What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening: A conference on ethics in mathematics.

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 articleIs 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.

In response to the growing conversations, numerous incidents, and the calls from isolated mathematicians working on this issue, Maurice Chiodo, with the support and assistance of CUEiMS, organized the first Ethics in Mathematics conference at Cambridge University on April 20th -21st of this year. The conference was live-streamed and included both present and video-linked participants. Those participants included mathematicians, legal scholars, computer scientists, and philosophers. And in their ranks were Turing Award winners, whistle blowers, scholars and leaders in their field from the UK and Australia, and a few, fantastic, friendly faces from Fitchburg State and Ferris State in the US. It might seem odd to have to have professors from small, public universities in the US at this conference, but this invitation came through the organizers’ relationship with Bonnie Shulman. I have worked and continue to work with Bonnie on the mission of mathematics, social responsibility, and social justice. The organizers asked me if I knew others who might be a good fit and I thought of my mathematician-lawyer peer at Ferris State University, Victor Piercey. True to their mission, the organizers realized there needed to be speakers from other disciplines to address what ethics may mean and how to design ethical standards in mathematics, but they also included mathematicians coming from experiences and math cultures very different from their own (see me and Victor).

This varied perspective built a more inclusive dialogue about what it means to be a mathematician (the profession at Cambridge and the profession at Fitchburg State University look different), but ultimately there is an ethical education we wish to instill in the students that pass through our buildings no matter the building. You know, whether you are studying here:

Figure 1: Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge University

or here,

Figure 2: Edgerly Hall at Fitchburg State University

you should be part of the conversation. This is a different type of inclusion in mathematics and an important one.

Having said that, as with a majority of math conferences, there were voices missing from the room. There was one person of color and only a handful of women at the conference. Again, this is unfortunately the status quo of most conferences in the US and aboard. Nevertheless, the organizers worked through their growing yet limited ethics network to increase representation. As Maurice pointed out, we can look at a place like Silicon Valley were most people are middle-upper class, young, white men, and working on projects that are shaping the world. Without a diverse mix people in the room, groupthink is more likely to happen, as people struggle to see that their view of the world is not the only view. He said, “Diversity is not merely a token gesture; it genuinely adds value to any decision-making process.”

My talk focused on integrating social justice issues into a mathematics curriculum in order to build an ethical foundation. The premise was that if we have discussions of power, ethics, justice, and equity in the mathematics classroom, we are informing the larger community that these are values of the discipline. They are necessary to show value to our students and respect their desire to see their community and selves reflected in their studies. By leaving them out, we are, perhaps inadvertently suggesting, that people with these values are not “in the club.” While some at the conference spoke to the fact that the powerful and the privileged have established our rules of ethics (or lack thereof) and we require mathematicians to act as democratic citizens, few participants went so far as to suggest the necessary social justice incorporation. For example, many spoke about how working on algorithms for predictive policing might be unethical; however, if you do not talk about the issues of race and ethnicity, then this lesson can fall flat. It was not lost on me that after my talk nearly all the women in the room and the only person of color came over to talk to me about the lack of inclusion of the social side of ethics. The impression they had received was that the social side of the ethics conversation was less valued. However, conversations about social ethics and issues of race and gender in the field are happening between the organizers and the participants, and both Victor and I were hopeful that the conversations would continue to engage and incorporate more voices.

While most of the conversation surrounded training mathematicians to be ethical and mindful as to how they conduct their research and professional lives, as well as the future consequences and roles a mathematician plays in the use of that research, it was generally understood that an ethical education would not magically occur. Among the suggestions where ethics courses with case studies or ethical dilemmas to educate mathematics students. In addition, several speakers pointed out that integration of these lessons across the curriculum is necessary. It could be seen as an ‘add-on’ unless the values for an ethical mathematician, and dare we say ‘one doing good’, are intertwined with the curriculum from early on. How do you recognize different ways to solve problems if you haven’t been first exposed to many problems and their solutions? We teach methods of proofs and encourage leaps in creativity after building a solid foundation. Should not ethics be the same why? If these discussions seem important to you or if you want to learn more and add your voice, you can see the videos from the conference on the society’s youtube channel.

As you may expect, discussions about the culture of mathematics came up frequently. The culture, norms, and behaviors of mathematicians harm our ability to reach out and work with others and can close the door to diverse voices. Who should be a mathematician? What does a mathematician look like? When we close our doors to the diversity of ideas and backgrounds, we are doomed perpetually to continue the culture that has allowed mathematicians to remain distant, revered, aloof, or excluded from broader conversations of ethics. I have faith, given the openness of the CUEiMS team and the value they associated to our presence, that there is desire to grow the community as the issue of ethics in mathematics and we will need everyone onboard. The players who benefit from the lack of ethical discussions among mathematicians (NSA, GCHQ, and others) have power, money, and prestige. This Society and this movement should and continue to challenge the status quo as more mathematicians enter the global discussion of what is good, what is ethical, and what is necessary for a democratic society.

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One Response to What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening: A conference on ethics in mathematics.

  1. Douglas Henrich says:

    Is a follow-up conference planned for 2019?

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