The Amend Corner

What we can learn from Arabic numbers

Posted 6/13/19

I had a good laugh over something I read in the news recently.

At least I did until I realized what the item says about Americans, and I decided it wasn’t so funny after all.

The item was …

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The Amend Corner

What we can learn from Arabic numbers


I had a good laugh over something I read in the news recently.

At least I did until I realized what the item says about Americans, and I decided it wasn’t so funny after all.

The item was in a newspaper column similar to this one you are reading, except that it runs in a much bigger newspaper, The New York Times. I am indebted to its author, Mustafa Akyol, for much of the information in this column, although some of it is the result of my other reading and a recent study of the so-called Golden Age of Islam, that lasted from around 900 to 1300 A.D.

The writer told of a research company that polled people about mathematics. Just what the company was trying to find out about people and math and who they were finding it for was not explained by the writer.

It was one of the questions and the response from 3,200 people who were polled that struck me as funny. The question they were asked was, “Should Americans, as part of their school curriculum, learn Arabic numerals?”

Over half of the people, 56 percent polled answered the question with “No.” Another 15 percent said they didn’t know. 

That’s crazy. After all, you can’t tell time, choose a television program to watch, write a check or tell people when to show up for your wedding without using Arabic numbers. I’ve used them three times already in writing this far, and will probably use them again. If I hadn’t, you might just have learned that MMMCC people were polled and LVI percent of them had answered no. Or if I was smarter, I could have expressed the numbers in binary code, although even then I would have to use 0 and 1 to get that done. Fortunately, my training in using such code is rudimentary, so I couldn’t do that to you.

Well, I suppose it’s not surprising that a fair number of Americans aren’t aware that 0, 1, 2, etc. are generally called Arabic numbers. They weren’t exactly invented by Arabs. People who study such things believe such numbers may have originated in India, and made their way through the Muslim world to Iraq. During much of that period, the city of Baghdad was probably the largest city in the world and it was definitely the intellectual capital of the Western World. If you wanted to immerse yourself in any of the sciences or in philosophy, Baghdad was where you wanted to be.

Consequently, many advances in a variety of fields were the result. It was there that a Muslim mathematician developed a discipline he called al-jabr. I won’t give you his name, because high-school students across America would turning it into something profane as they struggle with his math system, which evolved from al-jabr to algebra. Besides, I’m writing this at midnight, and his name is too long to type at this hour.

Arabic math came to Europe thanks to an Italian who studied in North Africa and found the system much better than the clunky math of the Romans with all the Xs, Vs, Ls and other letters.

As I indicated earlier, the failure of a bunch of Americans to know that the numbers we use all the time are known as Arabic numbers does not represent a failure of American education. But our collective ignorance of the source of the numbers we use many times a day — and which make modern science and technology possible — does reveal a troublesome feature of our culture: bigotry.

It is evident from the poll’s results that the negative answers to the suggestion that Arabic numbers be part of school curriculum grew out of antipathy to anything Arabic. Among the 3,200 people who were polled — admittedly a small sample — more than half apparently harbored bad feelings toward Arabs. Some, I suppose, probably see anything Arabic as evil, and don’t want school children exposed to something evil. Some may actually know that our numbering system uses Arabic numbers, and they gave a negative answer as a symbolic statement of anger toward Arabs and their culture.

As I said, the poll sample was small, and a larger sample might well reveal a less troublesome tendency among those polled. But the company that conducted the poll makes a living conducting polls, and they have an interest in getting accurate results. Consequently, I tend to believe the results of the poll reflect the reality of the way people think.

I do wonder why this question was included in the poll; I can’t come up with a good reason to ask the question. After all, I learned my numbers before I went to school, and I think most Americans do the same. I don’t remember when I learned they were Arabic, but knowing that didn’t change the numbers — and the problems I did in math class worked out the same as they did before I knew Arabs adopted the numbers and passed them on to Europeans. So why was this question included?

I can’t answer that, but I can’t help believing the answer more than half the people polled gave reveals prejudice toward anything Arabic. I also believe the no answers may well have been because the people answering the poll did not know the numbers we use every day have been called Arabic numbers for at least six centuries.

That’s no surprise, because bigotry is often the result of ignorance.

The Amend Corner