Putting Math In Context

Image courtesy of Toshimichi Miki via FlickrCC.

So, I’ve been eavesdropping on math history Twitter for the better part of a year now and there is one thread of conversation over there that I’ve been wanting to talk about, namely, the question of whether math – the numbers, variables, and equations themselves – can be inherently sexist, racist, or otherwise politically charged. Then this morning I was reading this incredibly stale and annoying op-ed in the New York Times that, in addition to other defects that I’ll let you uncover on your own, ends with this cringeworthy sentiment, “Math is one of the few institutions we have left free of doublespeak or embellishment or biased opinion. Its words are supposed to mean exactly what they say. Let’s keep them that way.” And I thought, ok, today’s the day.

My first entry to this conversation was captured in a blog post here on the Blog on Math Blogs in 2016, where I reviewed a Scientific American blog post by Michael J. Barany, math historian. In his post, Barany puts our current mathematical climate in context by describing historical mathematical gatekeeping, “elite mathematics today, while much more inclusive than it was one or five or fifty centuries ago, remains a discipline that vests special authority in those who, by virtue of gender, race, and class, are often already among our society’s most powerful.”

But from there it’s hard to say whether math is politicized, or whether mathematicians themselves are politicized, and whether or not those concepts are entirely distinct.

Then a thoughtful pivot to this discussion came across my Twitter feed from Alexander R. Galloway, who writes a blog that hits some nice points in technology and philosophy. Despite the fact that its title sounds like a pretty well-worn argument, the post “Are Algorithms Biased?” is full of thought-provoking and fairly new-to-me arguments and rebuttals about the politicization of math. Unlike Barany’s post above that is more rooted in the practice of math, Galloway’s post is firmly planted in the objects of math themselves.

Galloway’s Response #7 to the claim that “math is just a tool” — something along the lines of “there are no racist algorithms only racist coders” — especially resonated with me. I’m not quite sure I can fully get behind his position, but I can see how the tool and the user (as in the case of guns and shooters) can’t always be fully decoupled.

To see an example of racist and classist numbers in action, a 2011 paper by Barany discusses “savage numbers” — he defines these as “number-like or number-replacing concepts and practices attributed to peoples viewed as civilizationally inferior” — and their critical role in positioning the British on top of the heap of emerging science in the Victorian era.

The question of whose mathematical contributions count and why — most poignantly the de-colonization of math — is an interesting one. Academic mathematicians certainly know that the future directions of math are largely shaped by journal editors and funding bodies and all of their intrinsic biases, preferences, and motivations. Tangential to that topic, this blog post by C.K. Raju outlining his allegations of intellectual theft by Michael Atiyah and subsequent silencing by the AMS is a really wild ride.

Another blog in this realm that you might want to check out is The Renaissance Mathematicus by Thony Christie who often writes about the misrepresentations of math and science in the historical discourse. In one post he gives a scathing rebuttal to the notion of a western intellectual birthright.

If you’re in for a long read about philosophy and access to mathematical ideas and technology, I am happy to point you towards McKenzie Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto.

For shorter reads, you can also eavesdrop on the conversation about socio-historical mathematics on the #MTBoS. And as always if you have anything to contribute, endorse or disagree with, please hit me up on Twitter @extremefriday.

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