Insult to Injury

baggingupTree planting skeptics really get under my skin. In general I’m in favour of skepticism, but only the well-informed, intellectually curious kind, not the knee-jerk “it doesn’t sound intuitively realistic so I’ll disbelieve it without bothering to check” kind. That’s also the key difference between skeptics of divine intervention and skeptics of climate change, but for now let’s stick to tree planting.

For the record, I have planted more than a million trees, and so has my brother and several of my close friends. My mom, Joyce Murray, who is currently running for Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has planted more than half a million. Don’t believe me? Read on.

sibsplanting

Yesterday I got a cheerful email from a couple of mathematics professors at University of Massachusetts, Boston, informing me that they were using me as a case study for teaching “Quantitative Reasoning” and applied mathematics to undergraduates, and that I was even referenced in a math problem in their textbook. I felt so proud! You can view the full problem here (page 8), but I’ll just quote from the opening lines:

On May 4, 2010 Olivia Judson wrote in The New York Times that

[Baba] Brinkman, a burly Canadian from Vancouver, is a latter-day wandering minstrel, [and] according to his Web site, he has personally planted more than one million trees.

How long would it take to personally plant a million trees? Is Brinkman’s claim reasonable?

To answer that question you need two estimates – the time it takes takes to plant one tree, and the time Brinkman may have spent planting.

To plant a tree you have to dig a hole, put in a seedling and fill in around the root ball. It’s hard to imagine you can do that in less than half an hour.

At first I kept my cool and wrote back:

Here’s a video of me and my friends planting trees:

Now here’s an assignment for you: have your students watch the video and identify the flaw in your analysis… Hint: planting a tree takes ten seconds.

But upon re-reading the textbook entry I started to feel that familiar flush of agitation creeping up my neck, that feeling evolution has endowed us with to fiercely protect our precious reputations when they are publicly questioned, especially (but not exclusively) when the threatened acclaim happens to be hard fought and well deserved. The concluding sentences of the textbook read:

On balance we believe he’s planted lots of trees, but not “personally . . . more than one million.”

It’s the “personally” that makes this very unlikely. We can believe the million trees if he organized tree-planting parties, perhaps with people manning power diggers of some kind. Or if planting acorns counted as planting trees.

Acorns?! The message was emasculating enough without the added iconography, so I hastily composed a second email, the intellectual equivalent of “Are you callin’ me a liar?!?”

This is a perfect example of how applied mathematics can be rendered useless by faulty assumptions…

My question is: did you write that math problem without doing any research whatsoever into the parameters of the job you were describing, or did you do research in a way that was designed to confirm your existing (false) assumptions about the job? Either way, what lesson does your error offer to students of applied mathematics for whom relevance to reality is a high priority?

Feel free to quote any of the above in your next edition.

Even if there is no second edition, I would appreciate an amendment, as the current edition is clearly insulting not just to me but to everyone who works hard at tree planting only to be questioned by the sheltered and clueless.

In retrospect my response was probably a bit hot-headed, but this wasn’t my first encounter with the “sheltered and clueless”, and I know other tree planters often meet with the same aggravating disbelief. For instance, commenters on the original NY Times article made the same pronouncements, and now they are questioning my mom as well. At any rate, the professors were far more temperate than me. Here’s Charles Wibiralske, the adjunct professor who first initiated contact:

We are on the case. Your stern tone is appropriate. Part of my lesson with my students will be to demonstrate that if we are not careful, we can easily make errors. Our exchange will make the class better. In addition, I hope to model that when I suspected there could be a problem, I wrote to you right away. Then I hope to show that as academics we are open to making errors, questioning our assumptions, reaching out to get the best material we can, learning new things and making corrections.

His response showed that I too was open to making errors based on faulty assumptions, in this case about the social skills of math professors. The response of Ethan Bolker, the author of the textbook, was no less graceful:

I had no intention whatsoever of insulting you. I am well aware of the fact that faulty assumptions can lead to faulty conclusions – one of the things I try to teach my students is to be sure that whatever assumptions they make are explicit, so that they can be checked – or refuted by people who know better. I admit that in this case I didn’t check, for which I apologize.

With your permission, we’ll rewrite Section 1.5 and tell the whole story in the text (from wrong assumptions to correct ones, with quotes from you and links to your video), and show you the new version.

Hurray! In the end it’s a classic example of academic best practices and the drunkard’s walk towards knowledge. When our views are self-correcting and open to revision based on new evidence, they will continue to hone in on increasingly accurate representations of the real world. That’s good honest skepticism, and when it wins over bad, knee-jerk, “it’s hard to imagine” skepticism, that’s a beautiful thing.

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26 Responses to Insult to Injury

  1. Sean McCann says:

    Nice one Baba, and kudos to the profs for doing the right thing!

  2. Sharon Crawford says:

    Great post. Until I moved to Canada, I too would have found the one million claim to be unbelievable. Then I heard some stories on CBC radio about tree planting. It’s an amazing thing the planters do and I congratulate you and your family.

  3. Melanie says:

    This is probably the sexiest video I’ve seen ever.

  4. Melanie says:

    (I don’t mean to ignore the rest of it, but I find if I spend too much time thinking about silly things I get hot headed and then get laid off, etc.)

  5. Seamus O'Connor says:

    From a current planter that will hit a million himself this next season and pounded out 5 fine years within your family’s company from coast to flats, thank you for this fine piece of articulation that emphasizes a point I’ve wished to convey to many.

  6. smoky tiger says:

    the shovel blade of your mind is razor sharp

  7. Denis Lavoie says:

    cOOL STORY!

    I work over a dozen year planting trees and planted well over a million personally too! lots of us did. good work on showing the world. A prime minister that did half a million!! WOW!
    Treeplanters POWER!

  8. Baba,

    Thank you for your prompt responses to our inquiries regarding tree planting. We were really just curious, having no experience with tree planting ourselves, and meant no offense or insult to your honor. We redid the problem after watching your video, and were pleasantly surprised to find that it is possible to plant one million trees in a ten year period! :)

    Many of us are planning on being educators ourselves and having reality-based problems is a way of making the classroom more interactive, engaging, and relevant for both us as students and future teachers.

    We have one last request, would you mind sending us a video on how to do the tree planter’s waltz?

    Thanks for the teachable moments,
    Charles’ Statistics Class

  9. Matty D says:

    Good job, Baba! As a fellow tree enthusiast, it’s nice to see the naive be educated when they are so obviously wrong–even if they didn’t mean any harm. I just love trees so much thanks to you!

  10. Matty D says:

    also–that video really is SO sexy 😉

  11. Dear Baba,

    We are really conscious of the environment here at UMB. We respect your efforts to educate people on environmental issues and did not want to detract from that.

    As a class we have sympathy with your frustration and are content that this has been resolved in a respectful manner. After watching the video, we now realize it does not take anywhere near a half hour to plant a tree. We have found our flaw in the tree problem in our text book. After researching, and redoing the math, we have found it is very possible for you to have planted over one million trees.

    Please keep up the good work!

  12. Baba,

    The Quantitative Reasoning class posted its comments earlier today, but I don’t see the comment. They wanted everyone to know that they totally support environmental activism and sustainable living projects like reforestation. They are impressed and salute the tree planting work.

    They redid the problem too. They looked at the video and concluded that it would take about 10 seconds to plant a tree. That’s 6 trees a minute and 360 trees in a hour. If there’s an 8 hour work day, one could plant 2,880 trees a day if they took no break. They also figured summer jobs last about 3 months or 12 weeks or about 85 days. If someone worked for 85 days straight that would be 244,880 trees.

    Then they decided people must take days off, have lunch and water breaks. On rainy days it would be harder to sustain a fast pace and terrain varies. Also, a planter would have to restock, travel to different planting sites. On the Planting The Planet web site, we learned that a tree planter works for 4 days and then has a day off. Then our 85 day summer job would have 68 work days. That’s about 195,000 trees per summer.

    They next said let’s just assume with breaks and restocking, a planter could be highly productive 85% of the time. That would be about 165,000 trees per summer. That number gave them confidence that over a 10 year period you or any dedicated planter could easily personally plant 1 million trees.

    How did the UMB students do this time?

    We wish you the best!

  13. JC Stahl says:

    Hi,
    I’m a friend of Charles, and he asked me to work on a version of the Tree Planter’s Waltz for you. I like the video, but note that it isn’t a waltz. Are you being ironic? jc

  14. Kat Hula Parks says:

    As the daughter of a retired USFS employee who directly worked with contracting with people such as yourself, I never doubted your tally of 1 million trees, and your family business’ grand total of over 1 Billion trees. (Dad worked at Hungry Horse & Tally Lake USFS Ranger Districts, Montana – just outside of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park)

    I once asked my father about the tree planters he’d contract with, back in the 1970’s & 80’s and he’d mentioned that they were a bunch of Hippies living in a communal area nearby, and that he always knew that when he contracted with them that they would do the best job, because they actually CARED about the trees they planted and made sure to do a great job. He never would tell me where this “commune” of “Hippies” was located, though. He was afraid I’d run off and join them. (He is RIGHT, I probably would have.)

    Kudos to your family business! We need every tree and you are all an important part of that cycle.

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  17. Alexa Curtiss says:

    Hi there,
    I am a new student of Charles and in my class we did this tree problem out and he told us about what had happened before. I have to say that before doing the problem, planting a million trees seemed very unreasonable to me because it is such a big number and when planting I tend to take much more time just because it is relaxing. However, once we did the problem I saw that it was indeed reasonable and possible. Charles is teaching this class that is “common sense math” but with this, he has to almost retrain his students brains to not over think the problem. I personally have struggled with some of the homework because I was always taught that you never get an estimate but instead an exact number and to always use formulas. In this class he must get our brains away from this and learn to actually use resources like google and to use our common sense. This is not an easy task. The other point of the class is to realize that you won’t always be correct. You can’t be correct about everything and that is something that we are not taught in normal math classes. So for instance, if we do a problem and actually end up getting the answer incorrect, he allows us to try again because it is not that you have failed, you have simply made a mistake which as humans we do often. While these concepts have been hard for me to get through my brain, I am loving being told that sometimes what your brain tells you is unreasonable, actually can be reasonable and that you just made a mistake. He uses these problems as ways to teach us all of the concepts that I listed above, and to use one that he originally made a mistake on, I feel, teaches us even better because it really tells us that everyone can make a mistake and that it is ok as long as you go back and find the right answer and fix it. All we have to gain in knowledge when it comes to making mistakes.

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