Could this video also be about the rest of us?

Sometime between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, humanity took a giant leap forward, as our ancestors started understanding that numbers were pure abstractions and that one system alone was enough to count everything, i.e., the same number can be applied to three cows, three farmers, three houses, etc.  Think how revolutionary and abstract was the idea that a certain number of coins could represent a certain amount of goods. The so-called “digital economy” is now upon us.

But what does it mean if not for the abstract –and yes mathematical– representations of goods, services, phenomena, and knowledge so that we can identify them, evaluate them, trade them, secure them, and multiply them more efficiently. And guess what! These representations are becoming more and more abstract, hence often less and less understood by more and more of us. Policy makers ought to be the first to gauge their impact on societies. They should be first to comprehend that these abstract constructs are as concrete and consequential as can be. 

It has been reported that certain empowered policy makers in Ottawa think that “Pure Mathematics” qualifies as “Philosophy” or “Art”, with the implicit implication that it doesn’t deserve the same support as other disciplines, which have a more direct impact on “innovation” and hence the economy.

So that’s what they think of the language of science, the enabler of technology, the framework for precision, uncertainty and chance, the “public key” to the mailbox, the cornerstone of coding and decryption, and ultimately of our privacy and our security.

Then, I saw the following terrifying display. It can of course be described as a bad joke, but still it is a telling caricature of what could explain faulty and uninformed decision-making by people holding positions of stewardship of Canadian science and technology.

But what if the relentless Mathematization and Digitization of society is making our own existence a bit too abstract.  More later.

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7 Responses to Could this video also be about the rest of us?

  1. Ben Webster says:

    It’s really unclear from what you’ve written if you recognize that that video was a joke. Of course, the actual evolution one was kind of scary, but slightly terrifying opposition to evolution is something at least I’ve gotten used to at this point.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      I haven’t seen the “evolution” video, as I was focussing on the math. Yes, I am aware that the video is a joke and I fixed the language around it to clarify this point.
      Many thanks.

  2. James Colliander says:

    Pure math is artistic, philosophical and also fundamental to the quality thinking required for science and engineering advances. Can you be more precise about the report on “empowered policy makers”? Who thinks pure math should be reclassified with philosophy and art?

    • Ghoussoub says:

      Jim, I don’t normally name names when information is not first-hand. This said, do you have any doubt about how mis-understood Pure and Applied mathematics are in Ottawa? … assuming they know the difference.

  3. I agree that pure mathematics is much like art and philosophy while profoundly disagreeing that this means it is irrelevant and undeserving of funding. Math, like art and philosophy, should be funded well precisely because it is fundamental to understanding our world.

    Of course our current government is not actually much interested in understanding, evidence or anything else mathematicians, philosophers or artists hold dear. Nor are they interested in facts about the very real contributions those disciplines (or any others) make to our economy or culture. At least that’s what the evidence of their behaviour seems to suggest.

    In other words, I don’t think they have any special beef with mathematics.

  4. Ghoussoub says:

    While all creative activities are some kind of an art form or another, I personally believe that mathematics is much closer to science and technology than to philosophy. The NSA, NASA, Google and brokerage firms (corrupt or not) have good reasons to hire mathematicians and not philosophers. The completion of the Manhattan project required John Von Neumann and Stan Ulam, and did not need a Jean-Paul Sartre nor an Alain. Though Oppenheimer got philosophical at the end…
    As to the rest, there is evidence that politicians appreciate more the role of mathematics in society than some empowered bureaucrats.

  5. Nilima says:

    Maybe we, as a community, also do ourselves a disservice. The message is that math is important, central and vital…. and the ‘pay-off’ is on the timescale of decades. We’re incensed that government funding is tied to ‘commercialization’ . We argue loudly against measuring outcomes someone outside our discipline can measure. We don’t have labs, and we don’t readily fit the ‘background-methods-experiments-results’ framework. We address questions most lay people can’t formulate, and probably care about as much as they care about angels dancing on pin heads. From the outside, then, someone may reasonably believe what we do in our offices is closer to philosophy than, say, biology. Theoretical Physics, under this description, is also closer to philosophy – except they have grand conjectures, mysterious particles and the origins of the Universe to talk about.

    For the record, I actually do think mathematical research is closer to science, that basic science should be funded, and tying dollars to commercialization is bone-headed. In this we aren’t any different from the other basic sciences. But if blame is to be apportioned, there’s some coming our way.

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