Friday, January 20, 2006

"Zero is not a number"

"You don't debate with someone who has no respect for the facts, for someone who quotes out of context. You point out ... that it is crap. You don't argue the fine points you can never win that sort of argument with a LIAR. When someone flings shit ..., you don't need to identify it point by point you can smell it." ~online person

The above quote is from a site someone linked to in a discussion about David Letterman's recent back-and-forth with Bill O'Reilly. Letterman didn't debate O'Reilly, apparently. He just told him he was full of crap. Some have complained that Letterman missed a great opportunity (to do his *duty,* even,) to intellectually nullify O'Reilly's arguments. Others, myself included, agree with the above quote and believe that Dave (funny how we become "familiar" with celebrities) did the right thing - the smart thing, even.

There's no point in gambling with someone when you already KNOW he's got cards up his sleeve.

I've learned quite a bit in the past few weeks. The very end of 2005 and the first couple of weeks of 2006 have been highly instructive. I've not only learned (and re-learned) things about this world and myself, but I've also drawn certain conclusions which I think will serve me well IN this world.

I've spent quite a bit of time debating with the intellectually disingenuous or disabled. I don't always KNOW that's who and what I'm dealing with before-hand; that's why I still debate them. Sometimes there are indicators, but I strongly believe in giving people the benefit-of-the-doubt and second (, third, fourth, etc.) chances to show that they've got a point worth consideration. To be fair, I've been pleased to find a number of instances in which even the intellectually suspect had fair points to make.

Yesterday, I ran across someone who helped cement my opinion that the "Believing is Seeing" post and the above quote are on-point.

This was a young guy. (We'll call him "Danger," after the Gump-Lite character in MILLION DOLLAR BABY.) While discussing the time it'd take for the recently launched NASA vehicle/device to reach Pluto, Danger said that it's funny that these smart NASA folks don't know precisely when the device will arrive, since they know everything they need to know. I mentioned that there are unknowns like obstacle, large and small, which could throw interfere with its journey or destroy the device.

For some reason, Danger said that these hypothetical obstacles wouldn't increase the time it'd take for the device to reach Pluto because it'd NEVER reach its destination. I probably should've walked away then, but instead I countered this intellectually dubious argument by saying it would take an infinite amount of time for the device to reach Pluto. Since infinity is greater than 10 years (the greatest e.t.a. mentioned in our conversation), then the hypothetical obstructions COULD increase the tiem it takes to get to Pluto.

Somehow this discussion of infinity became a discussion about "zero" when Danger said, "Zero is not a number." Eh? Come again?

He said that zero represents nothing, so it is not a number. *scratches head* I could not convince him otherwise, but I tried, eventually asking and suggesting the below:

"Gentlemen, are all integers numbers?" Danger and others agreed that this was so. I continued.

"Gentlemen, is zero an integer?" Danger and others agreed that this was so. I continued.

"Gentlemen, doesn't this mean that zero, therefore, is a number?" Danger's response was, "Oh. Well... A rectangle's a square!" Eh?

I asked what that had to do with what I said. He said that a square is a rectangle so a rectangle must be a square... according to MY logic. The problem was that this WASN'T my logic. I didn't say that since zero is an integer, all integers must be zero. I tried to explain how this had nothing to do with what I said and suggested that he break down what *I* said, if he wants us to believe his position.

His response was to claim that he'd done so AND to tell me not to debate him the way that I debate people online - despite the fact that he's never witnessed my online debates. He's only heard what I've told him of them - consistently agreeing with what I present to him. This is not to say that my online debating is perfection, itself. What I'm suggesting is that Danger isn't making statements based on reason. He even went so far as to say that he doesn't believe what I said about zero because it contradicts what he's been told in the past.

I suggested that any of us may encounter things, regularly, which contradict what we've been told in the past. The way that *I* respond to this is based on the reasons given, not simply discarding anything that contradicts what I've been told.

I stood around for quite a while running through what I said and what Danger said and kept coming to the same conclusions. Eventually, Danger left and one of the semi-participants in the discussion agreed with me, saying that zero IS a number. He went on to say that Danger's still at an age (college age, I'm afraid, so this is no real excuse) where he believes things are true... because someone TOLD him they were true. Scary.

So, the last dregs of my respect for Danger's intellectual prowess have disintegrated and I'll now see him as an intellectual imp - good for amusement, but not to be taken seriously. It's either that or he's been intellectually dishonest, simply presenting ANYTHING, even if HE knows it doesn't support his argument.

Ahh, and already I've allowed my displeasure with that exchange to make me forget the other option. "Believing is Seeing." Danger believed something to be true, so anything he encountered on the subject he "saw" as evidence to support HIS opinion of it.

I'm convinced that this is something we all do at one time or another, but it's those who consistently resist falling into this instinctive trap that deserve the lion's share of our respect.

Danger's not one of those folks, but it's only fair that I consider the possibility that he's not deliberately presenting shit as shinola. In any case, I should've been the Letterman to his O'Reilly. I'm not condoning insults, per se. I'm just saying that an intellectual debate with such a person will be fruitless (except that it may arm you with The Knowledge of Fruitlessness for the NEXT time you encounter this person).

I can't believe I "had" to convince someone that zero is a number.

Your thoughts?


Al Bern said...

0 divided by any number should equal 0 right? Then 0/0 = 0

Any number multiplied by itself equals 1? Then 0/0 = 1

Pi*0 = 0, transpose the equation;
0/0 = Pi,

Maybe you could call 0 a number, but it sure doesn't act like one...

Also infinity is definitely not a number.

Infinity + 1 = Infinity
Let x = Infinity.
Therefore x+1=x which does not make sense.

Calbeck said...

I should simply point out that "Danger" did exactly what you recommend --- bail from the argument by claiming you were full of crap (ala Letterman v. O'Reilly).

Not to defend O'Reilly by proxy --- I never saw the debate in question and am quite aware that both parties are pretty dead-set in their viewpoints.

However, your basic position applies across the board: Letterman does not present his view as the better, he simply calls his opponent a liar and bails. Whether one viewing such a debate is an intellectual or not, Letterman gives no reason why anyone should agree with him.

Indeed, Letterman effectively supports suppression of intellect in this manner, by saying that one's existing convictions and gut feelings are sufficient. That is the same malarkey I get from creationists who insist human beings and dinosaurs walked together.