A mathematician reads the newspaper

For this edition of the blog, I just wanted to share some of the news stories and blogs that have caught my attention in the past few months, making this more of a meta-blog post. I borrowed the title of this post from John Allen Paulos’ book. In his book, Paulos actually gives a very clever introduction to statistics by showing people how to recognize the mathematics and the data in everyday news stories. Unlike his book, I would like to focus on the types of stories that caught my eye because I’m a mathematician.

  • That infamous New York Times op-ed piece: By now pretty much anyone with a blog (or half a brain) has ranted against this piece. In case you haven’t read it, Andrew Hacker wrote an essay about how he believes that teaching algebra in high school is obsolete, and how students would do better in school and life in general if they were taught other, more “useful” things. I do have some friends and acquaintances that have defended the bravery of the writer,  in the sense that saying things like “we don’t really need to teach algebra” is controversial and will win him no love. The main problem with the piece, however, was that he was saying nothing new: mathematicians and educators are aware that we are in need of some education reform, and the solution (which we don’t yet have) cannot be as easy as Hacker makes it seem. One of my favorite responses to this piece is the one published on the Washington Post, written by Daniel Willingham. But there are a myriad other good responses, like Cathy O’Neil’s and Timothy Burke’s. The piece was also discussed a lot, in informal conversations and even mentioned by keynote speakers, at MathFest in Madison, WI. I will not write a whole new response, but I will say that I’m glad that both the mathematical and non-mathematical community responded so eloquently and sharply and that, in fact, it began a whole new very interesting discussion on where we are headed in education and what are really the important questions. Maybe we should be thankful to Hacker for at least getting us fired up about this anew.
  • That disturbing yet not surprising paper on gender bias in science: Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post about a biased iPad app and another about discussions on the merits of double-blind refereeing. So I was not entirely surprised that on a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), there was an article reporting that, essentially, science labs, when given the choice of a female candidate and a male candidate with the exact same qualifications, would overwhelmingly favor the males in the categories of competence and hireability, and surprisingly, their offered salaries were also much higher. Let me point out that by exact same qualifications, I mean the same materials were presented (for an imaginary person) and the only variable was that either a female name or a male name was attached to the application materials. I particularly like the way in which Sean Carroll digested the article for Discover Magazine. I was surprised, while reading the comments portion for Carroll’s blog, with how reluctant people are to believe this study, even though, as far as I can tell, it was a perfectly reasonable experiment which was conducted carefully and scientifically. I think the most insightful comment I have heard, from a friend, is that even though people are not overtly sexist anymore (not most of the time anyways), nor do they want to be (not most of the time anyways), this study might help scientists realize that they may have a subconscious bias against women, and that alone might help us get rid of the bias.
  • The abc conjecture might have been proved!: This is one of those “easy to state but hard to prove” theorems which we find so much in number theory. Here is the statement (formulated by Oesterle and Masser in 1985): if you have three positive integers, a, b, and c, with no common factors, such that a+b=c, and if d is the product of the distinct prime factors of abc, then d is not much smaller than c. Easy enough, even if you are not a number theorist. I attribute the hype surrounding the proposed proof by Mochizuki to this fact. By hype I mean that several big news outlets have reported on this, including the Huffington Post , Nature Magazine, and the New York Times. But besides the coverage this possible solution has gotten on mass media, mathematicians are also quite excited because it seems Mochizuki has found a very creative and unique way to approach this problem (which is, by the way, quite common for these “easy to state but hard to prove” theorems). The first I heard about it was on Jordan Ellenberg’s blog. He later updated his post to point out that Minhyong Kim has written one of the best descriptions of the proof in Math Overflow. The solution is so unique, in fact,  that it will probably take many years before mathematicians are convinced it is correct (or even to find any errors).

I picked three articles on very different categories, all of which I’m very passionate about: math education, diversity and inclusion in mathematics (and science), and number theory. And so now the real reason these three were chosen to be in the same blog post: I believe in all three cases the amount of media attention and general public scrutiny has had a real impact on how mathematics is perceived. I think this amount of attention can only help mathematics:

  • We are openly discussing how and why we teach mathematics the way we do, and how can we improve it.
  • We are discussing the issues of gender bias in the sciences, is there really a bias? How do we solve this problem?
  • We are discussing a theorem in mathematics in major media outlets! This is always a good thing!

I want to conclude by saying that I used to write these sorts of summaries of articles involving math for the Math Digest of the American Mathematical Society. I invite you all to check that out as often as you can. It’s a great way to catch up with any media coverage of mathematics, and it’s updated every month.

So, dear readers, I now invite you to share your own favorite news story about math or your thoughts on the articles I posted in the comments section below.

This entry was posted in minorities in mathematics, public awareness of mathematics, research, teaching, women in math. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A mathematician reads the newspaper

  1. Avatar Mike Breen says:

    Nice post on math in the press/media. Thanks for the Digest plug. Hard to pick a favorite news story, but we recently saw an Onion-type spoof in German (in Der Postillon) saying that, in the interest of saving time for students, the Max Planck Institute had declared that from now on, x is 5.

  2. Avatar Michelle says:

    Favorite: It’s not new, but is a nice counter-balance to the gender bias study, also in a Discover Magazine blog. And it was new to me:


    Least favorite: All of the simplistic reporting about the Chicago teachers’ strike, with phrases like “teachers don’t want to be evaluated based on whether students are learning.” That sounds (and is) ludicrous. The truth is much more complicated and nuanced, which I guess doesn’t make good copy. What makes good copy? Apparently things like, “Will Obama back his old buddy Rahm or his strong supporters the union?”

    But here are some questions that none of the major news agencies were even asking while reporting this story as far as I could tell: (1) Are the exams any good? Do they test what we care about? Can we really, in any meaningful way, relate exam scores with student learning? (2) Isn’t there more to effective teaching than teaching to the test? (3) Is the model being used to evaluate teachers based on exam scores a sound one? For this, all signs point to no. Thank goodness for well-written blogs of smart people who put in the hard work to run the data. (I’m only linking part 1, but I think there are six parts now, all of them worth reading.)


    I was really disappointed in how this was handled in the press, but happy to have learned a lot from the blogosphere.

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