You know you’re a Parisian intellectual when you are invited to make a totally gratuitous comment in Le Monde. That has never happened to me, so however I may walk, talk, and quack, Brendan Larvor’s diagnosis of my status remains hypothetical. And one can’t really say that Leila Schneps, whom I strongly suspect for numerous reasons of being a Parisian intellectual, had that status confirmed by being quoted in a recent Le Monde article entitled Les dérapages incontrôlés des maths, because what she said in that article, far from being gratuitous, was very much to the point.
The Le Monde article’s title literally means the uncontrolled skids of mathematics, and if that’s not enough to confuse you, you should be aware that it’s probably not coincidental that Dérapages incontrôlés was the French title of the film Changing Lanes (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck). That’s not what was on Leila Schneps’s mind, though; her comments in the article and the accompanying interview, both written by journalists Nathaniel Herzberg et David Larousserie, all had to do with miscarriages of justice, often series, brought about by misuse or misunderstanding of mathematics and statistics.
The occasion was the publication of the French edition of Schneps’s book Math on Trial, coauthored with her daughter Coralie Colmez, but Herzberg and Larousserie went well beyond the contents of this book and presented a long list of “uncontrolled skids” facilitated by mathematical research, including the 2008 financial crisis (citing the claim by former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, as MWA does in Chapter 4, that mathematicians were guilty of “crimes against humanity”), the use of questionable statistical models to determine sentences in criminal cases, and the grading of schoolteachers in the US based on test results (the discussion features a cameo by mathbabe).
The article concludes with a warning that evading our social responsibilities is no longer an option:
Les dérapages arriveront forcément. Bien entendu, les mathématiciens n’en seront pas les seuls responsables. Mais il leur sera impossible de faire comme si ces outils leur avaient juste échappé. [Skids [sic] are inevitable. Of course mathematicians won’t be the only ones responsible. But it will be impossible for them to act as if they had simply lost control of their tools.]
Unfortunately, David Larousserie spoils the message in a subsequent intemperate blog post, in which (among other things) he buys into a particularly crude quantitative version of the Golden Goose argument on which he had already reported in May, in which it was claimed that mathematics is responsible for 15% of the French national Golden Geese.
Un tel impact implique une responsabilité, ou en tous cas une absence de recours à l’argument de la neutralité en cas de problème.
Such an important conclusion would be better served, I’m tempted to say, by more rigorous argumentation… but that’s not necessarily what it takes to be a Parisian intellectual.