Last week I was interviewed by a journalist at a leading newspaper in connection with that very question. More precisely, we talked about three questions, according to my notes:
1. Should mathematicians take responsibility?
2. If so, for what?
3. What can we do about it?
Fortunately, I was shown a draft before the article went to press, with the following lead:
Mathematics has become a destructive and amoral profession… a leading professor has warned.
That’s not what I write in Chapter 4 and it’s certainly not the message I want readers to take away from the book. We exchanged a few messages on my actual intentions, but soon enough the paper decided to kill the story.
Chapter 4 does open with a reenactment of my anxiety in 2008 over the prospect that mathematicians would be blamed for the crisis. But I do make an explicit (though parenthetical) statement on p. 87:
My purpose is not to assign responsibility for the 2008 crash and certainly not to imply that mathematics professors are specifically to blame.
On p. 82 I had written
The consensus is that, Rocard’s allegations notwithstanding, the quant is not a crook.
I do believe that mathematicians have a special responsibility to look carefully at possible harmful applications of our research — to surveillance, artificial intelligence, big data, and drone warfare, for example, as well as to finance. A code of social responsibility for mathematicians, along the lines of those mentioned in an earlier post, is overdue. My recent journalistic experience is a reminder that a code of this sort needs to be drafted carefully if its objectives are to be protected from misrepresentation.