Bringing 'fuzzy math' into focus

Sometimes words take on sudden new meanings - and an almost instant currency. A case in point: fuzzy math. It's a term that will resonate long after today, when voters finally make the call about who will be America's 43rd president.

In the first of their recent televised debates, Gov. George W. Bush twice accused Vice President Al Gore of using "fuzzy math," as in this rejoinder during a discussion of Medicare and prescription drugs:

"Look, this is a man, he's got great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math."

"Fuzzy" usually refers to a lack of clarity or definition. But Mr. Bush was not charging Mr. Gore with vagueness, as shown by his response to the following, very detailed statement by Gore:

"Now for every dollar that I propose to spend on education, he spends $5 on a tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent. Those are very clear differences."

Bush: "Man's practicing fuzzy math again...."

The term stems from a relatively new math curriculum championed by a group of educators who say most students will never need algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or even long division.

In recent years, some schools have deemphasized the mastery of basic math skills and mental computation in favor of group discussion and the use of calculators to work out math problems that relate directly to everyday life.

Now, some professional mathematicians and parents are blaming "fuzzy-math" programs for the low math scores of America's children. And they're demanding a return to basics.

Was this the fuzzy math Bush had in mind? Was he deliberately tapping into the wrath of fuzzy-math debunkers? It certainly seems so, at least in part because he appeared to connect calculators with fuzzy math.

Be that as it may, most of the debate's TV audience probably took the reference to "fuzzy math" as a suggestion that Gore was guilty of some computational sleight of hand.

Which was also the way Gore reacted: "Let me just say, Jim [Lehrer], you haven't heard the governor deny these numbers. He's called them phony, he's called them 'fuzzy,' but the fact remains almost 30 percent of his proposed tax cut goes only to Americans that make more than $1 million per year."

Perhaps what voters need is some "fuzzy logic." In the computer world, this refers to a specific method of processing imprecise or variable data.

In recent days, both candidates have been using the term "fuzzy math," but not, I think, in the way Bush originally meant it in the debate.

The term has temporarily lost its education moorings and floated out into the deep, choppy waters of political rhetoric.

Words are like that. Unpredictable and easily misunderstood, they can be funny, foggy, fickle, and fuzzy - sometimes all at once - just like presidential campaigns.

Send language questions to Lance Carden, the Monitor's copy and style editor, at turnsofphrase@csps.com or One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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