd piece on June 22, 2007 that discussed fuzzy math and the court system. It compared how the New York TimesĀ viewed the court decision arrived at with regards to challenging a sentence that fell within the guidelines issued by the United States Sentencing Commission, and how the L.A. Times editorial board viewed the court decision. The editorial was aptly entitled:

Fuzzy Math At The Supreme Court

In an Editorial published in the Providence Journal on June 3, 2000 entitled, “Beware Fuzzy Math” the dangers the latest math (newer than new math) were discussed. The Editorial began with this commentary:

In recent years, elementary schools across the nation have increasingly adopted a newer version of the “new” math that was such a widespread disaster in the 1960s. The latest fad is called the “constructivist” method. Critics, both enraged parents and troubled mathematicians, refer to it, sardonically, as “fuzzy math. According to a long report in The New York Times (April 27), they have begun rebelling against it. May their tribe increase.

Safire’s Political Dictionary by William Safire states that the expression was promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989. Whole math (as it was known) no longer required students to memorize those math functions that could easily be handled by a calculator (for example, multiplication) and focused on discussions of word problems instead. When parents proved to educators and administrators that students were oftentimes unable to perform the basics of adding and subtracting, the Council moved away from the approach.

But no one popularized the expression more than George W. Bush when he took on Vice-President Al Gore in Boston back in 2000. So while the expression actually came about in 1989, this one has to go to George W. Bush in 2000 for making it part of the lexicon.


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