Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for March, 2016

American-style catastrophe

Baroness Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has warned against new legislation that would make it easier to establish private universities.

Sweeping general legislation might make it easier to set up a really small, innovative, educationally wonderful institution, but it’s much more likely to mean we end up with the American-style catastrophe.

There are all kinds of catastrophes in America, many of them due to inadequate public oversight over the private sector. I’d be on her side if she were using the US as a bogeyman to warn us against conservative tendencies in healthcare, policing, schooling… pretty much anything. Not universities, or, at least, not in such a blanket fashion. It’s not clear, either, whether she is concerned primarily with improving educational opportunities or with national brand management, with a broad array of institutions “damaging the UK’s reputation for higher education”.

I think you would be hard pressed to convince anyone that private universities overall have damaged the US reputation in higher education.

A quiet man

I was just reading this interview with former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, about Donald Trump. You could see the cutting edge of Trump apologetics, on the way to determining that the Republican establishment has always been allied with Trump. The trick is to reinterpret Trump’s crude thinking as simply crude (or bold, down-to-earth) formulation of very clever, even sophisticated thinking. And then there’s this:

Isaac Chotiner: You were at a meeting on Monday with other Washington figures and Trump. What did you make of him?

Newt Gingrich: Well, Callista and I were both very impressed. In that kind of a setting he talks in a relatively low tone. He is very much somebody who has been good at business. And he listens well. He outlined the campaign as he saw it. I think he did a good job listening. He occasionally asked clarifying questions. He was very open to critical advice. I am not going to get into details, but I will say my overall impression was that in that setting he was totally under control…

Does none of Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans or Muslims worry you or upset you?

I think he was too strong in talking about illegal immigrants in general, although if you look at the number of people who have been killed by people who aren’t supposed to be here, there is a fair argument on the other side too.

It makes him seem like a reasonable guy who occasionally gets carried away when speaking with the common folk.

Hitler comparisons are almost never useful, whether for insight or political rhetoric. Trump is not Hitler. Even among 1930s fascist dictators, Hitler is not the one Trump most resembles. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be reminded of something Albert Speer wrote, explaining why as a young academic he found himself drawn to Hitler:

What was decisive for me was a speech Hitler made to students, and which my students finally persuaded me to attend. From what I had read in the opposition press, I expected to find a screaming, gesticulating fanatic in uniform, instead of which we were confronted with a quiet man in a dark suit who addressed us in the measured tones of an academic. I’m determined one day to look up newspapers of that time to see just what it was he said that so impressed me. But I don’t think he attacked the Jews….

Shut it down!

From John Holbo I got this link to weird libertarian rantings by a financial journalist I never heard of. I was particularly struck by this Randian comment

Maybe we should shut Wall Street down for 24 hours, see how everybody who blames Wall Street for everything likes that.

Well, what would happen? I think I know a fair amount about the role of financial markets in the economy, and while I don’t consider them useless, I really can’t see what the problem would be if they were shut down for 24 hours. Not only that, I’m not even sure what their staunchest defenders might claim the problem would be.

In fact, didn’t we try this experiment already? The NYSE, and pretty much all the New York financial industry got shut down for several days or a week after the 9/11 attacks. Did anyone mind? I’ve heard a lot of commentary about the impact of 9/11, and I’ve never once heard anyone even suggest that there had been negative consequences to closing the financial markets for a week.

Don’t do the maths!

Journalist Simon Jenkins has launched a broadside against the teaching of maths in school, or at least against taking it seriously. He goes further than Andrew Hacker, who argues prominently for a focus on more concrete mathematical skills.

No one would argue that pupils should not be able to add, subtract and multiply. But I studied higher maths, from calculus to number theory, and have forgotten the lot. All the maths I have needed comes from John Allen Paulos’s timeless manual, Innumeracy. It is mostly how to understand proportion and risk, and tell when a statistician is trying to con you.

Presumably, once you know how to count to 1000 you’ve learned enough. (I’m wondering about this claim about his having “studied higher maths”. At least according to Wikipedia his university subjects were philosophy, politics, and economics. Now, I have no doubt that some people can learn very advanced mathematics in their spare time and understand it wonderfully. I wouldn’t even object to them saying they had “studied” the subject. But if your private study of mathematics left you with no memory of what you thought you had learned, that suggests that perhaps the fault was in your mode of study, and not in the subject. It’s rather like someone who says, “There’s no point learning to swim. I spent years on it, and I still can’t cross a pool without drowning.”

And why is it that statisticians are always accused of trying to “con” people? Is it that statisticians are particularly dishonest? Or is it that statisticians make things sufficiently clear that you can see where you might disagree with them. What subject would you study to understand when a journalist is trying to con you? There isn’t one, because the journalist’s con is ambiguous, and for the most part his claims are clouded in rhetorical smog.

Then there’s this:

I agree with the great mathematician GH Hardy, who accepted that higher maths was without practical application. It was rather a matter of intellectual stimulus and beauty.

Now, GH Hardy was indeed a great mathematician. He probably knew more about higher maths, from calculus to number theory, than even Simon Jenkins in his prime (before he forgot everything). But I think we can also agree that the man who wrote in 1940

No one has yet discovered any warlike purpose to be served by the theory of numbers or relativity, and it seems unlikely that anyone will do so for many years

did not have the most acute vision of the scope of mathematical application. In any case, Hardy’s goal was not to argue for or against the potential utility of mathematics, but rather to defend mathematics against the charge of uselessness — basically, to defend it against people like Jenkins.

Any league table that has China at the top, Britain at 26th and America at 36th tells me something more important than merely who is good at maths. If the US and Britain – among the most vigorous economies and most successful at science – are so bad at maths, it suggests their young people are applying themselves to something more useful. Chinese students are rushing to British and US universities to join them….

Maths is merely an easy subject to measure, nationally and internationally.

 

I am reminded of a bumper sticker I saw in Florida, responding to the popular boastful messages that parents would paste on, saying “My kid is an honor roll student at Dingdong Middle School”; the response said “My kid can beat up your honor roll student.” This is that bully-boy bumper sticker expanded to a national scale. Let the inferior races waste their time on mathematics. Our kids will learn how to be “vigorous” and kick their asses.

Jerome Karabel’s wonderful book The Chosen describes how elite universities in the US in the first half of the 20th century, dismayed at how the meritocratic elements of their admissions process were being abused by Jews, who were simply outperforming their gentile compatriots on admissions tests, leading to the freshman class at Harvard in 1922 being more than 20% Jewish. The response, driven by fear that Jews would “drive away the Gentiles” (in the words of Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell) was to de-emphasise quantitative measures and tests, in favour of the all-important “character” of applicants, a quality husbanded mainly by WASP families in exclusive boarding schools.

There’s kind of a Nietzschean flavor here: Mathematics has replaced Christianity as the intellectual tool used by the weak (nerds) to dominate their natural superiors (men of action and vigor like Jenkins). The soul-breaking catechism has been replaced by the binomial theorem. The priests are statisticians and bureaucrats, obsessed with counting and what can be measured. I am reminded of a remark by CS Lewis (I can’t find the exact quote now), that soft virtues like love and mercy had come to be more discussed than rigid virtues like chastity and courage, because it is easier to persuade yourself that you have been loving than that you have been chaste or courageous.

Being pushed uphill

11 states voted in primary elections yesterday in the US. On the Republican side, Donald Trump won 7 of the 11 contests. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won 7 of the 11. You might think the reporting would take a similar tone in describing both victories. You’d be wrong. Here’s the NY Times headline:

Screenshot 2016-03-02 11.56.06

It’s hard not to see sexism here. The mighty man “overwhelmed” his opponents. The feeble woman was “pushed” to victory. The man was powerful and autonomous, overcoming adversity to fight his way to victory. Not only didn’t the woman fight, she couldn’t even walk on her own. And the people pushing her to victories weren’t ordinary Americans. They were “minorities” — or, as Trump would denote them, losers.

It’s long been recognised that the first woman to be a serious US presidential candidate would have an uphill struggle. Now we know that she’ll have to be pushed uphill.

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