Category Archives: Ethics

The diversity statement controversy, III


Chad Topaz was scheduled to speak at 9:30 this morning at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Denver, at the AMS Special Session on the Mathematics of Social Justice.    His title was Diversity through a Data Science Lens, and you can read his abstract here.  His talk was cancelled, however, so I won’t be able to tell you whether or not he touched on the topic of the article excerpted above.   Since his name is out of alphabetical order I assume he was the lead author.  The article sheds a not entirely unexpected light on the controversy over diversity hiring statements to which I have already devoted three blog posts.  Here is the summary:

We report on a study of the signatories’ demographics, which we infer using a crowdsourcing approach. Letter A highlights diversity and social justice. The pool of signatories contains relatively more individuals inferred to be women and/or members of underrepresented ethnic groups. Moreover, this pool is diverse with respect to the levels of professional security and types of academic institutions represented. Letter B does not comment on diversity, but rather, asks for discussion and debate. This letter was signed by a strong majority of individuals inferred to be white men in professionally secure positions at highly research intensive universities. Letter C speaks out specifically against diversity statements, calling them “a mistake,” and claiming that their usage during early stages of faculty hiring “diminishes mathematical achievement.” Individuals who signed both Letters B and C, that is, signatories who both privilege debate and oppose diversity statements, are overwhelmingly inferred to be tenured white men at highly research intensive universities.

There is a very interesting rhetorical move here.  It can be presumed that many of those who signed Letters B and C take their “professionally secure positions at highly research intensive universities” as license to speak out with authority on matters affecting the discipline.  Although the report by Topaz et al. does not say so explicitly, it seems to imply that it is precisely the “professionally secure position” that disqualifies its holder as an objective observer.   In other words, the article questions the legitimacy of the charismatic hierarchy that is the subject of chapter 2 of MWA:  to the hierarchy’s claim to be based on professional merit, the article replies with a reading that sees it as a self-sustaining system designed to maintain undeserved (disproportionately white male) privilege.

This is not a new perspective; it was commonplace during the period of the science wars, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, when it became less noticeable in the aftermath of the Sokal affair.  Thirty years ago, however, this point of view was not widely shared among mathematicians.  Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there were regular sessions on Mathematics of Social Justice at Joint Mathematical Meetings in the 1980s and 1990s.

The starting point of the diversity statement controversy, I believe, is the undeniable fact that the community of professional mathematicians in the US is demographically extremely skewed relative to the country’s population.  “Underrepresented minorities,” in particular, are really underrepresented.  All the mathematicians I know see this as a real problem.   Some of the positions mentioned at the Mathematics of Social Justice session suggest that mathematics as currently constituted — in its pedagogy, its recruitment, and its charismatic hierarchy— is designed in such a way as (not necessarily intentionally) to exclude the underrepresented populations.  The solution would then be to replace the existing structures of mathematics by something new.

How might we imagine that something new?  Over the past few days in Denver I learned a great deal about a variety of inspiring initiatives at universities and schools around the country.  Some of them can be found at this list on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog (which certainly did not exist thirty years ago).   I will be studying them over the coming weeks — I encourage readers to do the same — and it’s likely I’ll be writing about some of them.

I am pretty sure, though, that none of the new initiatives has anything to do with diversity statements.  I strongly believe that in the controversy that (as Topaz et al indicates) has not yet died down, the diversity statement itself is serving as a proxy for some more substantial objective.  This is confirmed by a message I received from one of the signatories of Letter A:

At this point the fight seems to be about whether understanding and working with students’ different backgrounds should be treated as part of the professorial job description, with Thompson representing what is probably the majority default of something like “colorblind racism”. So I think there’s value in saying loudly that the colorblind position is no longer an acceptable starting point for a worthwhile contribution to diversity/equity/justice, with the emphasis being on using diversity frameworks as a stepping stone to what we really want, which is a justice-based framework.

Where I come from, “colorblind racism” counts as fighting words.  The most obvious defect of Letter A is its inclusion of the expression “reverse racism” in quotes, when it appeared nowhere in Abigail Thompson’s letter.  For all I know, many people who signed Letter A sincerely believed that Thompson had accused the supporters of diversity statements of “reverse racism.”  But leaving misrepresentation aside, I have tried to argue that diversity frameworks are a particularly slippery stepping stone, since they were explicitly designed as an alternative to a “justice-based framework.”  The author of this comment believed as well that “[i]f you belong to the ‘fundamentally not fair’ camp, then you’re stuck with the unfortunate ‘diversity’ formulation, but at least from there the door can be wedged open.”  As far as I’m concerned this is magical thinking, as is the claim in the same comment that support for diversity statements is “an affirmative sign of where the institutional leadership stands” — as if the very institution targeted by the Bakke decision would make any effort to use the decision’s framework to undermine the decision.

Here, on the other hand, is a comment from a colleague who signed Letter B:

I thought the letters in support of Abigail were not about the diversity per se, but rather about the bullying that she became the subject of. Typical exclusion in the name of inclusion …
I objected to the use of the word “bullying.”
Has she been attacked by powerful people, or only by noisy but mainly powerless people?  I would reserve the term “bullying” for the former.
And my colleague replied:
Not sure who is powerful anymore, your allegedly powerless people can easily destroy people’s lives and, certainly, careers.
It seems to me that the threat to Abigail Thompson’s career — presumably from Chad Topaz’s initial reaction to her article — was no less exaggerated than her comparison of diversity statements to loyalty oaths, but it also seems to me likely that most of the people who signed Letters B and C were responding to this imagined threat — I didn’t sign any of the letters but I am no more inclined than they to trust “institutional leadership”  — and not to defend their privileged status of overrepresentation.  This is one reason the Topaz et al. article is so interesting; because it aims to undermine the presumption that privileged positions are awarded solely (better to say almost solely) on the basis of merit.
I would like to hear from the authors of that article how they imagine mathematics would look if the charismatic hierarchy were undermined.  But that’s a complicated issue, and I would like to end on an observation that Topaz et al. may have missed.  The article calculates that women made up 27.8% of the signatories of Letter C — making them underrepresented by some measure and within the representative range by others.  I went through the list and discovered that, of the 45 women who signed, exactly 4 were from the US (though a few may have acquired US citizenship).  I can attest that students in France are not taught to look to the US for good ideas about managing race relations, and I suspect something similar is true in the countries where most of these women grew up.

Reuben Hersh, 1927-2020 (with text)

Here is the introduction to my article Do Mathematicians Have Responsibilities, published in Humanizing mathematics and its philosophy.Essays celebrating the 90th birthday of Reuben Hersh.Edited by Bharath Sriraman. Birkhäuser/Springer, Cham (2017) 115-123.

I have been an admirer of Reuben Hersh ever since I received a copy of The Mathematical Experience, then brand new, as a birthday present.  At that stage, of course, I was admiring the tandem Reuben formed then, and on other occasions, with his co-author Philip J. Davis.  It was only almost 20 years later, after I started reading What is Mathematics, Really? that I could focus my admiration on Reuben — and not only on the mathematician, the author, the thinker about mathematics, but on the person Reuben Hersh — the unmistakable and unforgettable voice that accompanies the reader from the beginning to the end of the book.  So unforgettable was the voice, in fact, that when Reuben, wrote to me out of the blue three years ago to ask me what I thought about a certain French philosopher, I so clearly heard the voice of the narrator of What is Mathematics, Really? (and no doubt of many of the passages of his books with Davis) that I could honestly write back that I felt like I had known him for decades, though we have never met and until that time we had never exchanged a single word.

The voice in question is the voice of an author who is struggling to put words on an intense and intensely felt experience, who has intimate knowledge of how it feels to be a mathematician and also a knowledge no less intimate of the inadequacy of the language of our philosophical tradition to do justice to that experience, so that all attempts to do so inevitably end in failure; but this knowledge is compensated by the conviction that the stakes are so important that we can’t choose not to try.   What makes Reuben’s authorial voice compelling is that it sounds just as we expect the voice of a person in the middle of that struggle must sound.[1]   It’s the strength of this conviction that comes across in Reuben’s writing, so that reading his books and essays is remembered (by me, at least) as a conversation, a very lively conversation, filled with the passionate sense that we are talking about something that matters.  Also filled with disagreements — because I don’t always agree with everything I read in Reuben’s books and essays; beyond questions of detail the difference might come down to my sense that Reuben is trying to get to the bottom of the mathematical experience, whereas I apprehend the experience as bottomless; or I might say that it’s the effort to get to its bottom that is at the bottom of the experience.  But the differences are of little moment; what stays with me after reading a few pages of Reuben’s writing is the wholeness of the human being reflected in his words, a human being who cares so deeply about his mathematical calling that he is ready to add his own heroic failure to the long list of admirable failures by the most eminent philosophers of the western tradition to account for mathematics; and without these inevitable failures we would not begin to understand why it does matter to us.

[1] As I wrote that sentence I remembered that I have still not met Reuben, nor have I ever spoken to him; but I checked one of the videos online in which he appears and, sure enough, his literal voice is very much as I expected.

Will Cédric Villani’s reputation survive his association with Macron?

Cédric Villani’s political orientation has come under increasing scrutiny since his election as deputy on the “République En Marche” (LREM) list created by French President Emmanuel Macron, whose own popularity has fallen precipitously over the first two years of his mandate.  Villani’s announcement that he would run, and occasionally dance, for the LREM slot in next year’s race to replace Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo — Villani was president of her campaign committee in 2014 — roughly coincided with the development of the Yellow Vest movement in protest against Macron’s policies, which are perceived (quite rightly) as undemocratic and upwardly redistributive.  Macron’s approval rating has dropped to 27%, while the Yellow Vests were enjoying up to  60-75% approval, in spite of repeated attempts by the press to depict them as a Trojan Horse for the far right. Such attempts have been considerably more successful abroad than in France. No doubt this is because, for at least 25 years, every time a popular movement arose in France in opposition to the neoliberal trickle-down consensus that united the two main governing parties — the socialists (apparently fatally damaged by former President Hollande’s undistinguished record) and the right, currently called “Les républicains” — the mainstream press warned that such protests could only benefit the far right; the warning lost its force as living standards declined for much of the population, whichever party was in power, and the decline continues under Macron’s post-partisan leadership.

Each of the two major governing parties has been hit repeatedly by scandal. Macron was supposed to put an end to that, but the “Jupiterian President” quickly got caught up in a particularly sordid and growing scandal involving the unconventional and largely illegal employment of a security staffer named Alexandre Benalla (this is too complicated to explain here, but you can find an account here, not including the most recent developments).

Inevitably, Macron’s unpopularity has rubbed off on Villani.  His Tweets now routinely provoke mocking suggestions that he should stick to mathematics:  he is taken to task for failing to address the shocking consequences of police repression of Yellow Vest demonstrations — 18 eyes lost to flashballs as of this writing, 4 hands lost to dispersal grenades, and hundreds of other injuries, many of them disfiguring; for his silence on the Benalla affair; and for many of his votes in the National Assembly (his vote on the Loi Asile-immigration is the focus of an open letter by the mathematician Charles Boubel  published in the CNRS magazine Image des Mathématiques).

It didn’t have to be this way. Maurice Chiodo and Piers Bursill-Hall, in the first of an ongoing series of Ethics in Mathematics Discussion Papers, identify “four levels of ethical engagement,” in increasing order. Villani examplifies the third level, “Taking a seat at the table of power.” “[B]eing at that table,” they write, “gives a participating mathematician the potential to influence the ethical consequences of what is done with the maths.” In his insightful report on Villani in The New Yorker, Thomas Lin quotes Villani’s collaborator and former student Clément Mouhot:

Many mathematicians are glad that Villani is willing to participate in public life, Mouhot said, so that they don’t have to.

Chiodo and Bursill-Hall note with approval that a committee under Villani’s direction recently prepared a thorough and remarkably persuasive report for the French government on how to prepare France for the arrival of AI in mainstream society.  The particular strength of this report is that its authors have a deep grasp of the technology and the mathematics behind AI, and that gives them a particular political authority.
Chiodo and Lara Gordon elaborate on this in a later Discussion Paper, arguing that Villani’s report compares favorably, in both its ambition and its attention to ethical issues, with a British report on the topic.

In view of Villani’s remarkable success in persuading Macron’s administration to admit France’s responsibility in the torture and murder of the mathematician Maurice Audin — perhaps his most notable achievement to date — one would also have thought that Villani would be sensitive to the question of police repression.Villani Audin - 1

Villani at the Père Lachaise cemetery June 11, 2019, at the ceremony
in honor of Maurice and Josette Audin

As of this writing it’s not clear how far Macron’s administration will follow the suggestions of Villani’s report. One recommendation —

Doubling salaries in the early stages of their careers at the very least is a vital starting point, otherwise the pool of young graduates interested in higher education and academic research will definitively dry up. [Villani et al, p. 11]

was mentioned prominently in Le Monde‘s coverage. Not surprisingly, it was welcomed by French researchers, most of whom have seen the graph circulated in 2008 that predicts a straight-line evolution of starting research salaries to the French minimum wage, with convergence scheduled for 2025; as far as I know the evolution continues on track.  The salary recommendation was intended “to make public research careers more attractive” in the face of competition from the GAFAM tech giants. This particular suggestion disappeared without a trace, and one naturally suspects that Villani, in taking on the mission assigned to him, missed the point of neoliberalism, which is precisely its ideological commitment to market solutions to practically all problems.  Encouraging public academic research, on this reading, is perfectly inconsistent with Macron’s signature policies — lowering taxes on the rich and on corporations while raising them on the less fortunate; deep cuts in public services in health and education; elimination of favorable conditions for workers in the national railroad and plans for its future privatization; a “reform” of university admissions that has left hundreds of thousands of high school graduates with no options whatsoever; and a plan to multiply fees by 10 for students from outside the EU, including doctoral students. Attacks on the national pension system and privatization of the Paris airports are on this year’s agenda.   (See Didier Fassin’s report in the London Review of Books for a thorough analysis of Macron’s “authoritarian neoliberalism.”)
But perhaps it did have to be this way, after all.  Villani and Macron are both alumni of the French-American Foundation France, where they overlapped as “Young Leaders” in 2012. The existence of the think tank seems not to be well-known, but former “Young Leaders” include some of the French welfare state’s most prominent gravediggers, and an astonishing proportion of presidential contenders as well as leading cabinet members and political figures in both countries (included are Alain Juppé, François Hollande, both Bill and Hilary Clinton, General Wesley Clark, LA mayor Eric Garcetti, current French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and two directors of Le Monde, among many, many others).   Not all alumni are neoliberals — Didier Fassin’s brother Eric, a prominent leftist intellectual, is on the list, as is filmmaker Charles Ferguson — but you could do worse than to use the list to map the boundaries of mainstream political opinion.

Macron’s party is scheduled to choose their candidate this coming week for next year’s Paris mayoral election.   The French president reportedly prefers Benjamin Griveaux, but Libération reported on July 5 that it’s increasingly likely Villani will be chosen to face incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo.  Villani was president of Hidalgo’s support committee in 2014, but he now claims to be dissatisfied with her record.  There are sensible reasons to be dissatisfied with Hidalgo, but most of the complaints I read seem to have to do with cars and bicycles.  Villani himself explained that

Quand on entre aujourd’hui dans Paris, on arrive à des portes qui sont souvent taguées, sales, dans une ambiance d’embouteillage phénoménale et ce n’est pas possible.

All true, but not more so than 20 years ago.  Many of my mathematical colleagues are convinced that Villani’s true goal is the French presidency.  How many more compromises will this “Young Leader” have to accept before he gets there?

UPDATE:  Macron’s party’s chose Benjamin Griveaux, not Villani, to run for mayor of Paris next year.  Villani is considering his next steps.  Meanwhile, yet another member of Macron’s government, François de Rugy (Minister of Ecological Transition), is caught up in a huge scandal, involving (among other things) lobsters.


Ethical Engagement



The webpage of the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Project is still under construction, but the first three Discussion Papers are already available at this page, with more on the way.  The title page of the first of these papers, by Maurice Chiodo and Piers Bursill-Hall, is reproduced above.  The authors propose a four-level sequence of increasing ethical engagement on the part of mathematicians:

Level 1: Realising there are ethical issues inherent in mathematics.

Level 2: Doing something: speaking out to other mathematicians.

Level 3: Taking a seat at the tables of power.

Level 4: Calling out the bad mathematics of others

Although the authors hint at a preference for engagement at the highest level by as many mathematicians as possible, they are realistic about the obstacles in the near term.  Some readers of this blog may nevertheless be ready to get involved.  Reading the Discussion Papers is an obvious first step.