Guest Post by Catherine Buell
In a time before Cambridge Analytica but after Snowden, there was a buzz in the maths hall at the University of Cambridge. Two Cambridge academics, Maurice Chiodo and Piers Bursill-Hall, together with many of their students began discussions addressing the ethical situations mathematicians find themselves, and often without much guidance or principles specific to a mathematician and the field. From these initial discussions, the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Society (CUEiMS) grew into being on the campus. The mission statement and constitution of the society are on the website, but from my perspective, there are two simple threads to the mission: doing good and preventing bad.
“…[W]e see that the utility of mathematics is derived from the way that it empowers us to understand, change, direct and manipulate the world around us, and not the other way around. It does not change the world because it is useful; it is useful because it can change the world.”
“Mathematics is a tool wielded by people, and thus subject to the desires, objectives and will of people. As such, we as mathematicians need to be aware of this. We need to realise that mathematics can be, and sometimes is, used in a harmful way. We need to have the foresight to anticipate such events before they happen. And we need to be prepared to do something about it.”
The Society hosted speakers from mathematics and computer science including Bonnie Shulman, who the organizers assert was one of the only search results when seeking “Ethics in Mathematics.” Thanks to James Franklin, Mathematics and Ethics now has a Wikipedia page adding to the relevant search results. But it was Dr. Shulman’s article “Is There Enough Poison Gas to Kill the City?: The Teaching of Ethics in Mathematics Classes” and subsequent video-linked talk for the society that opened up the conversation of ethics beyond the profession of mathematics and into both the curriculum of mathematics and social ethics.