Variations on this article have been making the rounds on Facebook recently: "Should Arabic numerals be taught in schools? Most Americans say no." Briefly,
CivicScience, whose mission is to power the world’s opinions and bring them to the decision makers who care, asked 3,624 people if schools in America should teach Arabic numerals. By the numbers, 2,020 people said no, 1,043 people said yes and 561 people shared no opinion. In simpler terms, 56% of respondents said no, 29% said yes and 15% chose no opinion.
Perhaps the numeral system’s name exposed a bias among the respondents. Maybe they just didn’t know where our numeral system came from. Both could be true, but CivicScience CEO John Dick is calling it bigotry. “Ladies and Gentlemen: The saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we’ve ever seen in our data.”
I doubt it.
It's not the apparently negative findings about the American public that worry me, it's that the polling organization is creating polls clearly designed to show Americans to be ignorant and prejudiced. Then, they see what they want to see. For some reason, that sells.
Why is the immediate conclusion that those who rejected the idea of schools teaching Arabic numerals are bigots, and that they are reacting negatively because of the word “Arabic”? I can think of a few reasons off the top of my head that are at least as likely to be true:
- The polls were not set up in a way designed to get an honest, thoughtful response. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of surveys in my lifetime—and created a few—and I know it’s hard to make one that does not prejudice the data. Surveys designed by those with an axe to grind are particularly egregious.
- People who think our teachers are already overtaxed, people who believe our schools are already being asked to do too much, and people who say schools are not being very successful in what they teach as it is, are automatically choosing “no” to what is presented as if it were something being added to the current educational program.
- People are hearing “Arabic numerals” and thinking “Roman numerals,” which they vaguely remember from elementary school and consider to have been a waste of time and effort. This is the most likely scenario.
- People recognize the question as ridiculous, and are having fun with the pollsters. Don't underestimate this possibility.
It takes little thought and minimal charity to come up with conclusions that treat people with respect. Isn't this what we would want done for us? Why do we immediately assume the worst?