What Should Mathematicians Do Now?

Mathematicians sometimes pretend we are above the everyday vicissitudes of life, preferring to inhabit a realm of abstraction and perfection, but that’s a lie. We live here too. We are voters, citizens, residents, and teachers. What happens in our country matters. I’m sure Anna and I will eventually get back to writing about other parts of the math blogosphere, but the election is still big news, and we as mathematicians need to ask ourselves what to do next.

I know our readers are not a monolith, but a large number of you are mathematicians at universities in the US. I’ve written this post with that in mind, though much of it will be relevant to people in other careers as well. I am also aware that though I did not support Trump, some of my readers probably did. I am not arguing with you about that. I trust that in spite of that difference, we have similar standards for how to treat others, and we are in favor of a strong, healthy culture of math and science research.

So what are mathematicians to do? Many of the actions we take are the same actions any citizens should take right now: talk to our representatives about issues that are important to us, donate to groups that need our help, reach out to friends and family who are feeling scared, and take care of ourselves so we can continue those other actions long-term. But I think there are a few ways to take action that relate specifically to mathematicians and the jobs they do.

1. Keep students safe

In the wake of Trump’s election, many people feel scared. Trump’s rhetoric energized some people who are racist, sexist, Islamaphobic, homophobic, and transphobic. Since the election, there have been numerous reports of hate crimes targeting people of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQIA+ people. Professors should be doing everything they can to make sure their classrooms and campuses are safe.

It’s tempting to think that math classrooms should be politics-free, but the right response to the election is probably not business as usual. Many educators have written about how they’ve talked with their classes since the election. I especially appreciate Jose Vilson’s post: Politics are always at play in our classrooms. We also need to continue promoting diversity in mathematics. One way of doing that is to cut back on the hero-worship of dead white men. Astrophysicist Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein has a list of resources for decolonizing science that can help us do just that. I’ve also written posts with resources about black mathematicians, Hispanic/Latinx mathematicians, and women in math.

One group likely to be at risk in the next administration is undocumented immigrants. If you are concerned about undocumented students, you might consider joining the hundreds of other professors who have signed this petition to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA allows undocumented people who came to the US as children to obtain work permits and remain in the country.

2. Fight misinformation

As Anna mentioned in her last post, there is evidence that misinformation (“fake news”) may have affected the outcome of the election, thanks to the Facebook algorithm bubble. Since then, a lot has been written about how important the phenomenon was to this election and what we need to do to stop it. Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction feels especially prescient right now. (Read my review of it here.) Her blog mathbabe.org is one of my go-to resources, and she is part of a New York Times debate about how to best stop the fake news problem. Here are some other things I’ve read recently about fake news and the election:

This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Read News On Facebook by Craig Silverman
Fake News Is Not the Only Problem by Gilad Lotan
The “They Had Their Minds Made Up Anyway” Excuse by Mike Caulfield
Factiness by Nathan Jurgenson
Post-Truth Antidote: Our Roles in Virtuous Spirals of Trust in Science by Hilda Bastian

Fighting misinformation is an area in which I think mathematicians are especially, though certainly not uniquely, equipped to take action. When we write proofs, we are trying to construct watertight arguments using pure logic. Ideally, we attempt to poke holes in our own work until we can ensure that it is impenetrable.

We need to use those skills when we read the news or the outrageous videos our friends share on Facebook, whether we agree or disagree with the conclusions of those stories or videos. Apply the same skepticism to the stories you want to believe are true as the ones you reject. Check Snopes, try to find the numbers instead of taking someone else’s word for it, listen to the full context of the quote, see how other sites are spinning it. Settle for an answer of “it’s complicated” if it is.

An example: in the past few days, a growing number of people have been calling for an audit of the vote in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania (update: as I’m posting this, the audit is looking more and more likely). Those of us who wanted a different outcome could latch on to the story that statistical anomalies make the election look “rigged.” There are a lot of numbers floating around in that article, and it sounds truthy. But J. Alex Halderman, one of the computer scientists urging Clinton to call for a recount, is more measured. “Were this year’s deviations from pre-election polls the results of a cyberattack? Probably not. I believe the most likely explanation is that the polls were systematically wrong, rather than that the election was hacked.” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who studies our relationship to technology, wrote about voting machine vulnerability before the election. Her message is that it’s not likely that it affected this election, but we should be auditing the vote regularly and making sure we leave a paper trail. Halderman’s and Tufekci’s messages aren’t as sexy as “rigged election!” but we need to fight the urge to jump to the sexiest conclusions without sufficient evidence.

How else can we fight misinformation? By supporting real journalism. I recently subscribed to the Washington Post because I’ve found a lot of value in their coverage of Trump’s appointments and financial dealings, but there are many other media outlets that you might find equally or more valuable. The media certainly made mistakes in its coverage of the election, but we still need to support journalism. As subscribers, we should also hold media outlets accountable when they screw up.

We should probably also read more media we disagree with. Yen Duong of Baking and Math recommends the National Review. I recently read “You are still crying wolf” by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. I don’t agree completely with his thesis in that post, but thinking about why instead of dismissing it outright has helped me think about where my preconceived notions come from and how to engage in this conversation.

3. Support climate change research

This is more specific than the above suggestions, but a Trump advisor recently suggested that we should defund NASA’s climate change research. Climate change is likely the most pressing issue of our time. We have to keep studying it and try to find ways to mitigate the damage it is causing.

4. Read history

I hope the people who are warning us that the US is falling into authoritarianism/fascism/kleptocracy are wrong. Or that their warnings help us avoid those dire predictions. But it has happened before, and it can happen again. I think mathematicians would do well to read up on the history of math in Göttingen in the 1930s, perhaps in this Notices article from 1995 by Saunders Mac Lane.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this post by Matilde of the blog Listening to Golem about the moral responsibilities of mathematics and science: “Pack all the tools you need in your bag: network theory, bayesian analysis, probability, differential equations, cryptography, computing, game theory, neural networks. We need them all and we need them now. Get down to work for the sake of our future.”

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8 Responses to What Should Mathematicians Do Now?

  1. Shecky R says:

    I commend the suggestions you’ve made, but also fear, as a practical matter, there is little citizens can really do in this situation, except remain vigilant and resistant to changes that may come, and prepare for the 2018 elections. I’m among those who believe Trump IS mentally ill and that this will be born out within his first 6 months (assuming he serves). Given that scenario I find this Keith Olbermann video important:
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gnnj_YjdJgs?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en-US&autohide=2&wmode=transparent&w=640&h=360]

    • evelynjlamb says:

      Thanks for your comment, but I’d like to urge you to reconsider how you talk about mental illness. I think it’s irresponsible for us to armchair diagnose other people, especially if the aim is to discredit them in some way. Comments like that can contribute to the stigmatization of mentally ill people. As the video says, his mental state is not the issue anyway, it’s his actions and how other people feel about the way he is doing his job.

  2. M Edwards says:

    > Since the election, there have been numerous reports of hate crimes targeting people of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQIA+ people.

    You post no evidence of these ‘numerous’ crimes because they are entirely fabricated and fake. There has been reports and stories about most of these fake hate crimes. Its about as low as a smear campaign can get and you should be ashamed of yourself for going along with it.

    > We also need to continue promoting diversity in mathematics. One way of doing that is to cut back on the hero-worship of dead white men.

    You are a racist full stop. You preach your racist hatred for European People with the same mouth that wants ‘safe spaces’ for your favored ‘brown people’. This attitude has no place in a Western university. You are a danger to students and should be bared from teaching at any level.

    > there is evidence that misinformation (fake news) may have affected the outcome of the election, thanks to the Facebook algorithm bubble.

    Apparently all of this ‘fake news’ was no problem when polls said that the Blue Team was going to win. But of course that turned out to be ‘fake news’! You can start your crusade to censor the press by shutting down The New York Times and Washington Post. Then CNN, NBC and CBS.

    This entire post is a bitter paranoid rant by a deeply angry and hateful mind. It has nothing to do with AMS or the mathematics community.

    • evelynjlamb says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry you think this post is a bitter paranoid rant. I obviously disagree with that. I also think the US election has a lot to do with the AMS and the mathematics community, as I wrote in the post. (I suppose you will be relived to learn, however, that I am not currently teaching.)

      Here is a page from the Southern Poverty Law Center about hate crimes in the wake of the election: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/18/update-incidents-hateful-harassment-election-day-now-number-701
      These are indeed anecdotes, and it’s very difficult to accurately measure whether these incidents have increased and how much. The fact remains, though, that some such incidents have happened, often at schools, and regardless of the exact statistics, people in some groups feel especially vulnerable and afraid right now. I think it is obvious that people who work with students should speak out against such harassment and make sure their students are safe on their campuses. After all, it hurts no one to do that.

      I never used the phrases “brown people” or “safe spaces” in this post, so I don’t know what you are quoting when you refer to them. I do not preach hatred for European people. Some of my best friends are European people. I believe our math education will be stronger and more accurate when we don’t whitewash our history. Perhaps the phrase “hero worship of dead white men” is an inflammatory phrase, but the cult of genius narrative in math is strong, and we tend to see genius as a male, and often white, characteristic. Remembering the women and non-white people in our history is one way to work against this narrative, which can deprive mathematics of the contributions of people from other groups.

      The divisive rhetoric of this campaign and proliferation of fake news would be a problem whether Trump or Clinton had won. And fake news has been a problem throughout the Obama administration. I agree that we (and social media platforms) should have been doing more earlier about it, but the fact that it may have had an impact on the outcome of our election has brought the issue to a head, which is why so many people are talking about it now. I would also like to say that the outcome of the election is not as simple as “fake news.” There are many factors that contributed, and none of us should be so naive as to think any one thing is the reason things happened the way they did.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope all of us can take the time to read articles and comments like this undefensively and keep our minds open. That is one of the great strengths of mathematical thinking, the ability to accept and respond to new information whether or not it backs up what we previously thought was true. Have a nice day.

  3. Brie finegold says:

    Glad to see someone writing about this for the AMS — love how you talked about reading a broader range of media coverage as well as historical accounts — also see the support for climate change research as a uniting issue for all scientists and mathematicians. Check out Rachel Pries Facebook page math people for the planet along those lines.

  4. Mason says:

    Is this an example of all the phobia’s and ist’s you mentioned?


    Just one example.

    I encourage you to consider the possibility that the worst bigotry and violence was against Trump supporters by leftists, and not the other way around.

    There’s a reason people were surprised when Trump won. It’s because many of us were literally too afraid to speak up, even to pollsters, for fear of losing our jobs, our families, friends, or being pinned against a wall by an angry mob and egged for our political opinions.

    Maybe, just maybe, the fascist behavior in America this year is best exemplified by the left.

    • evelynjlamb says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I don’t really understand what you’re doing rhetorically with your first sentence. No, it’s not an example of one of an -ist or a -phobia I mentioned. But it is a thing that shouldn’t have happened. No one should be abused because of who they voted for. I don’t support that, and nothing I’ve ever written implies that I do. I don’t know anything about people’s jobs being in danger because of supporting Trump, but if they were worried about being criticized by their friends and family, I think that just comes with the territory of having opinions. If they were specifically worried about being called racist/sexist/etc, that’s not the same as experiencing racism/sexism/etc. It’s worse to experience racism than have someone call you racist. I’m not saying you made this argument, but it’s a false equivalence I’ve seen a lot.
      As far as fascism goes, I’m more worried about the person who just got elected and talks about taking away citizenship from people for exercising their first amendment rights. (So as not to be opaque: Trump tweeted that people shouldn’t be allowed to burn the flag, and perhaps if they do they should lose their citizenship. Flag burning bans were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. For what it’s worth, Clinton sponsored a bill to criminalize flag burning in 2005. It did not pass. I was not aware of the bill at the time so I can’t say I opposed it then, but I do oppose efforts to outlaw flag burning, though I have no desire to see or participate in the activity.) If you voted for Trump, I hope you will speak out if and when he ever does anything to curtail our rights or to make Americans beholden to his own financial interests.

  5. S Xie says:

    And maybe stop working for the NSA, for Palantir. Extricate yourself from the surveillance machinery. Math is being weaponized and you are the gun barrel.

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