Category Archives: Universities

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.



Urgent news from Leicester

Tim Gowers has once again done the university community a great service by using his blog to publicize the impending decimation of the University of Leicester’s mathematics department.  More like a double decimation:  of the department’s 23 full-time staff, 5 are slated to lose their jobs, with the research staff shrinking by close to 30%.  Rather than repeat the details, which you can find presented with Gowers’s customary clarity on his blog, I am using this space to encourage readers and their friends to sign the protest petition.  The petition already has over 2500 signatures, many of them alerted to the situation (as I was) by reading Gowers’s account.

Leicester is being cut back across the board, but the cuts in mathematics are particularly severe.  For a crash course in the neo-liberal conception of the university, you can read the relevant chapter in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos, featured in an entry on this blog last year.

This blog has been suspended but it will be revived occasionally for urgent news items like this one.

UPDATE:  Vladimir Tasić points out that this sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency in Canada as well.


Four scientific societies react to the resignation of French experts

I am told that the previous post on the resignation of the ANR evaluation committee for mathematics and computer science was widely shared on Facebook, notably by researchers in the social sciences.  Today the Société Mathématique de France published a joint statement signed by the presidents of four professional organizations, as well as the text of a motion in support of the resignation, voted by the SMF at their national meeting last week.

The joint statement is reproduced below (in French).

Déclaration des sociétés savantes françaises de mathématiques et d’informatique

Société Française de Statistique (SFdS),

Société de Mathématiques Appliquées et Industrielles (SMAI),

Société Mathématique de France (SMF),

Société Informatique de France (SIF).

Mise  en  garde  sur  l’inadéquation  du  modèle  de  sélection  de  l’ANR  pour  les mathématiques et l’informatique.

Les sociétés savantes de mathématiques, statistique et informatique (SFdS, SMAI, SMF, SIF) alertent  les  pouvoirs  publics,  l’Agence  Nationale de  la  Recherche  (ANR)  et  la  communauté scientifique  sur  la  démobilisation  massive  des  mathématiciens  et  informaticiens  constaté  ces dernières années dans les appels à projets de l’ANR.

Cette démobilisation  apparaît comme une conséquence  du choix de l’ANR de ne pas tenir  compte  des  spécificités  disciplinaires  et  de  ne  pas  impulser  une  dynamique  qui soit réellement au service du développement de la science et de l’innovation en France.

Les  mathématiques,  les  statistiques  et  l’informatique  sont  fortement  moteurs  et  vont l’être  de  plus  en  plus  de  façon  directe,  transversale  et  interdisciplinaire  dans  tous  les changements  en  cours  concernant  le  développement  technologique,  les  enjeux  du numérique  et  la  capacité  d’innovation  en  France  et  à  l’international.  Pourtant,  le conseil  de  prospective  de  l’ANR  n’intègre  aucun  mathématicien  ni  informaticien  en son sein.

Le  Comité  d’Evaluation  Scientifique  de  l’ANR  en  mathématiques  et  informatique (CES 40) a  constaté  une  forte  baisse  du  nombre  de  projets  soumis  en  2016, conséquence immédiate d’une perte de la motivation des  collègues face au très faible  taux  d’acceptation  des  années  précédentes.  Il  souligne    également  la difficulté  de  mobiliser  les  collègues  pour  expertiser  des  projets  trop  souvent rejetés.

Or le nombre de projets soutenus est calculé par l’ANR proportionnellement au nombre de projets soumis. Cette année, nos deux disciplines auront donc encore moins  de  projets  acceptés,  amorçant  un cercle  vicieux  qui  met  en  danger  la vitalité de nos communautés.

En outre, les modalités d’élaboration du taux d’acceptation de l’ANR ne sont pas discutées  de  façon  ouverte  ni  diffusées  à  la  communauté  scientifique  (toutes disciplines  confondues).  Ce  taux est  déterminé  par  l’ANR,  de  façon  opaque  et  sans   aucune   concertation   avec   les   comités   après   leur   travail   d’évaluation scientifique. Il est fixé pour chaque défi, sans aucune considération disciplinaire qui permettrait  de  dégager  une  vision  pour  le  développement  de  la  science  et leur impact économique et sociétal. Les comités doivent aujourd’hui travailler en «aveugle», sans aucune information sur la politique de répartition des moyens, et sans prise en compte des critères scientifiques pour le classement final.

Les quatre sociétés savantes signataires  demandent donc que les comités scientifiques soient pleinement associés aux modalités d’élaboration des taux d’acceptation, qu’une enveloppe budgétaire soit décidée en amont du travail des comités et que le conseil de prospective de l’ANR soit plus représentatif pour les mathématiques et l’informatique. Porteuses  des  attentes  de  leur  communauté,  elles  souhaitent  rencontrer  le  ministère dans les plus brefs délais.

GÉRARD    BIAU,    Président    de    la    SFdS,

FATIHA    ALABAU,    Présidente    de    la    SMAI,

MARC    PEIGNE,    Président    de    la    SMF,

JEAN-­MARC    PETIT,    Président    de    la    SIF.

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

Leçon inaugurale


Few of the 420 seats of the magnificent Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre were empty when Claire Voisin performed the ceremony marking her entry to the “most prestigious institution of the French university” system, the 486-year old Collège de France.  Jean-Pierre Serre, whose work was amply cited by Voisin in her hour-long account of the branches of complex geometry — analytic, Kähler, and algebraic — sat in the middle of the front row, together with past and present Professors of the Collège.  The talk was systematic, organized, and comprehensive, like Voisin’s introductory two-part book on Hodge Theory and Complex Algebraic Geometry:  not a dinner party explanation by any means, it was “a rather complete tour of the subject from the beginning to the present” in the words of the review in the Bulletin of the AMS by Herbert Clemens, who noted “the break-neck pace of Voisin’s clear, complete, but ‘take no prisoners’ exposition.” Serre, who turns 90 (!) this September, was alert as always; colleagues to my left and right in the tenth row were happy with the pace and the content but speculated that the distinguished medieval historians and classicists in Serre’s row were already dozing off by the time Voisin defined complex structures in her second slide (my apologies for the blurry photos)

nombres complexes

and in any case long before she concluded her lecture with an allusion to her work on the generalized Hodge conjecture.

lastslide - 1

Readers of MWA will not be surprised to learn that the lecture was followed by a sumptuous champagne reception.  The new Professor has so many friends and admirers that the petits fours ran out well ahead of schedule, but there was (just barely) enough champagne for the jubilant crowd.  For Paris mathematics, the inauguration was undoubtedly the social event of this (very rainy) season.

I was wondering who would replace Don Zagier when he vacated his Chair in Number Theory a few years ago, so — as always in these situations — I consulted the best-informed of my colleagues.  He told me that no one had yet been named, but that it had been decided to create a Chair in Algebraic Geometry.  It was obvious for whom such a Chair was intended, but the formal announcement took some time to appear, and I was surprised to see that the press took no notice of what in the English-speaking world would certainly be considered an event of historic magnitude:  the naming of the first woman professor of mathematics to the most prestigious position in the French academy.  Journalists had no doubt chosen to heed Voisin’s own preemptive and scathing critique of this approach to “diversity”:

L’idée qu’augmenter le nombre de femmes à l’Académie des sciences aurait un impact sur la désaffection des femmes pour certains domaines des sciences est tout simplement grotesque. D’abord parce que l’Académie des sciences n’intéresse personne et ensuite parce que le choix de faire une carrière scientifique ne repose que sur les aspirations intellectuelles et le talent, et non sur des considérations mondaines. Personnellement, je supporte de moins en moins d’être passée en quelques années du statut de mathématicienne à celui de femme-mathématicienne, et de subir l’oppression grandissante de l’obsession paritaire, transportée à grand bruit par les médias.

Je souhaite que mon statut de femme, qui me plaît beaucoup, reste du domaine privé, et que l’évaluation et la reconnaissance de mon travail ne se trouvent pas polluées par la prise en compte de ce statut (ce qui est insultant en général : être une femme n’est pas un handicap !).

Je souhaite aussi ne jamais devenir Madame Quota, et surtout que cela n’arrive pas à mes filles. A supposer qu’on ne puisse pas parler d’autre chose que de la fameuse parité, serait-il possible de mentionner que les quotas sont à différents égards (dont certains non mentionnés ci-dessus) une menace pour les femmes scientifiques ?

Voisin’s point of view is rarely expressed so forcefully, but it is widely shared in France.  When I arrived from the United States in the early 1990s, it was disorienting, to say the least, to hear male mathematicians routinely making comments about the physical appearance of their female colleagues, behind their backs; but I also heard female mathematicians commenting (appreciatively or not) about the looks of their male colleagues.  There’s much more to be said, but I learned quickly enough that if I opened my mouth on this (or any other) subject I would be accused of being an “anglo-saxon” — and it was futile to brandish my Beowulf and point out that this status would be denied me in any actual English-speaking country.

After an hour of catching up with long-lost acquaintances I managed to push my way through the crowd of well-wishers to congratulate the newly-named Professor.  I hope she will not hold it against me that I have briefly extracted her “status of woman” from the private sphere.  She told me that she has a copy of MWA but that she hadn’t yet found the time to read it.  I advised her to skip ahead to Part II, and maybe chapter 4, which is where she would find the best jokes, and by all means avoid reading the boring chapter 3!  That’s the advice I give everyone, but after taking a look yesterday at his comment on David Roberts’s Google+ blog I feel I ought to make an exception for Urs Schreiber, who is specifically advised to reread the discussion of tradition-based practices on pp. 74-77 and to decide whether that discussion didn’t anticipate his objections.  I will have more to say on this topic when I comment on Roberts’s review for the Australian Mathematical Society.







Economics as theology, as viewed by Chinese astrologers



Chinese armillary sphere, Ming Dynasty, from Wikimedia Commons

Readers who recall Joseph Stiglitz’s quip that “economics is really a religion” will not be surprised to find a scholar of Chinese religion drawing parallels between the dismal science’s contemporary prestige and that of imperial Chinese astrology, on the basis of the common dependence of the two disciplinary practices on sophisticated mathematical models.  Not that imperial China had a monopoly on astrological economics:

…take the extraordinary success of Evangeline Adams, a turn-of-the-20th-century astrologer whose clients included the president of Prudential Insurance, two presidents of the New York Stock Exchange, the steel magnate Charles M Schwab, and the banker J P Morgan. … when Adams was arrested in 1914 for violating a New York law against astrology, it was mathematics that eventually exonerated her. During the trial, her lawyer Clark L Jordan emphasised mathematics in order to distinguish his client’s practice from superstition, calling astrology ‘a mathematical or exact science’. Adams herself demonstrated this ‘scientific’ method by reading the astrological chart of the judge’s son. The judge was impressed: the plaintiff, he observed, went through a ‘mathematical process to get at her conclusions… I am satisfied that the element of fraud… is absent here.’

I’m quoting from an article by Alan Jay Levinovitz on the website (one of whose senior editors owes me a letter, if I’m not mistaken).   The common origins of mathematics and astrology are addressed at some length in Chapter 8 of MWA, but not to make a point about superstition.  The deference granted economics on the grounds of its sophisticated mathematical models, in spite of its “unearned empirical authority,” deserves sustained analysis as well as critique.   I refer you to the references in Levinovitz’s article.  Here are a few choice quotations:

The historian Caley Horan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described to me how computing technology made financial astrology explode in the 1970s and ’80s. ‘Within the world of finance, there’s always a superstitious, quasi-spiritual trend to find meaning in markets,’ said Horan. ‘Technical analysts at big banks, they’re trying to find patterns in past market behaviour, so it’s not a leap for them to go to astrology.’ In 2000, USA Today quoted Robin Griffiths, the chief technical analyst at HSBC, the world’s third largest bank, saying that ‘most astrology stuff doesn’t check out, but some of it does’.

Modern governments, universities and businesses underwrite the production of economic theory with huge amounts of capital. The same was true for li production in ancient China. The emperor – the ‘Son of Heaven’ – spent astronomical sums refining mathematical models of the stars. Take the armillary sphere, such as the two-metre cage of graduated bronze rings in Nanjing, made to represent the celestial sphere and used to visualise data in three-dimensions. As Morgan emphasises, the sphere was literally made of money. Bronze being the basis of the currency, governments were smelting cash by the metric ton to pour it into li. A divine, mathematical world-engine, built of cash, sanctifying the powers that be.

‘I’ve come to the position that there should be a stronger bias against the use of math,’ [NYU economist] Romer explained to me. ‘If somebody came and said: “Look, I have this Earth-changing insight about economics, but the only way I can express it is by making use of the quirks of the Latin language”, we’d say go to hell, unless they could convince us it was really essential. The burden of proof is on them.’

and a reminder that Stiglitz’s joke was already the title of a book long before the 2008 crash:

Romer is not the first to elaborate the mathiness critique. In 1886, an article in Science accused economics of misusing the language of the physical sciences to conceal ‘emptiness behind a breastwork of mathematical formulas’. More recently, Deirdre N McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics (1998) and Robert H Nelson’s Economics as Religion (2001) both argued that mathematics in economic theory serves, in McCloskey’s words, primarily to deliver the message ‘Look at how very scientific I am.’


One of my brilliant colleagues is “like the Judith Butler or Jeffrey Sachs in math or something”

Found on the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability (CULPA):

Much of what I have to say about Wei has been written in someone else’s review. Thank you for having such a good review of Wei Zhang! People like Wei are really an asset to Columbia University and to the math world. I am writing this review to let more people know Wei, who is without a doubt the best professor I have ever encountered in my years in Columbia and is indisputably one of the academic superstars in the 21st century, at least in the realm of math. He is like the Judith Butler or Jeffrey Sachs in math or something.

I originally took this class rather unwillingly to fulfill my ECON credit, but it turns out to be the best class of my life! Wei is so inspirational! When he talks, you feel like you are transported to the world of mathematics. His class is fun even for people who are not interested in math or science, like me. During his class, you suspend all your disbelief about math. You just buckle your seat belts and get ready for the wondrous journey that Wei takes you! I probably won’t pursue math major in the end because Wei Zhang only teaches Cal 3. If he teaches more math classes, I will seriously consider majoring in math!!

Def take his class even if you are a history or English major. This class totally changes my perception of math and science. It’s a treasure for all!


Very light. Who cares about the workload when Wei is so brilliant?