Challenges the math community faces in the future

These are the notes I prepared for the “Global panel” at the CARTOON conference on May 30, 2020.  There is only time to discuss a small fraction of this material, which itself is a minuscule selection of the massive literature inspired by thoughts about what our life, academic or otherwise, will be like if and when the pandemic is brought under control.

I expect to add resources and references as the summer progresses.


We have all been reading about the difference between “getting back to normal” and “adjusting to the new normal.”  There turns out to be fairly broad agreement that not only were some features of the “old normal” highly undesirable — like inequality, pollution, xenophobia, dependence on fossil fuels, austerity in public services, or the gig economy, or the for-profit health care system in the United States — but that the current crisis provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to eliminate or at least to attenuate some of these undesirable features.

In the face of the coronavirus, a small window has opened in our societies to gain scope for action. It is important to keep this window open a bit.

(Bernd Scherer, Director, Haus der Kulturen der Welt)

Or, to quote Juliette Binoche, Iggy Pop, Vaughan Jones, Béla Tarr, Madonna, and Tim Gowers, among many other celebrities, it is time

to leave behind the unsustainable logic that still prevails and to undertake a profound overhaul of our goals, values, and economies.

In that spirit, I’m going to focus on the challenge to the mathematics community of using the current opportunity to address some aspects that need to be reconsidered of the system that makes our profession possible.  I will divide these artificially into four groups:  relations with the broader society, relations with universities and higher education, relations within the profession, and relations with ourselves.


Relations with broader society

The crisis has revealed something we already suspected:  that we are not essential workers.  This has two sides:  on the one hand, our mathematical activities are not necessary for the basic functions of civilized society; on the other hand, our material circumstances are safer and much more comfortable than those of nurses, sanitation workers, transport workers, food handlers, and so on.  What we owe in exchange for our comfort is a serious reflection on what is the “essence” of our work, with regard to the broader society.

Serious reflection on our essence requires in the first place speaking out about the ethical challenges posed by the many spectacularly problematic applications of mathematics — financial engineering, Cambridge Analytica, algorithmic weapons of math destruction, surveillance, as well as strictly military applications.  That doesn’t mean we necessarily have to refuse funding from the Heilbronn Institute, as Tom Leinster argued a few years ago; but it does mean owning up to what accepting such funding entails.

One direction I strongly advise avoiding is to reduce our essence to the market value of applications of mathematics, in scientific modeling or commercial innovations.  The argument can and should be made that these applications depend in multiple ways on a robust community of pure mathematicians, but promising spinoffs and startups in exchange for support of our profession is a toxic habit of concession to neoliberal thinking, and that habit clouds our thinking at every level.  For many reasons we should take advantage of the crisis to seal the collected thoughts of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in a time capsule and bury them permanently in a toxic waste dump.

I will return to the essence of our work at the end.  In the meantime, avoiding the neoliberal reading of our essence as far as the broader society is concerned means taking on the neoliberal model of the university.  To quote the petition Refonder l’Université et la Recherche pour retrouver prise sur le monde et nos vies (more than 7000 signatures since March 20, including mine):

Le corollaire de l’autonomie du monde savant est son engagement sur un principe : sa responsabilité vis-à-vis de la société.  L’usage politique, technique et industriel des travaux scientifiques doit se décider dans un cadre pluraliste et démocratique, en accord avec l’intérêt commun.


Relations with universities  

In the neoliberal model the university provides the service of enhancing the student’s market value, and we, as teachers, are service workers.  This vision has the merit of relieving our fear of being seen as social parasites.  But the relief is short-lived, because the model of university education built on massive student debt is not sustainable, and other models are actively being discussed.  In March Stefan Collini wrote this in the Guardian:

The “marketisation” of universities in the past decade has changed their ethos as well as their funding. Older notions of an academic community, or a scholarly career, have been replaced by economic analyses that look to reduce unit costs per output. Replacing permanent staff with cheaper, disposable temporary ones reduces the power of academics and increases that of managers.

The rich Ivy league and similar universities have already announced hiring freezes; Johns Hopkins has gone even further, sending signals that even tenure may not guarantee the expected level of material comfort for much longer.

Suddenly anticipating losses of over $350 million in the next 15 months, the university imposed a hiring freeze, canceled all raises, and warned about impending furloughs and layoffs. Most extraordinarily of all, it suspended contributions to its employees’ retirement accounts.

(François Furstenburg, Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Times Higher Education Supplement has this headline story:

            Mergers and ‘FE future’ predicted for some English universities 

While many universities would need “pretty big cuts in teaching and research staff” as a result of the coronavirus crisis, such action would not be enough to save some institutions, which would be forced to merge as a condition of receiving extra funding…

Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, adds

The future prosperity of the UK depends on having a strong university research base, which is subsidised by international student income.

Lurking in the background in this and similar articles is the prospect that the existing system of higher education will be replaced by one where universities become content providers to fit the respective business models of leading national industries — Silicon Valley in the US, for example.

The promise of freedom of subjective development and the democratization of knowledge was, however, increasingly functionalized through business models that use the orientation of citizens on the internet to collect data and sell them as goods for digital capitalism.

(Bernd Scherer, loc. cit)



A few of the sponsors of the 2020 WICHE Conference on Educational Technology

Some of the initiatives to preserve what we see as the values embodied by universities focus on protecting the most precarious university workers.  Among them are colleagues who have undergone the full academic apprenticeship process but who have not acquired the professional stability that is one of the chief attractions of the academic life.   I am one of 2800 signatories, including only 25 mathematicians, of the Covid-19 Academic Solidarity Statement, which

calls on universities to protect the lives and livelihoods of its contingent academic workers, including non-tenure track (NTT) teachers and graduate students. … Signatories to the statement further pledge not to accept speaking invitations during the 2020-21 academic year at institutions that have extended tenure clocks for their tenure-track faculty, but have not similarly extended contracts for all currently employed NTT teachers and graduate students.

(All eight Ivy League universities, including my own, are on the list of institutions whose invitations are to be refused, along with many others, public as well as private.  See also the long list of Related Campaigns, mainly by graduate workers and non-tenure-track faculty.)

It usually comes as a surprise to our colleagues in the humanities that mathematicians can be uniquely effective in campaigns in defense of progressive values.  A good example is Tim Gowers’s pledge in 2012 to boycott Elsevier, which inspired the Cost of Knowledge statement that quickly collected over 10000 signatures (17000 by 2018).


Relations with the profession

And with inevitable pressure on the job market as a result of the collapse of public budgets as well as the economy more generally, the priorities of the profession will come into question in a way that has not been seen since the 1950s — except in Russia, where mathematics has not recovered and may never recover from the collapse of the USSR.  Even before the financial crisis of 2008 the internal contradictions of the model of the reproduction of the humanities through graduate programs were widely recognized (as early as 1970, according to Christopher Newfield).  In mathematics, the imbalance between entering graduate classes and the job market (but why do we accept the “job market” as a fact of nature?) has been mitigated by the possibility of employment in the toxic “old normal” industries I already mentioned.

A recent Intercept article by Naomi Klein spells out how the tech industry, in partnership with local governments, plans to cash in on installing “smart” technology in the wake of the crisis.  She quotes Eric Schmidt:

Congress should meet the president’s request for the highest level of defense R & D funding in over 70 years, and the Defense Department should capitalize on that resource surge to build breakthrough capabilities in A.I., quantum, hypersonics and other priority technology areas.

Jobs in these sectors may well help PhDs in mathematics and the sciences survive the loss of stable university positions.  And this need not be a social and political disaster — if these developments are placed under democratic control, so that the benefits do not all accrue to Silicon Valley billionaires and the power is not designed to favor autocracy.  To quote Klein again:

Will that technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be rolled out in state-of-exception frenzy, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come? Questions like, for instance: If we are indeed seeing how critical digital connectivity is in times of crisis, should these networks, and our data, really be in the hands of private players like Google, Amazon, and Apple? If public funds are paying for so much of it, should the public also own and control it? If the internet is essential for so much in our lives, as it clearly is, should it be treated as a nonprofit public utility?

However, even if one’s conscience is willing to forget that the expansion of employment opportunities for mathematicians to develop the tools of speculative finance and monetization of personal data that are at least partially responsible for the conditions that made the present crisis much worse than it had to be, there’s no guarantee that these industries will be able to absorb the surplus of mathematics PhDs when the crisis is over.


Relations with self

If you want to continue in this profession, your main task is to ask yourselves what you find important and valuable about the mathematical vocation, and then to acknowledge that much of this is likely to come under attack, precisely for the reasons that you find it appealing, and that preserving what is important and valuable is really up to you.  Ultimately this means placing the economic model and political justifications that sustain higher education, including those discussed above, under scrutiny; drawing the appropriate conclusions; and then doing whatever is necessary, as indicated by these conclusions, in order to preserve whatever drew you to the mathematical life in the first place.

In other words, if the values of mathematics are important to you, you will have to become activists.  If you have been reading or rereading Camus’ The Plague, you will have seen that there was “no great merit” in doing what Tarrou chose to do, “because they knew it was the only thing to do and not to have decided to do it would have been incredible.”

Humanistic scholars are much more skillful than we are in finding the language to justify their activism.

In a time in which public education must struggle to establish itself as a public good, it is incumbent upon faculty to clarify in what senses higher education is a value in our public worlds and why it should be supported. The answer provided by the recent AAUP statement …  relies on a notion of progress that is hardly explained, and given that experts have surely led us astray (experts in neoliberalism, technologies of indefinite detention, nuclear war), we would have to know which version of expert knowledge is advanced and judge whether its advancement is really a public good. Since we need to know and evaluate the direction and aim of such an “advancement,” we would have to rely on those humanistic disciplines explicitly devoted to critically interrogating the problem of value, justification, and the various senses of the public good.

(Judith Butler, Academe)


This text predates the COVID-19 crisis but the conclusions remain valid, and they challenge us to explain how the values that motivate us as mathematicians — the values that arise authentically from our practice, not those that are assigned to our work by the market — contribute meaningfully to “various senses of the public good.”  I think we can meet the challenge, but more of us will have to put more effort into our explanations than most of us have done so far.

Mathematicians have made considerable progress in recognizing ethical challenges within the profession.   The AMS has gone so far as to institutionalize the language of inclusion and exclusion in its publications.  But the scope for inclusion will be severely diminished if we don’t  find the language to address the challenges to the profession within the broader society.


1-minute summary

Forget everything you think you know, look for allies outside of mathematics, figure out what is most precious and hold on to it, and be prepared to fight to preserve it, because I guarantee there are political and economic forces that will take it away from you if left unopposed.



SOME CHOICE QUOTATIONS (some behind paywalls)

Once hard decisions have been made about academic offerings, high-level estimates of required faculty can be calculated with existing load levels, class sizes, and student-to- faculty ratios. Each of these items should next be analyzed as part of the second key question: How productive can our faculty be?

…Many argue that the traditional professorial model of tenure, lighter teaching loads, long vacations, and sabbaticals was formed when salaries were lower in higher ed but has been maintained even though salaries have risen.

(Chronicle of Higher Education, How to Address the Elephant in the Room: Academic Costs)


Faced with an education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who has been bypassed by events, teachers have themselves invented new practices, working school by school and class by class. Away from the education authorities and the school inspectorates, the great majority of teachers have taken it upon themselves to choose and organise the details of the return to school.

…what this flurry of initiatives and mobilisation, and this capacity for self-organisation and innovation, have also shown is the extent to which a health crisis has ended up revealing the dangerously archaic nature of our political system.

(MediapartHow virus crisis is changing the face – and politics – of French society)


This crisis affords a rare chance to make personnel changes that have historically been resisted by strong campus cultures of inertia or by union agreements.

…Be prepared for big-change efforts and major cost-cutting (both administrative and academic), and invest in strategic differentiation to advance your college’s long-term health as well as survive this short-term crisis. In general, you will want to strive to cut more rather than less, and if things turn positive, you will be in a position to re-invest according to your strategy.

(Chronicle, Under Covid-19, University Budgets Like We’ve Never Seen Before )


The real Fields Medal curse?


The 2014 Fields Medalists in Seoul with former President Park Geun-Hye (now serving a 25-year prison term) and IMU President Ingrid Daubechies

(This is a revised version of a post published on March 12, under a much longer title.  The revision takes into account the later dramatic developments in the case of retired King Juan Carlos I of Spain.  If  you missed János Kollár’s article about the curse that, according to two economists, afflicts Fields Medalists with an alarming loss of productivity, you probably have the time to do so now.  It’s very entertaining and I guarantee it will take your mind off the pandemic and your lockdown for a few minutes at least.)

I had been preparing a blog post on the history of holding the International Congress under the patronage of figures of political authority.  This patronage has been symbolized in recent times by inviting important politicians — often heads of state — to place the Fields Medals in the hands of the year’s Laureates.  This has been the consistent practice since at least 2002, when I was in the Great Hall of the People to witness Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin handing the Fields Medals to Laurent Lafforgue and Vladimir Voevodsky.  Like most of my colleagues I assumed this was a sign of the importance the host country attached to the ceremony, and to mathematics as a whole.  By extension I concluded that an ICM at which the head of state was absent from the opening ceremony was on some level a symbolic failure for the host country’s organizers as well as for the international mathematical community.

On the other hand, as readers of this blog have probably guessed, I was motivated to write about the topic because I wonder whether this kind of high patronage is still a good idea in an age when practically no important political leader in the world enjoys the kind of respect that would do honor to the ideals that motivate the International Mathematical Union, and when so many leaders of major countries (and smaller countries as well) are authoritarians or crooks or both at once.  It turns out that the practice of placing ICM under the sponsorship of the highest political spheres has not been consistent.  The IMU has helpfully made the proceedings of all past congresses available, and the reading of the early pages of the earliest congresses is pleasurable as well as enlightening.  How would I have learned otherwise that the 1920 Congress in Strasbourg cost 83,525 F, and that the most generous sponsor was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (10,000 F), followed closely by the 7,000 F provided by the Commissariat générale d’Alsace-Lorraine (restored to France only two years earlier) and the 5,000 F donation of Solvay, headquartered (still) in Brussels?  I focused, however, on the congresses at which Fields Medals were awarded, starting with the Oslo congress in 1936, and specifically on whether the honor of presenting the Medals to the winners was entrusted to heads of state, to lesser politicians, to mathematicians, or to other representatives of civil society.

Reports on the opening ceremonies contain gaps, and I am not certain that I am reading them correctly, but I believe that the 1936 proceedings affirms that King Haakon VII of Norway was indeed in attendance, but that it was Elie Cartan who presented the first Fields Medals to Lars Ahlfors and to Norbert Wiener, representing Jesse Douglas who was too “fatigué” to attend.  In Cambridge (Massachusetts) in 1950, it was the turn of Harald Bohr to hand the Medals to Laurent Schwartz and Atle Selberg, and in 1954 in Amsterdam Hermann Weyl transmitted the prize to Kunihiko Kodaira and Jean-Pierre Serre.  Mathematicians — respectively Academician Mstislav Keldysh, Rolf Nevanlinna, Wladislaw Orlicz, Lars Ahlfors, and Beno Eckmann — again did the honors in Moscow in 1966, in Helsinki in 1978, in Warsaw in 1983, in Berkeley in 1986, and in Zürich in 1994.   And it appears that Yuri I. Manin presented the Fields Medals in Berlin in 1998 — but I can’t figure it out from the report on the opening ceremonies, which include lengthy speeches by a series of high officials from various levels of the German government, and this is particularly embarrassing because I was actually in the audience (or maybe I wasn’t) and I don’t remember what happened.

The case of Moscow was a bit ambiguous.  Georges de Rham introduced the laureates.

Unfortunately, A. Grothendieck, was unable to come. May I call Messrs. Atiyah, Cohen and Smale to come forward and receive these medals from the hands of Academician Keldysh.

I have already  mentioned this but I repeat the information because (as I just learned) Академик Мстислав Келдыш is the name of a 6,240 ton Russian scientific research vessel which played a role in the filming of James Cameron’s Titanic.  Not a bad fate for the name of a mathematician!

On all the other occasions the prizes were presented by politicians.  Here is a rundown:

1958, Edinburgh:  The prizes were presented by the Right Honorable Ian Johnson-Gilbert, Lord Provost of Edinburgh (not to be confused with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh).

1962, Stockholm:  “The International Mathematical Union considers it a great honour that His Majesty the King has agreed to be present here and to give the Fields Medals to the winners of the Prizes” (ICM Proceedings, p. xl).

1970, Nice:  The congress was placed under the highest possible patronage:  “Monsieur Georges POMPIDOU, Président de la République Française, a accordé son haut patronage au Congrès. Monsieur Jacques CHABAN-DELMAS, Premier Ministre, a accordé son patronage au Congrès.”

However, neither the President nor the Prime Minister made the trip to Nice. Instead,

Monsieur Olivier GUICHARD, Ministre de l’Éducation nationale, remet les médailles Fields aux quatre lauréats, qu’il félicite.

The financial sponsorship for the congress was prominently displayed in the Nice proceedings, as it had been in the 1920 Strasbourg proceedings — in other words, I had to skip over the account of financial sponsorship before finding the report on the opening ceremony — and I thought readers might like to see that as well:

Le Congrès a bénéficié de l’aide d’un Comité de soutien pour la diffusion des travaux du Congrès, composé comme suit : Président : M. Georges DESBRIèRE, Vice-Président de Péchiney, Président de l’Association pour le Développement de l’Enseignement et des Recherches auprès des Facultés des Sciences de l’Université de Paris (A.D.E.R.P.). Membres : MM. BAUMGARTNER, Président de Rhône-Poulenc, CHASSAGNY, Prési-dent de l’Union syndicale des industries aéronautiques et spatiales, DELOUVRIER, Président de l’Électricité de France, DONTOT, Président de la Fédération nationale des industries électroniques, FERRY, Président de la Chambre syndicale de la sidérurgie, GALICHON, Président d’Air France, GLASSER, Président du Syndicat général de la Construction électrique, GRANDPIERRE, Président de l’Institut des hautes études scientifiques, HAAS-PICARD, Président de l’Union des Chambres syndicales de l’industrie du pétrole, HOTTINGUER, Président de l’Association professionnelle des Banques, HUVELIN, Président du Conseil National du Patronat Français, LESOURNE, Président de la S. E. M. A. (METRA International), d’ORNHJELM, Président de la Chambre syndicale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, Ambroise Roux, Président de la Compagnie générale d’Électricité

1974, Vancouver:  H.M.S. Coxeter, President of the Congress,

announced that a telegram would be sent to His Excellency, the Right Honourable Jules Leger, C. C, C.M.M., Governor General of Canada, Patron of the Congress. The text of the telegram is as follows: We much appreciate your agreeing to serve as Patron of the first meeting in Vancouver of the International Congress of Mathematicians. We regret your inability to be present and we convey our warmest wishes for a complete recovery.

At the end of the opening ceremony, Professor Chandrasekharan, chairman of the Fields Medals Committee, made a speech that concluded:

May I offer them our warmest congratulations, and invite them to come forward to receive the medals from the hands of His Honour, the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.

1990, Kyoto:  “The winners came forward and received their medals and prize checks from Mr. Kosuke Hori, Minister of Education, Science and Culture.”

The Medals were presented by mathematicians in 1994, and 1998, as I already explained. As you can see, the practice of receiving Fields Medals from high-ranking politicians is not so well established as some of us believed.   And recent history has shown a curious correlation between getting close to the Fields Medal ceremony and being investigated for corruption.  The prime example is that of former President Park Geun-Hye, shown above in Seoul in 2014, charged less than 3 years later with “abuse of power, bribery, coercion and leaking government secrets.”  She will be in jail for a long long time, and although it was no fault of the four Fields Medalists, can they honestly say that it was an honor to accept the medals from an individual who enjoys such a dubious distinction?

The 2018 Fields Medal ceremony narrowly escaped being tainted by the participation of a no less corrupt politician:


Former Brazilian president Michel Temer [here shown in his official portrait] was arrested on Thursday as part of the sprawling five-year Car Wash investigation into political corruption.
Mr Temer was picked up by federal police officers at his home in São Paulo less than three months after he handed over the presidential sash to his successor, far-right former army officer Jair Bolsonaro.  (Irish Times, March 21, 2019)

From France24, May 15, 2019:

Former Brazil president Michel Temer left prison on Wednesday less than a week after returning to a Sao Paulo penitentiary in relation to a wide-ranging corruption scandal that has engulfed several high profile South American politicians.

The 78-year-old left the Military Police Battalion in Sao Paulo at 1.30 pm (1630 GMT) in a heavily guarded convoy as he headed to his home in an upmarket neighborhood in the sprawling city’s west.

His release was ordered by all four judges on the Superior Court of Justice under the writ of habeas corpus, which demands that a prisoner who claims unlawful detention be brought before a court.

However, several conditions were attached, including a freezing of his assets and the seizure of his passport.…

He is suspected of having been at the head of a criminal organization that diverted up to 1.8 billion reais ($460 million) and has been operating for 40 years.

Temer participated enthusiastically in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and was still President during the ICM in Rio de Janeiro.  In that capacity it was expected that he would hand out the Fields Medals at the opening ceremony.  However (according to a colleague in Brazil with whom I spoke at the time) Temer found a diplomatic excuse to justify his absence at the ceremony, where his presence would certainly have been met with a loud and embarrassing protest — his approval rating had dropped to about 3%, a record low for any sitting President, anywhere in the world, even before his indictment.

It was India’s President, and not the better-known (and more powerful) Prime Minister, who brought the dignity of state to the opening ceremony of the ICM in Hyderabad in August 2010.

The officers of the IMU could have anticipated that the ordinary corruption of state, the ubiquitous kind to which most of us rarely pay attention, would accompany her presence, especially since she had already been under investigation:

From Wikipedia:  Patil was a chairperson of the [Pratibha Mahila Sahakari] bank and also one of its directors, along with many of her relatives. She is one of 34 respondents in an ongoing case [as of 2007, according to Wikipedia] before the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court regarding alleged mismanagement of the bank and misappropriation of funds.… The Reserve Bank of India … revoked the licence of the bank in 2003 after it was found out that the bank had engaged in various irregularities, including illegally waiving interest on loans given to many of Patil’s family members.

At this point in my chronology I was hoping to be able to point to an exception in the person of former King Juan Carlos I of Spain.  While few (probably none) of my Spanish friends are monarchists, they all recognize the role he played at a crucial moment in the consolidation of the still-fragile democracy that was installed after Franco’s death, and for the most part he was comfortable in his role of titular head of state in the system that reserves the actual power of government for the elected parliament.   Moreover, unlike his successor and son, King Felipe VI, he has not intervened pointlessly in the Catalan independence crisis.

Madrid 2006

Overall, then, King Juan Carlos enjoyed broad respect in Spain and did bring a certain dignity to the 2006 ICM in Madrid, as did King Haakon VII in Oslo in 1936 (and even more in retrospect, for his refusal to recognize the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War).  But a week before I revised this post the following story broke in El País:

This followed the revelation that “A public prosecutor in Switzerland has been investigating a multi-million-euro donation received by Corinna Larsen, a friend of former Spanish King Juan Carlos I, from a Swiss bank account linked to a Panamanian foundation.”  The donation of $100 million to Corinna Larsen — also known as Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein — was apparently a kickback in connection with the construction of the Haramain high speed rail connection between Medina and Mecca, which was completed in 2018 by a consortium of 12 Spanish companies.

When I originally wrote this post I had not found allusions to this story in the English-language press.   The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), the leading force in the current coalition government along with the parties pressing the case (Unidas Podemos etc.).  was reluctant to investigate the economic activities of Juan Carlos is based on their reading of the Spanish constitution, which — as was demonstrated in a similar case two years ago — literally places the King above the law:

“las prerrogativas de inviolabilidad y no sujeción a responsabilidad del Rey, consagradas en el artículo 56.3 de la Constitución, son absolutas, abarcan a la totalidad del periodo en que se ejerce la Jefatura del Estado y tienen efectos jurídicos permanentes”

Ultimately King Felipe VI, son of Juan Carlos, renounced his inheritance and cut off his father’s stipend in a belated recognition that the individual standing in the middle of the above photo, and many other photos during his long reign, did not in retrospect lend dignity to the ceremony (and many other ceremonies) to the extent that the (figurative) crown on his head must have led the organizers to expect.

I am tempted to extend the disgraceful list back to the 2002 ICM in Beijing when I read questions like this:

Why is Xi Jinping afraid to jail Jiang Zemin even though there’s a lot of evidence of corruption against him and his alleged involvement in Beijing blasts to shake Xi’s authority? (Question answered on Quora.)

But I am aware that rivalries among factions of China’s ruling stratum take many unexpected forms and I know too well not to take this kind of comment at face value.

Mathematical platonists like to argue that our work is devoted to the discovery of truths that transcend any merely human laws.  This sheds a novel light on the decision to invite  heads of state who are above the law — whether they enjoy this status by virtue of a political system disposed in their favor, as was at least temporarily the case in 2018, 2014, 2010, and arguably in 2002, or by an exception carved into the law itself, as in the case of Spain’s former King — to lend their aura of inviolabilidad for a moment in order to enhance the solemnity of transfer of the Fields Medal.   Advancing the 2022 Fields Medal ceremony to the week following Donald Trump’s successful evasion of his Constitutional responsibilities, with the help of the (very favorably disposed) US Senate, would have been a perfect illustration of this principle.

But we missed the opportunity and will therefore have to wait another two years for a more exemplary native of the imponderable innermost sanctum of politics, where words like “corruption,”  “grace,” and “raw power” become practically synonymous, to dignify the St. Petersburg ICM with a moment of transcendence.

Colleagues who attended the São Paulo IMU General Assembly meeting, at which St. Petersburg was chosen over Paris as the venue for the 2022 ICM, informed me that the promise that President (for life?) Vladimir Putin himself would be on hand, to present the Fields Medals, was one of the arguments that clinched the decision.  I have just provided a quasi-theological rationale for this thesis but I still find it hard to grasp, and I prefer the materialist explanation:  namely, that  Russia’s team had promised a much more generous budget than the French; the Chambre syndicale des Constructeurs d’Automobile, the Association professionnelle des Banques, and the rest of the list, not to mention Solvay and their 5000 F, carry much less weight in today’s globalized economy than they did 50 or 100 years ago.

It’s all about the Benjamins, in other words; or more precisely, about the николай николаевичи —  the External Goods to which MWA devotes such obsessive attention.  The money for the ICM has to come from somewhere.  Who would seriously argue that private sources like the Union des Chambres syndicales de l’industrie du pétrole are really less tainted than the funds provided by the Russian government  or the St. Petersburg administration?   Besides, the many countries represented at the São Paulo meeting were perfectly aware that xenophobia had been a dominant theme in French elections for over 30 years — remember that at the same meeting they had voted to remove the name of Rolf Nevanlinna, who had presented the Fields Medals just 40 years earlier, from the computer science prize, because of his Nazi sympathies.  And they knew all too well that France’s next presidential elections would be taking place before the 2022 ICM, with unpredictable results.


The candidate elected in 2022 will still be French President in 2026.  But this may be irrelevant.  The rumor is that New York will be bidding for the honors, with External Goods to be provided by the city’s robust financial services industry.  I estimate that something like $30 million would be needed to cover the difference between 10 nights of hotel accommodations for 10000 participants in New York as compared to Paris, under normal circumstances; but maybe New York’s team knows how to transcend normal circumstances.  Most intriguing, of course, is the prospect that the United States will have a very different kind of head of state by then.


Photo September 20, 2018, Union Square, New York




A mathematical home for the socioeconomically inappropriate

SWP copy

The author’s childhood home in Philadelphia, recent photo by Google Street View

A month or so before the conference that closed the special semester I had helped to organize at MSRI in 2014, two of my colleagues at a dessert reception challenged me to deny that, overall, life was pretty good — maybe the claim was that it was better than it had ever been.  The question left me flabbergasted.   My colleagues came armed with statistics alleging a dramatic rise in the average family’s standard of living.  I was unprepared:  I didn’t know about the Berkeley study that would be published a few months later, under the title The High Public Cost of Low Wages, reporting that 7% of families of part-time faculty at US colleges were in receipt of food stamps; I didn’t know the statistic, reported by the Federal Reserve Board two years ago and now familiar thanks to Bernie Sanders, that 40% of Americans could not meet a $400 emergency expense without resorting to borrowing or selling something.  All I knew is that I had read about homeowners trapped in underwater mortgages, college graduates with unsustainable student debt who had moved back with their parents, growing pressure on employees at France Télécom that had led to a rash of suicides, long time residents forced out of their neighborhoods by gentrification, and many more manifestations of a general malaise that was not merely widespread but that was represented in multiple instances among my own extended family and friends.

(Gentrification is in a sense the opposite of blockbusting, which is the technical name for what happened to the working class neighborhood pictured in the photo above.)

It dawned on me a few days after our confrontation that my extended family and network of close friends included an excessive proportion of the wrong kind of people, from the standpoint of my professional milieu.  This led me to entertain the counterfactual suspicion that I had not done enough to break off lingering ties to the particular wrong category of people from which I myself had undoubtedly issued.  And since the guiding principle of MWA, which I had recently finished proofreading, was that information from my own biography is only of interest insofar as it sheds light on significant social trends, I decided to devote my remarks at the conference dinner to the question of whether there was still a home for people from “inappropriate socioeconomic backgrounds” in the big tent of the mathematical community.  Here are the remarks, slightly edited.


I will try to be brief, because many of you have already heard me several times this year and you may feel you’ve had your dose. It was not always this way.  The first time I was an invited speaker at a genuinely international conference was in 1988, at the Ann Arbor conference organized by Laurent Clozel and Jim Milne. I took advantage of the opportunity to announce a special evening session to talk about the Science for the People program in Nicaragua with which I was deeply involved at the time.  In the end exactly three people came — so my ratings have definitely improved since then — but it was a select group: Don Blasius, Marie-France Vignéras, and Richard Taylor, whom I met for the first time at the conference. I’m still talking to all three, and in a sense I think it’s accurate to trace the beginning of my collaboration with Richard to that presentation. So that alone made the conference productive; but Steve Zucker and I also started working together in Ann Arbor, and Steve Kudla and I worked out the idea for our Annals paper there, and a lot of the other things I’ve done since then also started there.

So my belated thanks to the organizers of that conference, and to all my collaborators before and since, the ones who are here and the ones who couldn’t make it.  I hope those of you who have spent time at this program have also found your time productive.  If you have — I certainly have — thanks on your behalf and on my behalf are due in the first place to Richard Taylor, who came up with the idea and convinced me to sketch the first proposal and to come here in January 2011 to sell it to the SAC.  As you all know, I have many reasons to thank Richard, probably more than he himself knows,* but this is the most pertinent today.  I also thank my fellow organizers, who not only did all the work, as per agreement, but also decided to forego NSA funding for any part of the semester, after I explained to them who the NSA was — this was before the Snowden revelations — and thus spared all of us a lot of awkward explanations. I thank my students for coming and for persisting in the illusion that they have to be patient when I ask them even the most pointless questions. For making the semester run smoothly I want to thank the MSRI staff, and for this dinner a special thanks to Chris Marshall, who managed to communicate with several layers of administration in France as well as with my old friend Jon Koritz, who selected and supplied the wine. And I also have to thank Christine le Sueur, Kahina Bencheikh, Etienne Gouin-Lamourette, and Célia Chauveau for taking care the bills, as well as the European Research Council and the del Duca Foundation for actually providing the funds. For the stunning poster I have to thank the photographer Bruno Fert, who took the picture; the person I know only as Christophe Cornut’s little brother, who designed the poster; and Ariane Mézard who put it all together.

In all honesty I also need to thank U.S. Senator Ernest McFarland, D-Arizona, and
Warren Atherton, California Republican, for the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, which sent my father to college and thus started the process of upward mobility that has propelled me to this podium. When I was a student it was possible for someone of my rather modest origins to indulge the fantasy of doing something as fanciful as devoting one’s life to mathematical research.  Even then, as I’ve since learned, it was not so common, and my impression is that it has become much more difficult since then, certainly in the US and Britain, and increasingly in continental Europe as well.  So if there is one message to take away from this banquet, it’s that it’s important to do everything possible to guarantee that people from inappropriate socioeconomic backgrounds are always welcome in mathematics.

But enough about me. There are many things more serious than mathematics in this world, and it’s unfortunately the case that we are increasingly finding ourselves forced, just by virtue of being mathematicians, either to face or to pretend to ignore a new type of ethical challenge. I’m thinking in the first place of the use of mathematical techniques for surveillance by organizations like the NSA, because this was explicitly discussed recently on the n-category café website, but there are many other issues: finance mathematics, big data, artificial intelligence, drones, or the increasing dependence on the generosity of UHNWI’s or Ultra High Net-Worth Individuals. It seems there is room for a place, in the virtual sense, where mathematicians can reflect on these ethical challenges, and perhaps come up with ways to respond to them — an association, or committee, or website, or discussion circle. After reading the n-category café discussion I wrote to Tom Leinster, the Edinburgh topologist who has taken the lead in raising the question of the responsibilities of mathematicians in the development of new techniques of surveillance, and to Tom Hales, who has been increasingly outspoken about the activities of the NSA in undermining security of communications, and I asked whether they would be interested in thinking about how to promote the form such an association might take. Both of them immediately wrote back to express their interest. So this discussion will be taking place, and I invite you to send me a message if you would like to be part of it. I’m eager to get started as soon as this conference is over.

Much to my disappointment, only one or two people wrote to express interest in creating the kind of association I described in the last paragraph.  Several mathematicians did commit to writing chapters for a hypothetical book on ethics in mathematics, and I even drafted an introduction, but after several years the chapters hadn’t appeared and when Trump was elected I decided to extract the useful part of the introduction for a contribution to a volume in celebration of Reuben Hersh.  Quite independently, however, initiatives to explore the ethical issues in mathematics have been developing over the past few years.  The most visible manifestations of this new trend may be the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Project, already mentioned on this blog, founded in 2016;  the Ethics in Mathematics Wikipedia page, created in 2017; and the AMS Bertrand Russell Prize, established by Tom Hales and first awarded in 2018.  But I discovered many other activities on a smaller scale this past January when I attended the annual Joint Mathematics Meeting in Denver.  I was there, among other reasons, to participate in the very first Mathematics and Ethics panel hosted by the AMS Committee on the Profession (and I will be posting my notes for the panel at some point); but I had the impression that ethical concerns in the broadest sense — including, crucially, the question of opening up mathematics to people of a wider variety of socioeconomic backgrounds — were expressed in many other JMM sessions, and that mathematicians are giving them much more attention than they were willing to do just five years ago.

Of course, perhaps I just saw what I was hoping to see.  This stand and others like it at the JMM also received quite a lot of attention:


Taken at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, Denver, January 18, 2020


*There was no need for me to be so mysterious.  What I had in mind was a message Richard sent in 1996, after my father died.  The message was simple and straightforward but it came at the right time and it made a real difference.

UPDATE:  When I was a Princeton undergraduate I determined, on the basis of socioeconomic data that was somehow made available, that I was in the 11th percentile of the class of 1973, which means that 89% of my classmates came from more affluent families than mine.  (I hasten to add that, as far as I could tell, I enjoyed all the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle during the period of postwar prosperity, especially after Philadelphia schoolteachers obtained their first union contract a few years before I arrived at Princeton.)  The Board of Trustees decided in the wake of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War — notably the occupation of Nassau Hall, led by mathematics graduate students — that there were too many troublemakers in the lower income brackets, and if I had been admitted a few years later I would have fallen somewhere between the 5th and 8th percentile.  To judge by Louis Menand’s article in New Yorker last year, the socioeconomically inappropriate are now even more unwelcome at Princeton than they were during the boom years:

According to the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, children whose parents are in the top one per cent of the income distribution—roughly 1.6 million households—are seventy-seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than children whose parents are in the bottom income quintile (about twenty-five million households). … The most extreme case, according to [journalist Paul] Tough, is Princeton, where seventy-two per cent are from the top quintile and 2.2 per cent are from the bottom.

This is only apparently a sex scandal


From the cover page of the report

The news that several departments at Harvard, including the mathematics department, maintained connections with Jeffrey Epstein for many years after his conviction in 2008 “on charges related to soliciting minors for prostitution” has provided an opportunity for expressions of Schadenfreude on the part of several of my French colleagues.  Last September, after Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow described Epstein’s actions as “utterly abhorrent . . . repulsive and reprehensible,” Harvard undertook a systematic review of Epstein’s donations to Harvard.  The report on that review can now be consulted online.

Attentive readers will have understood that the true scandal is not that one particular philanthropist turned out to be repulsive and reprehensible.  Dig into the backgrounds of the founders and funders of our most cherished institutions of higher learning and you will see that reprehensible actions are a frequent feature of their biographies.  Nor is it that the sexual exploitation of minors is one of the reddest of red lines, and that few of even our most intrepid colleagues would want to be caught red-handed on its wrong side.  What is really scandalous about the new story is that it is just the latest version of the old story, that the pursuit of the values of our profession, the internal goods in the language MWA borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, remains dependent on the continuous supply of external goods from benefactors who, practically without exception, have all crossed red or reddish lines in order to attain the status of Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals that allows them to play the role of benefactors in the first place.

Reddish lines have been shading redder in recent years.  Institutions have been cutting their ties with the intermediaries who brought them the embarrassing associations with Epstein; they have de-Sacklerized at an accelerating rate from one month to the next.  The to which I alluded in an earlier post

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.

— is growing increasingly unacceptable to mathematicians, as it is in the wider culture.  Can our profession every hope to be free of association with scandal?

Update:  you really should read the Vox article about the MIT Media Lab, specifically these two segments:

The argument that anonymous donations from bad people are good, explained

Who would you rather have $5 million: Jeffrey Epstein, or a scientist who wants to use it for research? Presumably the scientist, right?


“Everyone seems to treat it as if the anonymity and secrecy around Epstein’s gift are a measure of some kind of moral failing,” Lessig writes. “I see it as exactly the opposite. … Secrecy is the only saving virtue of accepting money like this.”

This from the former director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.  After 5000 years of ethical reflection, is this the best we can do?

It’s official: the author of MWA is not a philosopher

For anyone who read MWA it’s obvious that its author would never be mistaken for, nor would want to be mistaken for, a philosopher.  Still, three referees for the journal Synthèse were kind enough to put to rest any lingering doubts on that score (there were none) in their reviews of the article I have just posted on arXiv under the title Virtues of Priority.

In the fall of 2018 I received a message inviting me to contribute to “a special issue of the philosophy journal Synthèse on virtues and mathematics.”  The prospective guest editors wrote, “We would be delighted to be able to list you as a prospective contributor. This would, of course, be in no way binding on either party.”  This looked like the perfect excuse to write on a topic that had been much on my mind ever since the controversy broke out among number theorists on the correct attribution of the conjecture on modularity of elliptic curves.  From the very beginning this controversy was marked by the contrast between the acrimony with which certain colleagues addressed one another and the superficiality of the analysis with which they justified their positions.  Even while Wiles labored in secret in his attic, I was already wishing for a philosophical umpire to require the warring parties to base their arguments on general principles rather than on raw chronology and personal affinities.

The story is interesting, well written and the conjecture as well as the main actors play important roles in 20th century mathematics. In that sense the paper was a good read, but a good read is not enough to make a good philosophical paper.… The paper does not connect to the current debates on value ethics in mathematics at all; in fact, none of the papers on the reference list belongs to the philosophy of mathematics, and the most recent reference is from 2001. The paper should be situated more firmly in the recent literature on mathematical values … Along the same line, the paper does not make a clear and substantial contribution to current philosophical debates on virtues in mathematics. The paper does not contain a clear problem statement, and the virtues encountered in the historical case are only commented on en passant, but the paper does not provide a structured discussion or a collected conclusion. … The paper lacks methodological reflections. Why is the case in question a good case to explore the philosophical questions at hand and why are the chosen sources the right sources to explore the case? It should be made crystal clear why a dispute over priority of a conjecture is a good case to explore the nature of mathematical values.

A second referee was more encouraging:

This submission represents an excellent idea for an article and a solid initial effort at fulfilling that idea, not yet suitable for publication in Synthese.

but this indulgence can be dismissed because the referee is someone I know.  And, as this referee accurately perceived,

the virtue ethics aspect currently reads as something tacked on to a stimulating but not philosophy-journal-ready fireside/blackboard-side chat about a curious and gossip-ready extract of the history of the theory of elliptic curves.

The third referee’s objections came under three headings:  “The philosophical upshot of the paper is thin,” “The paper neglects other work on priority disputes,” and most tellingly, “The search for a functional significance of the dispute may be overstated”:

Merton observes that, in some instances, battles over priority have no functional significance (i.e., the authors fight over the priority of a finding even if the discoveries are independent and epistemically equivalent). This is due in part to the reward system of science. Moreover, along the same lines, there is a psychological explanation in terms of ego-protective biases. The paper should examine this possibility more closely.

This last objection is silly.  Referee number 3 may never have met anyone as ego-protective as several of the protagonists of the controversy, but the point of my essay was to ask whether the controversy might not shed some light on the value system driving contemporary mathematics — and “functional significance” is not the point either.

In nearly all other respects all three referees were absolutely right about the article.  It did not connect to current philosophical debates, it did not engage in methodological reflections, it neglects the literature on priority disputes, and it was not written in the style of a philosophical paper.  But this is not what I thought the editors had in mind when they asked a mathematician for a contribution.

I accepted the invitation to contribute to the special issue in good faith, on the assumption that the issue’s editors had good reason to believe that the thoughts of a professional mathematician on the roots of an unusually bitter controversy in the field would have a place in the journal, and could provide useful raw material for analysis by philosophers who are curious about the value systems that actually guide the practice of professional mathematicians, even though the mathematician in question has never claimed to be a philosopher.    Had the editors of this special issue made it clear to me that my submission would be judged on the basis of familiarity with “the current debates on value ethics in mathematics,” as these are pursued by philosophers who “have been taught mathematics at university level,” or by its author’s efforts to situate the submission in relation to “relevant secondary scholarship,” I would have replied that I have neither the time nor the inclination to undertake a project on that basis.  That the editors of Synthèse and the referees find it helpful to erect artificial barriers* to dialogue between professional scientists and those philosophers who claim to be interested in the values of such scientists is not my concern.   But I consider it unprofessional as well as irresponsible on the part of the issue’s editors to have failed at any time to explain to me the unfamiliar standards that would be applied to my article.

This was my response to the rejection letter from Synthèse, which concluded:

I would like to thank you very much for forwarding your manuscript to us for consideration and wish you every success in finding an alternative place of publication.

Finding a place of publication on arXiv was easy and is a perfectly satisfactory alternative, but philosophers may not think to look there for raw material.  I consulted with the philosopher David Corfield — who first convinced me of the relevance of Alasdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics to mathematical practice in the article he published in Circles Disturbed — and he offered to help draw out the philosophical material through a dialogue on the n-Category Café.  His first comment on the arXiv publication is already online.

*In view of the events of the last few weeks, I am now ready to acknowledge that fears of disciplinary cross-contamination may be justified in some circumstances.

Mathematicians take the lead in coronavirus crisis

Mathematicians in both Britain and France are calling on their respective governments to abandon their present plans, which aim at reaching “herd immunity.”  Here are the first paragraphs of the British petition, which was apparently initiated by a group of applied mathematicians at Queen Mary University of London.

As scientists living and working in the UK, we would like to express our concern about the course of action announced by the Government on 12th March 2020 regarding the Coronavirus outbreak.  In particular, we are deeply preoccupied by the timeline of the proposed plan, which aims at delaying social distancing measures even further.

The current data about the number of infections in the UK is in line with the growth curves already observed in other countries, including Italy, Spain, France,and Germany [1]. The same data suggests that the number of infected will be in the order of dozens of thousands within a few days.

Under unconstrained growth, this outbreak will affect millions of people in the next few weeks. This will most probably put the NHS at serious risk of not being able to cope with the flow of patients needing intensive care, as the number of ICU beds in the UK is not larger than that available in other neighbouring countries with a similar population [2]. Going for “herd immunity” at this point does not seem a viable option, as this will put NHS at an even stronger level of stress, risking many more lives than necessary.

By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared.

The complete statement is online.  It already has received more than 500 signatures, and they write

We are still collecting signatures, primarily from UK scientists but
also from leading international experts, mainly in mathematical
modelling, epidemiology, immunology, virology.

If you want to add your signature, you can write to Vincenzo Nicosia at

v.nicosia [at]

While the British statement is politely worded, almost to the point of caricature, Michel Parigot’s op-ed in today’s Libération, entitled Coronavirus:  the population must be locked down now, is extremely direct.  I translate the essential passages:

On Sunday Morning [French Minister of National Education] Jean-Michel Blanquer revealed, with an astounding distance and coldness, what what the government’s strategy had been from the start.  He explained that it is not a question of “preventing the virus from developing … but of ensuring that it develops over the longest possible period”, so that “50% to 70% of the population [are] ultimately infected with the virus “to achieve” majority immunity “.

Behind these figures, people are going to die. The idea is to immunize around 40 million people by exposing them to the virus. With a death rate in the range of 1% to 5%, depending on whether or not there are sufficient care options, that means between 400,000 and 2 million deaths. A strategy of deliberately sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives when an alternative exists, which the Chinese have already shown is possible, is simply monstrous.

Concretely, Parigot calls on the government to

ban all contacts which are not strictly necessary, and for that to kill the economy [here he quotes an expression that has been circulating in the press], with the exception of strictly necessary economic activities and working remotely. Maximum protection must also be provided to those who provide essential services: healthcare, food (production and distribution), essential infrastructure (water, electricity, internet, etc.). Masks must be worn by anyone who travels. Finally, we must give precise instructions with informative explanations to protect ourselves and others; it’s not enough to recommend “washing our hands as often as possible”.

Parigot’s final paragraph calls on President Macron to lock down the population completely and immediately, and seems to endorse a declaration of martial law if it comes to that.  An article in today’s Le Monde suggests that the French authorities are already thinking along these lines.


(To avoid any misunderstanding, I hasten to add that I can’t imagine that a declaration of martial law by the current US administration would end well; and in view of the violent reaction of the French police to demonstrations over the past 18 months — even as recently as one week ago — I’m not so sure it would work out well in France, either.)



Mathematicians on strike in Paris


As a public service, I am copying the message that just arrived on my Jussieu account:

Pour les collègues présents à Jussieu qui souhaitent aller manifester (mes excuses pour les autres), il y a un rendez-vous :
Vendredi 24 janvier, 10h devant la tour 26.
And here are the minutes of a meeting between students and faculty on the ongoing strike, held on January 20:

The diversity statement controversy, III


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reuben Hersh, 1927-2020 (with text)

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

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

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

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