Are mathematicians to blame for the financial crisis?

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.

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9 thoughts on “Are mathematicians to blame for the financial crisis?

  1. voloch

    Your book is ambiguous and avoids stating opinions. You already had to meet with the guy who wrote a negative review for SIAM to explain that, in fact, he misunderstood your book (but did he really?). Now this. Maybe being ambiguous is post-modern and cool but, as you can see from those two instances, it’s actually terrible. I found your book incredibly frustrating.

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  2. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

    I appreciate the sentiment and I assure you that your frustration is mild compared to my own at not being able to take clear stands on every issue. After all, you can put the book down, but what can I do? Do you think it would be less frustrating if I expressed opinions, even if I don’t believe them?

    But it’s not really that terrible, and if I had shared more of the journalist’s correspondence it would have been clear that (he or she) was looking for a name to attach to a position (he or she) had already formulated.

    After I had nearly finished the book I took some consolation in reading these words from Ian Hacking’s “Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All?”

    “…critics often complain that I never indicate where I locate myself on philosophical spectra of interest. Hence I shall rather briefly set out how these issues appear to me, and where I might locate myself — despite the fact that my personal location is of zero philosophical significance.”

    I don’t imagine any reader really cares what I think, but maybe some people want more than a string of unusual stories and are hoping I’ll help them make up their own minds about important matters. The last paragraph mentions something I do believe. I even have some ideas about what belongs in a code of social responsibility for mathematicians; but such a code will be worthless if it doesn’t take a variety of opinions into account.

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  3. voloch

    Why would a reader who doesn’t care what you think would even read your book? OK. Maybe a reader who is not acquainted with the issues will learn something. I guess I am thinking of myself. I don’t need a primer on elliptic curves and I don’t care whether Pynchon was interested in conic sections.

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  4. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

    It’s true that the book is not specifically addressed to mathematicians, but rather to people who base their impression of mathematics on what they have read. For example, readers of standard philosophical treatments of mathematics may be surprised to learn that most mathematicians pay little or no attention to the issues that exercise mainstream philosophers. Readers who assume that mathematics is valuable insofar as it can be used to solve practical problems may need to hear that this is not what motivates (most) pure mathematicians.

    Such readers have no reason to know who I am and even less reason to care what I think. But quite a few mathematicians have told me that they learned something by reading the book. That doesn’t surprise me, because I learned quite a lot myself — about the habits of Clairaut, for example, or the origin of the use of the word “trick” in mathematics, or the 2000-year-old debate on whether mathematics is an art or a science. But I am well aware that not everyone will care about such matters.

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  5. voloch

    It would be great to have a code of social responsibility for mathematicians. For that to happen, we need a discussion where the various opinions are articulated and justified.

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  6. Pingback: A Coq and Bull Story | Persiflage

  7. Pingback: Dirty Hands, part 1: Forbidden fruits | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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