Category Archives: Initiatives

Scientists March on Washington

The website was created on January 21.  The story seems to have broken just this morning in the Washington Post, and it is gradually being picked up by other media.  No date has yet been set, but the movement is growing literally as I type, to judge by this snippet from the Post’s article:

In short order, the march had a Facebook page (which currently has more than 200 more than 48,000 more than 150,000 members), a Twitter handle, a website, two co-chairs, Berman and science writer and public health researcher Caroline Weinberg, and a Google form through which interested researchers could sign up to help.

Sen. Al Franken to address Atlanta Joint Mathematics Mtg

al_franken_official_senate_portrait

The AMS Committee on Science Policy (CSP) will be hosting a panel discussion at next month’s Joint Mathematics Meeting in Atlanta.  Karen Saxe, who worked for Senator Al Franken as the 2013-2014 AMS/AAAS Science and Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, invited the Minnesota Senator (and former Saturday Night Live cast member) to speak to the panel, and he obliged by sending a video to be played at the meeting.  Here is the full CSP panel program:

AMS Committee on Science Policy Panel Discussion 

Friday, January 6, 2:30 pm — 4:00 pm

Place:              Atlanta Marriott Marquise, Atrium Level, Room A704   

Title:                “Grassroots Advocacy for Mathematics and Science Policy”

Organizers:      Jeffrey Hakim, American University (jhakim@american.edu )
Douglas Mupasiri, University of Northern Iowa (douglas.mupasiri@uni.edu )
Scott Wolpert, University of Maryland (saw@math.umd.edu )

Moderator:      Karen Saxe (kxs@ams.org), Director, AMS Washington Office

Panelists:         Catherine Paolucci, Office of Senator Al Franken (paoluccic@gmail.com)

Douglas Mupasiri, University of Northern Iowa (douglas.mupasiri@uni.edu)

Scott Wolpert, University of Maryland (saw@math.umd.edu)

Description:     The AMS Committee on Science Policy has organized this panel to discuss ways to engage with elected officials in addressing policy issues of concern to the mathematics community, including research funding and education.  Panelists will discuss the importance of grassroots advocacy and building relationships with legislators to further goals.

The video is about three minutes long, and those of you who cannot attend will be able to watch it at the AMS website — details to be supplied later.   In the meantime, if you’re wondering what “Grassroots advocacy for mathematics” looks like, Karen directed me to this blog post about a recent (Capitol) Hill Visit by a Villanova student delegation, organized by the Association for Women in Mathematics.

Speaking of Washington, I found the following quotation from Nietzsche’s Transvaluation of all Values in the chapter on Sade and Nietzsche of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment:

The weak and unsuccessful must perish; this is the first proposition of our philanthropy.  And they should even be helped on their way.

Also this quotation from Sade’s Justine:

How in truth can  you require that he who has been endowed by nature with an eminent capacity for crime… should have to obey the same law that calls all to virtue or to moderation?

If these sentiments remind you of individuals, living or dead, who have been mentioned in the news recently, you will be relieved to see that, more than one month after national elections, the officials entrusted with the business of the Republic appear not to be guided by Sadist ethics.

 

The belief that there are natural laws of finance

I continue the discussion of Frédéric Lordon’s Jusqu’à quand, which contains an explanation of the practices that made the 2008 crash inevitable that has yet to be translated into English although it is more specific and complete than Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain making fish stew.  Here is a quotation that grapples directly with the most dangerous of the many illusions promoted by the manufacturers of mathematical models, namely that the objectivity of such models can be separated not only from the empirical observations needed to confirm and perfect them but also from need for a conceptual framework in which the question of the model’s objectivity can be raised.   Lordon argues that quantitative (probabilistic) models of finance are meaningless if there is no reason to believe that finance is governed by natural laws:

Obviously the most devoted partisans of quantitative finance will argue that any imperfection is transitory and remind us how the development of science is progressive but irresistible; even if today’s models still make a few mistakes, there is no problem that won’t eventually give way to hard work and research.  There are nevertheless reasons to think that this optimism will come up against a fundamental and insurmountable obstacle, rooted in the very question of knowing whether it is possible, and if so how far, to grasp financial risk through the calculus of probabilities.    Transcribing risk in the language of probability is such a common practice that it is never called into question.  The modelers, who consider the question trivial, are thus barely aware of the — absolutely non-trivial — theoretical choices they undertake when they make the hypothesis that the prices of financial assets are governed by this or that probabilistic law. … Of all the tools offered by the calculus of probability, the so-called “Gaussian” law is the one most commonly used … because it’s the simplest to manipulate.  But Gaussian laws have the unfortunate property of considering large price variations as events of minuscule probability… even though they are frequently observed in financial reality.  [Thus there is a competition to find the most realistic law…]  But the more frenetic the search for the “right hypothesis” becomes, the more one loses sight of the essential point…:  the belief that one will someday find the “right probability density” amounts to the belief that there are natural laws of finance.  This belief can be given the name of “objective probabilism” because it presupposes that there objectively exists a certain law of probability — “we’ll find it in the end” — that governs the price of assets.

Lordon finds more credible an “alternative approach,” which he associates with the name of André Orléan, according to which

“the” probability density doesn’t fall from the sky of “objective natures” but is rather the endogenous product of the interaction of financial operatives.  … It’s the radical modification of the configuration of interactions between operatives, expressed notably by the brutal variation of the degree of heterogeneity (or homogeneity) of behaviors, that produces the regime shift, and the qualitative transformation of the relevant probability density.

Students of dynamical systems will recognize the similarity to the language of René Thom’s catastrophe theory.  Lordon continues:

If one is absolutely set on maintaining the notion of law to describe the phenomena of finance — and the observation can be extended to all the phenomena of economics — one must bear in mind that the laws in question are not natural and invariant but rather temporary, variable, and contingent.   If one wishes, one can therefore preserve the general probabilistic framework but only after amending it substantially… where quantitative finance believes firmly in an objective probabilism, what one could even call a transcendent probabilism, there is in reality only an immanent probabilism:  the laws of probability do not fall to earth from a heaven of ideas, they emerge from below, shaped by the concrete interactions of agents — another way to rediscover that God doesn’t exist.

The last few words notwithstanding, here we see Lordon on the road to Spinozism.  We will not follow him there, but rather draw the conclusion that, if “There is no alternative,” the formula associated with Margaret Thatcher, it’s because the decision-makers, the Powerful Beings, as they are called in MWA, have contrived to make alternatives impossible.  It’s certainly not because alternatives are mathematically unthinkable.

 

The alternative is to change the frame

Lordon at Bourse du Travail

Frédéric Lordon at the Bourse du Travail, Paris, April 20 (March 51), 2016

In their haste to titter about the drama to which Guido Menzio was subjected the other day at Philadelphia International Airport — the University of Pennsylvania economist was pulled off his flight and briefly questioned by the FBI, before he was allowed to reboard, because he had been spotted scribbling differential equations in his note pad — the journalists (and the FBI agents as well, apparently) neglected to ask the obvious question:  were his equations blueprints for what Warren Buffett called “financial weapons of mass destruction?”

The answer:  apparently not.  Menzio, who is linked to the author of this blog by seven degrees of separation, Menzio

is a specialist in the equilibrium of job search models, not in financial derivatives.  The journalists nevertheless squandered an opportunity to remind their readers that economics can be no less life-threatening than suicide bombers and that a quantitative comparison of their relative dangers is urgently needed.

I first encountered Frédéric Lordon’s elegantly ironic prose in the pages of Le Monde Diplomatique, probably in 2004, when he was already writing about the destructive effects of finance, long before the crash of 2008 showed him in retrospect to have been a prophet.  As the warning signs of the coming catastrophe accumulated in 2007, Lordon was there to point them out;  when the crash finally did arrive, I immediately turned to the book Lordon had completed, a few weeks before the Lehman Brothers collapse, for an explanation of what had brought the world’s economy to the brink of disaster.  Lordon’s book contained an introduction to what was then the arcane superstructure of MBSs, SPVs, CDOs, and CDSs that the “mad mathematicians of Wall Street” had erected on what would soon be the smoking ruins of what is politely called the “real economy,” and although MWA didn’t cite Lordon explicitly, I regret not including his book in the bibliography, since Chapter 4 could not have been written without it.

My next post will translate an excerpt from Lordon’s 2008 book of particular relevance to mathematics and mathematicians.  The witty and multiply-talented Lordon has since gone on to write many articles in Le Monde Diplomatique as well as many books, including what must be the only comedy in rhyming alexandrine verse (since made into a film) about the subprime crisis:

Le banquier

Monsieur le Président, votre haut patronage
Nous offre l’occasion de multiples hommages.
A votre action d’abord qui fut incomparable
Et victorieusement éloigna l’innommable.
Mais à votre sagesse nous devons tout autant
La grâce que nous vaut le parfait agrément
De vous entretenir et d’avoir votre oreille,
Pour éloigner de vous tous les mauvais conseils.

Le quatrième banquier

Nous savons le courroux qui saisit l’opinion,
Tout ce que s’y fermente, toute l’agitation.
Nous entendons la rue rougeoyant comme forge
Vouloir nous châtier, nous faire rendre gorge.
Le peuple est ignorant, livré aux démagogues,
Outrance et déraison sont ses violentes drogues.
Il n’est que passion brute, impulsion sans contrôle,
Un bloc d’emportement, et de fureur un môle.

Le troisième banquier

Mais nous craignons surtout que des opportunistes,
Sans vergogne excitant la fibre populiste,
Propagent leurs idées, infestent les esprits.
Ils ne nous veulent plus que raides et occis.
Même les modérés sont assez dangereux.
Incontestablement ils semblent moins hargneux,
Et s’ils n’ont nul projet de nous éradiquer,
Ils ne veulent pas moins nous faire réguler…

In recent years he had switched his attention (and his academic affiliation) to philosophy and was calling himself a Spinozist — the only one of his books translated into English is entitled Willing Slaves of Capital:  Spinoza and Marx on Desire.   But when le peuple began their nightly occupations of the Place de la République in Paris, calling themselves Nuit Debout,

Nuit Debout - 1.jpg

Nuit Debout by day, March 49, 2016

Lordon was acknowledged as an intellectual reference — a maître de penser, according to Le Monde.  The image at the top of this post is a screen capture of his (seated) intervention at a mass meeting around the corner from the Place de la République devoted to the “next step.”  The passage that starts at about 7’05” is particularly recommended.  I translate the climax (from 7’50” to 8’20”):

When the liberals say TINA, There Is No Alternative, it is objectively true.   But it is a conditional truth.  Yes, it is objectively true that, when one has set up the frame of all the neoliberal structures I just mentioned, there are no longer alternatives, and the frame is designed precisely to rule them all out.  However, if there are no longer alternatives within the frame, there is always the alternative of changing the frame.

Nuit Debout - 1 (1)

Nuit debout at dusk, March 64, 2016

Infamy on top of incompetence (where is Laurent Schwartz? part 1)

Messmer

Thomas Piketty, nicknamed (by the Financial Times) the “rock-star economist,” author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, reacted vigorously in his blog in Le Monde to the proposal by French President François Hollande to amend the constitution to allow the revocation of the citizenship of French binationals convicted of terrorism.  Here is a full translation of Piketty’s statement.

To its economic incompetence, the government has now added infamy.  Not satisfied with having been consistently wrong in its economic policy choices since 2012 [the year of Hollande’s election, MH], with the rise in unemployment and xenophobia as the inevitable result, the government has now decided to run behind the Front National by imposing a law allowing the revocation of citizenship that the left has always combatted, and by creating an unbearable and stigmatizing unequal status — which is moreover completely useless and ineffective in fighting terrorism — for millions of French people born in France whose sole error was to have obtained a second nationality at some point in their lives for family reasons.

All those on the left who reject this deplorable policy should unite to demand a civic primary on the left in 2017 [the year of the next presidential election in France, MH] in order to choose the best candidate to oppose the right and the extreme right.…

A few decades ago, the voice of civic outrage and defense of democratic rights would very likely have been that of Laurent Schwartz.  The image copied above from the CNRS page in honor of Schwartz’s centennial is an excerpt of the letter from Pierre Messmer, Minister of Armies, dated October 11, 1960, informing Schwartz of his suspension from his professorship at the École Polytechnique for having signed the Manifeste des 121 opposing the French war in Algeria and in particular calling on the government to recognize the right to conscientious objection.  (He was reinstated a few years later.)

Many mathematicians outside France are not familiar with the story of Schwartz’s student Maurice Audin, whose death under torture in Algeria in 1957 has never been officially recognized by the French government.  How Schwartz reacted is vividly recounted in K. Chandrasekharan’s review of Schwartz’s autobiography for the Notices of the AMS:

While [Schwartz] sympathised with the goal of self-determination [in Algeria], he kept his distance from the nationalist movement. Matters came to a head in an unexpected fashion, and he was inexorably drawn into the political vortex. Maurice Audin, a graduate student from Algeria, who was to have completed his doctoral thesis in Paris under his supervision, was suddenly arrested (11 June 1957) in Algeria and disappeared. Audin was French, not a Muslim, but a communist. It turned out that he had been tortured and murdered at the hands of the forces of law and order (on 21 June). There was no official response to numerous inquiries. This cut Schwartz to the quick, outraged his sense of justice, and triggered his determination to galvanize public opinion against the practice of torture, and especially against the abuse of the special powers invoked by

the government for the use of third-degree methods to put down the rebels in Algeria. Schwartz focussed on the case of Audin (as Gandhi did on the salt tax), founded the Audin Committee (fall 1957) to demand a clarification of the circumstances surrounding his death, arranged for the award of a doctor’s degree, in absentia, for Audin’s nearly, but not quite, complete thesis (December 1957), and wrote a famous article in L’Express on “the revolt of the universities” against the practice of torture by governments. His photograph appeared
on the cover, and the article gained the attention and support of a wide public and made him a national political figure.

More information can be found at the website of the 40-year commemoration of the Audin affair, at which Schwartz and other surviving members of the Audin committee spoke.

The Socialist government of Manuel Valls, like its (equally Socialist) predecessor in 1957, has granted itself “special powers” (a “state of emergency”) in the current crisis; it is also proposing to change the constitution.  Opponents of the Algerian war ran a real risk of assassination — the homes of both Schwartz and his fellow Bourbakiste Roger Godement were attacked by the OAS with plastic explosives.   The situation in France is not yet as grim as it was at the time; nevertheless, one has to admire Piketty’s courage in taking a public stand when it would be much easier for him to remain silent.  As the first French Fields Medalist, Schwartz was already a public figure before he became known for his outspoken views in favor of human rights.  The French media like to boast that there have been twelve additional French Fields Medalists since then.  Will they follow Schwartz’s example by devoting their charisma to the defense of democracy and equality?

 

 

Le Monde promotes socially responsible mathematics

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.