Category Archives: Ethics

Mathematicians as beneficiaries, and their patrons

What follows are the uncorrected notes for a presentation by videolink at the first workshop on Ethics in Mathematics, held in Cambridge April 20-21, 2018.

It’s a humbling experience for me to be asked to speak at this meeting, alongside some authentically legendary figures. Maurice Chiodo and Piers Bursill-Hall have assembled a stellar lineup in a remarkably short time. This is certainly a tribute to their energy and initiative, but the fact that so many speakers have agreed to participate is also a sign that Maurice and Piers have identified a need whose urgency is increasingly recognized across the profession. I do hope this week’s meeting will be remembered as the start of a genuine international movement to place ethics at the center of our work as mathematicians.

It’s a special honor to be invited to participate in a conference on mathematics and ethics that is taking place in Cambridge, home of G. H. Hardy, a mathematician whose commitment to pacifism and social justice is well-known even beyond the profession. Since mathematicians are constantly being asked why our work is useful, it’s appropriate to recall that Hardy once wrote that

A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.

Hardy was thinking particularly of military applications of science, as well as of the mathematical economics of his time. Had he lived a few years longer he would have witnessed the growth of mathematical game theory, whose destructive consequences in both domains have been developed assiduously by the RAND Corporation, which figures prominently in the biography of John Nash, among other mathematical heroes.

I consider Hardy a precursor of current proposals for mathematicians working on various applications to adopt “Hippocratic Oaths,” the ethics of abstaining from doing harm. In an article published last year entitled Do Mathematicians Have Responsibilities?, I mention some of the more recent applications of mathematics that are “useful” in Hardy’s sense, but my focus is different.

While pure mathematicians in particular may have wondered whether much of their work would ever be socially useful, it was generally believed that at least it caused no harm. Events of recent years have called that belief into question.  The sophisticated and often opaque derivatives developed by financial mathematics magnified the effects of a downturn in sectors of the US housing market into a global financial crisis whose consequences are still with us. Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 served as a reminder that contemporary cryptographic techniques based on number theory can also be used to facilitate general surveillance by governments. The rapid growth of Big Data has made it possible for commercial as well as public actors to track individual behavior with increasing precision, with grave implications for privacy.

In each of these applications of mathematics one finds the same three features: an approach to human activity that is purely instrumental; a disdain for democratic decision-making; and the empowerment of experts on the basis of their mathematical training. And in each case, a few mathematical scientists have pointed out that the power of mathematical technology imposes social responsibility on those who develop it, beyond putting trust in experts.

In this brief presentation I want to stress the second and third features, because they make it clear that the call to “do no harm,” important though it is, does not fully discharge our social responsibilities as mathematicians. The fact is that our very expertise, as academics and researchers, contributes to the reproduction of the social order that makes the abuses not only possible but often inevitable. We perceive the universities and research institutes in which we work as protected spaces and spaces to be protected, and this is true as far as it goes. But the primary function of the university is to reproduce existing relations of power and influence. In this sense, Hardy’s refuge in pure mathematics is itself part of the problem. Indeed, A Mathematician’s Apology fairly reeks of the elitism that, even in its current attenuated form, is an essential aspect of the image, or the brand, that distinguishes universities like Cambridge and Oxford and Harvard and Columbia and endows their professors with the expert status that so often serves to undermine the democratic process.

Let me add right away that I am fully aware of the dangers of this kind of talk in the face of climate denial and right-wing populism more generally. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the primary role of the expert in public policy is to be mobilized in support of dominant interests, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s There is no alternative. The article I just quoted has a good illustration of this in connection with the current massive growth of artificial intelligence, and the feverish promotion of the Internet of Things as a technological inevitability and a promising investment opportunity. The ethical implications of these developments seem to have been entrusted, in particular by the EU, to the AI industry itself:

In connection with [the risks of AI], it was announced that Facebook, IBM, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft had just formed the “Partnership on AI” for the purpose of “conducting research and promoting best practices.”

Since then Apple has joined (the big five + IBM) and there are now representatives of civil society (ACLU, EFF, and Center for Democracy and Technology, among others). Of course the relative weight of the corporate and civil partners in defining “best practices” remains to be seen.   My point, however, is that the vision of democratic decision-making still places the expert at the center.

By the way, I have not come to you today with an alternative and more democratic model. The problem is a profound democratic deficit in the society at large. That’s not a problem for this gathering to solve; but in my opinion it is inseparable from any serious reflection on the ethical obligations of mathematicians or any of our fellows in the elite sphere we inhabit.

My aim was rather to make a few remarks about research funding, and I will quote from my article in the Times Higher Education Supplement to indicate how difficult it is to avoid tainted sources.

[Tom Leinster’s] question hasn’t gone away: should we cooperate with GCHQ? The problem is that research funds have to come from somewhere; the survival of number theory depends on it. One veteran colleague likens mathematical research to a kidney; no matter where it gets its funding, the output is always pure and sweet, and any impurities are buried in the paperwork. Our cultural institutions have long since grown accustomed to this excretory function, and that includes our great universities. Henry VIII was a morally ambiguous character, to say the least, and a pioneer in eavesdropping as well as cryptography; but neither Hardy nor his friend Bertrand Russell refused his fellowship at Trinity on that account.  

It would be nice if the State could provide its own kidneys and impose an impermeable barrier between the budgets for research that is socially progressive, or at least innocuous, and the military and surveillance functions about which the less we know, the better. But States don’t work that way, and for the most part they never have. The only alternative to public funding, from whatever the source, is private philanthropy. America’s great private universities are monuments to the past and present generosity of some of our wealthiest citizens. That is not, however, what is most appealing about them. I find it demeaning to have to express gratitude for my research funding to practices of which I otherwise heartily disapprove — like hedge fund management, for example, or data mining — but that have given a few people the status of Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals … and thus in the position of being able to function publicly as philanthropists. Or to despots like the Emir of Kuwait, whose Foundation used to sponsor a generous lecture series at Cambridge.

It seems that anywhere you turn, you’re going to be someone’s kidney. But feeling demeaned is beside the point. As …Cathy O’Neil… put it in January 2014, “We lose something when we consistently take money from rich people, which has nothing to with any specific rich person who might have great ideas and great intentions.…” One of the things we lose: control of how decisions are made: “…the entire system depends on the generosity of someone who could change his mind at any moment.”

The more basic problem is that the very existence of UHNWI entails the concentration of power beyond the control of democratic oversight. Among billionaire patrons, Jim Simons stands out for his commitment to the values of working mathematicians — which is natural, given that he was a distinguished geometer before his management of the wildly successful hedge fund Renaissance Technologies made him an UHNWI. But the same high-frequency trading algorithms that fueled Simons’s philanthropy gave us Breitbart, courtesy of Robert Mercer, Simons’s former colleague at Renaissance. Mercer was much in the news earlier this year after it was revealed that, through his connection to Cambridge Analytica, he used psychologically targeted advertising on social media to intervene in the Brexit and Trump elections, possibly tipping the balance in both cases. Mercer has come to personify the sinister side of the UHNWI phenomenon, but even outspoken liberal billionaires like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergei Brin, who have been subsidizing pure mathematics indirectly through their cosponsorship of the extravagant Breakthrough Prizes, have built their fortunes on mathematical techniques that are no less threatening to privacy than GCHQ surveillance.

I could continue for quite a long time expressing my regret that the need to sustain our research places us in the uncomfortable position of dependence on ethically dubious sources of funding. In the interest of full disclosure, and to highlight the paradoxes of my own position, I ought to mention that this afternoon I will be heading to a conference in the Bavarian Alps, sponsored by the Simons Foundation! The first part of today’s presentation, however, was meant as a reminder that as researchers and academics our very salaries are being paid by institutions whose primary function is the preservation of the status quo. Insofar as the possibility of the most visible aberrations (Cambridge Analytica, NSA undermining of encryption standards, credit default swaps, drone guidance systems and so on) are built into the normal functioning of the status quo, and are justified by an ideology of expertise that is maintained by our universities and research institutes, our very existence as experts guarantees that our profession provides no refuge of ethical purity.

Interjection: How, by the way, did Trinity get to be so rich? I don’t know the answer; instead, I offer this bit of information as an ironic metaphor for our defense of ethics from our perches within the power structure:

At what is today Columbia University, there was a medal issued at graduation every year by the Manumission Society — many of whose members were slaveowners — for the best essay each year that opposed the slave trade (from a report by Eric Foner on Columbia’s website, as quoted in The Trinity Tripod of Trinity College, Connecticut, dated February 11, 2014)

(Of course, Columbia was hardly alone; Harvard, Penn, Dartmouth, William and Mary, and other leading universities of the time had interests in the slave trade.)

As I wrote in the THES piece:

[T]he immense privilege of devoting our lives to the research projects we have chosen freely imposes on us the obligation to speak out when our work is used for destructive ends, or when the sources of our funding do not share our values.

By “speaking out” I don’t mean simply reacting to abuses. I mean actively anticipating possible uses of our work, including our teaching of students, for purposes of which we do not approve. Here I would add that we are no less obligated to acknowledge the role of our institutions, and of our expert status within and through these institutions, in preserving existing power relations that are incompatible with democratic ideals.

The privilege of devoting our lives to our freely chosen profession makes us beneficiaries in the sense described in a recent book by my Columbia colleague Bruce Robbins. A great many people need to perform less rewarding work, or are rewarded less well for what they do, in order to provide us the means to pursue our professional goals.

Nevertheless, I want to conclude by stressing the importance of defending these benefits. I’m sure that each of you has been asked at one time or another some version of “how is what you do useful?” And if you are a pure mathematician you might have resorted not to Hardy’s definition of “useful” but rather to Hardy’s argument that mathematics is an art form, and therefore deserves to be pursued for its own sake. I suspect such an answer provides little defense against accusations of self-indulgence, irresponsibility, and a lack of due regard for the taxpayer’s money. Faced with such accusations — usually by individuals whose own position within the power structure leaves them open to challenge — I like to reverse the terms of the question: if mathematics is not to be pursued for its own sake, then for the sake of what? For profits, or Facebook “likes,” or to give Britain a leg up in the international marketplace? This should immediately pose the question of democracy, which in the present context includes the right to adhere to values that are not determined by the market and its ideologues and functionaries. All work should ideally be for its own sake. But this is an idea I am struggling to articulate, and I hope to have made some progress if and when we meet again.

 

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Number theory, GCHQ, and kidneys

If you can get past the paywall you can read some of my thoughts on research funding in an article published on March 8 in the Times Higher Education Supplement .

If not, here is a “fair use” excerpt:

Mathematicians have been reluctant to recognise that if our work interests generous donors, it is often precisely because it is “useful” according to a definition that Hardy proposed near the beginning of the First World War: “its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life”.

We will have to overcome this reluctance and draw uncomfortable conclusions. Wherever you turn as a mathematician, you’re going to be someone’s kidney: practically every potential source of research funds is tainted in some way.

(I’m afraid you’ll have to find a way to read the article if you want to know what that kidney is doing in that last paragraph.)

CORRUPT DATA: Conference at Columbia April 13-14, 2017

The Center for Contemporary Critical Thought’s Digital Initiative presents a two-part conference series

Cambridge Analytica: Tracing Personal Data (from ethical lapses to its use in electoral campaigns)

Thursday, April 13, 2017 | 11:00am | East Gallery, Maison Francais

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye with Tamsin Shaw | Cathy O’Neil as respondant | moderated by Professor Michael Harris

&

Civil Society and Personal Data Use: necessary and salutary responses

Friday, April 14, 2017 | 12:00pm | Jerome Greene Hall 103

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye and Jerome Groetenbriel | moderated by Profesor Michael Harris | introduced by Professor Bernard E. Harcourt

 

 

Time to move on

wainua               Figure 6.1 (Clairaut's diagram)

Snail image:  Creative Commons licence courtesy of Te Papa; Clairaut’s love formula from Chapter 6 of MWA

My tireless editor Vickie Kearn at Princeton University Press has brought me the welcome news that Mathematics without Apologies will be coming out in a paperback edition next spring.   I started this blog for two reasons, and one of them — to clarify my intentions in writing the book — will vanish when I add two or three pages to the preface of the new edition.   The new pages — I have already written them — will devote one paragraph or so to each of four topics, provisionally under the headings charismamemoirsutility, and ethics; each paragraph will address some of the points raised by comments on this blog as well as in some of the more negative reviews.

My other reason  for starting this blog was to find some outlet for the wealth of material that I was not able to incorporate in the book.  Most of this material has remained untapped while I composed comments on current events or new findings, and I was idly wondering when I would get around to sifting through the 7 GB  or so that is gathering nanodust on my computer’s hard drive.  My Eureka! moment came when I realized that I had already devoted a considerable amount of my free time to writing the book during the better part of three years.  Perhaps I didn’t really want to return to the old material?  With the new preface, I can finally declare the book finished and move on to something else.

Will it be another book, maybe one that will win me the mythical seven figure advance?  Or will there be another blog, or the same one under another name?   That’s for the future to decide.  Meanwhile, this one will remain visible, but with no new entries.

My thanks to the regular readers and occasional visitors who helped keep the blog from slipping into solipsism.  And my special thanks to authors of comments who, by disagreeing, often sharply, with opinions expressed here, demonstrated that the meaning of mathematics is still a matter of controversy.


This was supposed to be the last entry, but I’m now thinking I should include part of the new preface material — or all of it, if PUP allows it.  Meanwhile, in order not to let anything go to waste, here is the post on which I was working when I realized that this blog had reached the end of its natural life…




I Cunfirenti

This was originally going to be an appendix to the playlist near the end of Chapter 8:  an exploration of the attitude to mathematics in the genre of organized crime ballads.  The deeper meaning of Rick Ross’s 2009 single Mafia Music was exposed even before it was released,  but I was unable to find an interpretation of the unexpected appearance of mathematics in the middle of this rap à clef:

I thought about my future and the loops I could pin.
Walked out on a gig and I turned to da streets,
Kept my name low key, I ain’t heard from in weeks.
I came up with a strategy to come up mathematically,
I did it for da city but now everybody mad at me.

Apart from Rick Ross, Gödel is the only person Google finds who can “come up mathematically.”  My guess is that Ross’s strategy (unlike Gödel’s) involves money.  But Ross is not really a gangster, and Mafia Music is not really a mafia song at all; in fact, by naming names the song breaks what I’m told is the most fundamental of all the rules of the Italian Malavita, namely the rule of omertà, the iron law of silence.

Now it struck me when I saw this that the mathematical profession has its own version of omertà, probably not very different from other forms of academic rules of silence, having to do with forms of behavior that straddle the line that divides the unpleasant from the unethical.  The behavior protected by mathematical omertà differs from other varieties in that it tends to inspire less literary commentary.  Instead it consists in scandalous rumors whispered in corridors when they are not being shouted across barroom tables, but that must under no circumstances be mentioned in public.  (There was a scurrilous exception in a well known literary magazine a few years ago, but I will not dignify it with a link.)

I am particularly sensitive to this rule just now, because in the past few weeks I was shocked to learn of abuse of power by several colleagues I would not have believed capable of such behavior (and by a few others I can easily believe capable of anything).  Whether being the repository of such confidences is one of the perks of my charisma, or whether it’s the abusers who feel newly entitled as a result of their own charisma, the mildest punishment I could expect if I chose to betray the dark secrets of the mathematical profession is not to be privy to such secrets in the future.  Breach of Mafia omertà is treated more harshly than that.  Many of the songs on the delightful album La Musica della Mafia are devoted to the many kinds of punishment the gangster ethic  —

Laws that don’t forgive those/Who break their silence

reserves for traitors — cunfirenti, in Calabrian dialect.  For example, the song entitled I cunfirenti promises that they will find “their final resting place in concrete walls” (‘Mpastati ccu cimentu e poi murati).

The album’s title is imprecise; it’s not a collection of songs of the Sicilian mafia but rather the ballads of their Calabrian declension, the ‘Ndrangheta, who deserve to be better known, and not only for their songs:

Its success at drug smuggling catapulted the ‘Ndrangheta past its more storied Sicilian rival, the Cosa Nostra, in both wealth and power. Italian authorities now consider the ‘Ndrangheta to be Europe’s single biggest importer of cocaine.

What I find most charming about this collection is the contrast between the lively rhythms of many of the songs and the uniformly grim, often bloody, content of the lyrics.  For example:

Malavita, malavita
Appartegnu all’Onorata
Puru si c’impizzu a vita
Eu nun fazzu na sgarrata

Which means

Malavita, malavita!
I am one of the honorable society.
And even if it costs me my life,
I will never surrender.

If you’re looking for mathematical content you have to skip to the last verse:

Ed eo chi tingu sangu ´nta li vini
Su prontu d’affruntari mille infami
A chista genti ci rispunnimu
Pidi sunu pronti centu lami

Which means

And I who have blood flowing through my veins
Am ready to face 1000 traitors
As they know all too well
That 100 sharpened knives are ready for them.

French expert committee resigns in protest

The members of the French Scientific Evaluation Committee in mathematics and computer science (CES 40) resigned unanimously on June 1 to protest “the confiscation of scientific choices by a purely administrative [i.e., bureaucratic] management.”

The role of the CES 40, and of similar committees in other disciplines, is to evaluate research proposals submitted to the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR), which then decides which projects to fund.  The ANR (not to be confused with absolute neighborhood retract) was created in 2005 in emulation of the NSF, in order to shift priorities from long-term funding of laboratories and research teams to short-term funding of specific projects, “in a context of budgetary constraints [i.e. austerity],” according to Wikipedia.  Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (currently under investigation for illegal campaign funding) explained the motivations of the move with his characteristic disdain for the scientific community:

Je souhaite qu’à cette nouvelle génération soit inculqué non plus le réflexe du financement récurrent mais la culture du financement sur projet, la culture de l’excellence, la culture de l’évaluation.

The text of the protest letter is copied below, and can also be read here, with comments, as well as on the website of the Société Mathématique de France.

Le Comité d’Evaluation Scientifique en mathématiques et en informatique de l’Agence Nationale de la Recherche démissionne en bloc pour protester contre la confiscation des choix scientifiques par une gestion entièrement administrative

Le 1er juin, à l’issue de trois jours d’évaluation scientifique, le comité en mathématiques et en informatique (CES 40) a décidé unanimement de ne pas transmettre ses conclusions à l’ANR. Ses membres refusent de servir de caution scientifique et déclineront toute sollicitation ultérieure de l’ANR dans les conditions actuelles.

Le comité conteste l’opacité du processus de sélection. A ce jour, le nombre de projets financés est déterminé en proportion du nombre de projets soumis, sans que les comités aient la maîtrise du seuil d’acceptation, ou la connaissance de l’enveloppe budgétaire attribuée. Or, loin d’être uniquement des informations financières ou administratives, ce sont des éléments scientifiques essentiels sans lesquels les comités ne peuvent élaborer une proposition cohérente.

L’addition des contraintes budgétaire et administrative conduit mécaniquement à un taux d’acceptation trop faible pour être incitatif. Or, la constitution d’un dossier de qualité exige un temps important, que de moins en moins de collègues accepteront d’investir au vu du taux de succès qui a cours. Cela s’est traduit par une diminution de plus de 20% du nombre de projets soumis dans le CES 40 qui entraîne à son tour une baisse du nombre de projets financés. L’ANR manque donc l’occasion de soutenir un nombre important de projets à fort impact.

Le comité s’inquiète aussi de la perte annoncée de son indépendance, puisque son président sera désormais employé par l’ANR.

Les membres du comité demandent à la direction générale de l’ANR la mise en place un nouveau mode de fonctionnement. Ils souhaitent un meilleur contrôle du processus de sélection, de manière à mettre en œuvre une politique scientifique cohérente qui respecte les spécificités de chaque discipline, au service de la stratégie nationale de la recherche.

Les membres du CES 40, unanimes :
– Christophe BESSE, Président du CES 40, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Toulouse 3
– Marie-Claude ARNAUD, Vice-Présidente du CES 40, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université d’Avignon
– Max DAUCHET, Vice-Président du CES 40, Professeur émérite d’Informatique, Université Lille 1
– Mourad BELLASSOUED,  Professeur de Mathématiques, Université de Tunis El Manar
– Oliver BOURNEZ, Professeur d’Informatique, Ecole Polytechnique
– Frédéric CHAZAL, Directeur de Recherche en Informatique, INRIA Saclay
– Johanne COHEN,  Chargée de Recherches en Informatique, CNRS, Université Paris Sud
– François DENIS, Professeur d’Informatique, Université Aix-Marseille
– Bruno DESPRES, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Paris 6
– Arnaud DURAND, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Paris Diderot
– Alessandra FRABETTI, Maître de Conférence en Mathématiques, Université Lyon 1
– Jin Kao HAO, Professeur d’Informatique, Université d’Angers
– Tony LELIEVRE, Professeur de Mathématiques, Ecole des Ponts ParisTech
– Mathieu LEWIN, Directeur de Recherche en Mathématiques, CNRS, Université Paris Dauphine
– Gaël MEIGNIEZ, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Bretagne Sud
– Sophie MERCIER, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour
– Johannes NICAISE, Professeur de Mathématiques, Imperial College Londres
– Lhouari NOURINE, Professeur d’Informatique, Université Blaise Pascal
– Jean-Michel ROQUEJOFFRE,  Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Toulouse 3
– Alessandra SARTI,  Professeur de Mathématiques, Université de Poitiers

Mathematics, morality, and crossing the finish line

Perelman

Andrei Yafaev is in New York and he thought I might like to watch a Russian television documentary about Grisha Perelman, which you too can watch on YouTube.   It’s in Russian but English subtitles have been added.  It has so far been viewed 268,517 times, so I’m probably not telling you anything most of you don’t already know; but it has a few provocative moments.

The documentary insists repeatedly that Perelman was “impeccably honest,” [безукоризненно честен] even as a child.    And this is depicted, for the Russian audience, as a characteristic of mathematicians.   Perelman’s “teachers insisted that mathematics is not only the Queen of the Sciences, but also the most moral science.”  Alexander Danilovich Alexandrov, Perelman’s thesis advisor, is quoted (at 32’02”) as saying “I’m not interested in geometry, I’m interested in morality [нравственность].”  Anatolii Vershik follows with a claim (at 32’12”) that mathematicians “have a very clear sense of right and wrong.”  Here “right and wrong” is a translation of истинность; this should ring a bell for those of you who have seen Ed Frenkel’s Rites of Love and Math, where the love-making and seppuku are both performed under the sign of истина, which is translated “truth.”  So we see Mikhail Gromov claiming (at 34’51”) that “mathematicians don’t care about money and prizes” — though he admits that money is convenient:  if you break your glasses you can replace them.

Perelman — a “national hero,” according to Fyodor Bogomolov — is unusual only for taking his impeccable honesty, his attachment to  истинность, to extreme lengths; his refusal of the Fields Medal and of the Clay Millenium Prize are the best-known examples of this.  But the documentary takes a strange detour near the end:  having spent 40 minutes depicting Perelman as a supreme exemplar of mathematical morality, suddenly the narrator remarks (at 39’17”) on how “strange” it is that he “rejects an ethical rule [главное этическое правило] of mathematics” [even a “main ethical rule” in the Russian original] in insisting that Richard Hamilton was equally deserving of the Prize.   And here Jim Carlson, speaking for the Clay Mathematical Institute, informs the viewer that “according to an unspoken rule the prize goes to the one who crosses the finish line.”  (The Russian version has Carlson attributing this to “mathematical sociology” —  questionable translations in both directions.)

This is weird in more ways than I can count, but I’ll just mention a few of them whose weirdness is independent of the Russian context.  Most obviously, the Clay Mathematical Institute is giving out its own prizes, and surely it can make up its own rules.  Next, the idea that there are “unspoken rules” governing the awarding of prizes in mathematics is completely new to me.  It’s hard, of course, to apply the methods of sociology to the study of “unspoken rules,” since by definition nobody is talking about them — but even if (as is likely) Carlson used “unspoken” as a poetic synonym for “hardly ever spoken,” or “spoken about in whispers,” one wonders:  how high up do you have to be in the hierarchy (oppressive or not) to have heard the faint whispering about these unspoken rules?

And then there is the principle itself, which seems to me to leave little scope for formal appreciation of those who point out where there are finish lines, so that others can exemplify an ethical rule by collecting prizes for crossing them.  I have a few people in mind, mathematicians whose names are most familiar in adjectival form.  Does anyone know where one might fruitfully whisper about this principle, and to whom?

 

Is the mathematical hierarchy oppressive?

After many interruptions I finally finished reading all the comments on Piper Harron’s blog, especially the long exchange (62 comments) entitled “Why I do not talk about math.”  This extended dialogue is deeply educational, and not only for those interested in mathematics.  Repeatedly contributors attempt to demonstrate their good intentions in the name of an abstract universalism, and Harron replies, politely but firmly, pointing out how the form as well as the content of their intervention reflects a position of privilege that is not necessarily conscious.  The entire exchange serves to reinforce the point of Harron’s title, as I understand it, namely that the process of repeatedly pointing out the effect of what (in a different post) Harron calls “oppressive hierarchies” eventually becomes tiresome, if not oppressive.

Harron’s comments overlap with the subject of Chapter 2 of MWA, entitled “How I acquired charisma.”  The chapter is primarily an extended reflection on the hierarchical structure of contemporary mathematics, interspersed (for narrative purposes) with an ideal-typical Bildungsroman whose anti-hero — who for the sake of convenience was chosen to bear a strong resemblance to the author of the book —is conducted, through the apparently natural workings of this hierarchical structure, to a middle-management position (routinized charisma) within the hierarchy.  The original purpose of the chapter was not mainly to engage in social criticism — that’s the focus of (parts of) Chapters 9, 3, and 4 — but rather to formulate a philosophical thesis, a tentative answer to the question formulated by KD on Harron’s blog:

I have always wondered exactly who gets to decide what is “important” or “interesting.”

I take sociology to be the discipline whose role is to answer questions like this, to study how collective decisions by groups of human beings come to be construed as objective and natural, and the chapter has a number of references to the sociology of science, and a handful of references to the much smaller literature in sociology of mathematics.

KD’s question, however, is political rather than sociological, with the implication that those who “get to decide” are exercising power from which those who don’t “get to decide” are excluded.  In the context of Harron’s blog, it is understood that this exclusion is not legitimate — or rather, since legitimacy as such can only be determined within the social order, that the order itself deserves to be called into question; in other words, as Harron writes, “We Need a Revolution. Period.

In a chapter of The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics entitled “Mediated Mathematics:  Representations of Mathematics in Popular Culture and Why These Matter,” Heather Mendick has written about how this exclusion is reflected in popular culture:

…popular culture can include some and exclude others.  For example, while society confers on all a responsibility to become mathematically literate, it suggests that only a special few possess mathematical “ability.”  It overwhelmingly depicts this ability as belonging in white, male, middle-class, heterosexual bodies.

Popular culture is not exactly a mirror of the reality of the profession, but it’s uncomfortably close.  Harron wrote an unconventional thesis in part because she sees this exclusion as rooted in the norms of contemporary mathematical practice; as she wrote

I just think our criteria for “new” “contributions” are seriously flawed and counterproductive and marginalizing. any mathematician who cares about “diversity” needs to be willing to shatter current paradigms.

I have been unhappy with the use of the word “diversity” in this context ever since I learned how it entered American jurisprudence in Christopher Newfield’s book Unmaking the Public University:

…in [Justice Lewis] Powell’s diversity framework, diversity was the expression of an institution’s freedom to choose particularly attractive individuals, and was about ensuring this freedom for powerful institutions like… Harvard College.…Diversity acquired social influence not as a moderate mode in which to pursue racial equality but as an alternative to that pursuit.

But Harron, whose blog is called The Liberated Mathematician, obviously doesn’t have Powell’s framework in mind when she uses the word diversity, so I will leave that discussion for later.  Instead I will engage in utopian speculation, in order to address what I see as the more subversive implications of Harron’s call for “power^people.”  Suppose one could magically do away with all the barriers to participation in mathematics of underrepresented populations, all the forms of exclusion, that are conventionally seen as political.  Would mathematics still be hierarchical?  And if so, would it still be oppressive?

A long tradition sees mathematics, and the sciences more generally, as necessarily hierarchical.  MWA quotes Max Weber on p. 10:

“Democracy should be used only where it is in place,” wrote Max Weber in the  1920s.  “Scientific training …is the affair of an intellectual aristocracy, and we  should not hide this from ourselves.”

And just last year, Alain Badiou wrote

The mathematical aristocracy at the creative level is… the most restrictive of all possible aristocracies.  (Badiou, Éloge des mathématiques, p. 23)

Chapter 2 of MWA exhibits the operations of hierarchy both symbolically (the IBM Men of Modern Mathematics poster, as well as Figures 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3) and materially (the role of the journal system in what Terry Tao called “certifying… significance” and “designation”, see p. 36).

Are these practices a relic of a more aristocratic period in the life of our species, and can we look forward to a future mathematics that is more inclusive, in the vision expressed by David Pimm and Nathalie Sinclair and quoted on p. 33 of MWA:

Asking “[I]n  what sense … can mathematics be considered a democratic regime…” open to all,  Pimm and Sinclair quote  … Henri Poincaré to the effect that “only  mathematicians are privy to the aesthetic sensibilities that enable” the decision of “what is worth studying.”  The article, published in a journal for educators, is  motivated by the “view that mathematics can do something for me in a  humanistic sense that repays the careful attention and deep engagement it may  require; one that may expose students to a fundamental sense and experience of  equality … and provide them with another sense of human commonality.”

Or is it the case, as Chapter 2 suggests, that “the content of mathematics is bound up … with a hierarchical charismatic structure”;  so that if Weber’s “intellectual aristocracy” lose control of the editorial boards of the “great journals” will mathematics be voided of its content and collapse into a sort of intellectual gray goo?

Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh, in The Mathematical Experience, famously claimed that “the typical working mathematician is a Platonist on weekdays and a formalist on Sundays.”  I would consider substituting “social constructivist” for “formalist” in that sentence; that would make clearer the unsettling radicalism implicit in Harron’s critique.  For my part, while my (routinized) charismatic bargain leaves me the freedom to be a social critic on the weekends, when I write things like this blog entry and Mathematics without Apologies, on weekdays I carry out my middle-level managerial tasks of maintaining the charismatic hierarchy — writing letters of recommendation, sitting on hiring committees, refereeing journal articles, all the “Traditional Rituals” (in the language of sociologist Bernard Gustin) without which the system would not be a system.  I’m a gatekeeper, in other words.  Not only that, I fulfill my functions with sincerity and commitment, and that should go without saying, otherwise my charisma would be unceremoniously withdrawn.

So am I contributing to the preservation of an oppressive system?  It’s easy to point to out that our professional autonomy is conditioned by one might call its limited sovereignty, the fact that (but this is one of the themes of Chapter 3) that we are dependent on Powerful Beings for the external goods without which the profession ceases to exist.  The Elsevier boycott of 2012 brought home to me just how little leverage we have, as mathematicians, over the profession’s material conditions, even those one might expect to be most dependent on our charismatic consent.  Our professional associations enjoy a fair amount of moral authority but lack the personnel, the organizational structure, the money, and the executive power to put up substantial resistance to the Powerful Beings on whom we depend.  Rereading the comments on Piper Harron’s blog, it occurs to me that the people to whom they are addressed, namely her readers, are not in a position to do much of anything about the issues raised there, beyond trying to answer questions like the one in this post’s title.