Occupy Wall Street and Quantitative Reasoning

After last week’s regional NCTM conference in Atlantic City, I decided to visit New York City for the weekend before flying back home to the west coast. I love that city and, as usual, had an exceedingly good time.

On Sunday, I decided to visit Occupy Wall Street, both out of curiosity and support. From what I’d heard through my regular media sources—NPR and Comedy Central—I was pleased by an apparent surge of popular support for those willing to state their dissatisfaction with the current and growing economic disparity.

It was in fact largely how I expected it to be: diverse, peaceful, focused, energized, organized. Food was cooked, served, and cleaned up. Tent cities were tidy. People were engaged in conversation, or reading, or playing music, or doing other creative work.

I couldn’t stay long as I had to catch my flight, so it wasn’t until later when reflecting how I could unashamedly link OWS to this blog that I realized how fundamental mathematics and statistics are to the basic premise of Occupy Wall Street, as described on their website:

“Occupy Wall Street is [a] leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”

Percent requires understanding ratios, and the top 1% requires understanding distributions and statistical variation. Quantitative reasoning is woven into the basic concept of Occupy Wall Street.

When I watched my rough video, taken as I was walking around OWS, I noticed that mathematics and statistics were on many of the signs, especially the concept of rate, and using averages to compare groups.

Then I saw a compelling video that presents Elizabeth Warren’s analysis of modern financial history, which starts off with an implied understanding of a periodic function. All this got me thinking about the role of quantitative reasoning in social change.

I wonder if the ability to rationally analyze, using tools from mathematics and statistics, inherently pushes people toward a more progressive political belief system? I’m just asking, and would love to hear your replies, especially if you don’t think so.

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