Mathematicians warn of ideology polluting their discipline

May 25, 2023 • 11:30 am

It looks as if today will be about ideology infecting science—in this case, mathematics. One would think that math would be relatively impervious to the ideological tides inundating other sciences, but one would be wrong. This article from the Torygraph (click on screenshot, or on the archived version here), discusses nonbinding but injurious ideological guidelines given to college teachers of math in the UK. These guidelines have nothing to do with improving math education, of course, but everything to do with propagandizing students with certain approved political views.

Excerpts are indented:

More than 50 of Britain’s leading mathematicians have accused standards bosses of politicising the curriculum with new diversity guidance.

Academics at top UK universities have signed an open letter criticising guidance on academic standards that states that values of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) “should permeate the curriculum and every aspect of the learning experience”.

The guidance was published in March by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), an independent body that receives membership fees from more than 300 UK higher education providers and distributes advice on courses.

In an open letter, the mathematicians write: “We reject the QAA’s insistence on politicising the mathematical curriculum.

“We believe the only thing that should permeate the mathematics curriculum is mathematics. Academics should teach from a perspective informed by their academic experience, not from a political perspective determined by the QAA.

“Students should be able to study mathematics without also being required to pay for their own political indoctrination.”

I believe the letter of protest to the QAA guidelines is here, though it may be an earlier version. The link to the guidelines themselves (given in the letter) seems to be gone, but the letter’s signers paraphrase some guidelines:

A particular concern is that the new edition states: “the curriculum should present a multicultural and decolonised view of MSOR, informed by the student voice.”

We abhor racism, but one can abhor racism without subscribing to the theory of decoloniality.

The theory of decoloniality is a postmodernist critique of the “European paradigm of rational knowledge”. We believe that history suggests that mathematics is not a particularly European paradigm. On the contrary there are many examples where the same mathematical ideas have been developed independently across cultures. As just one example, the Japanese mathematician Seki and the Swiss mathematician Bernoulli both studied what are now called Bernoulli numbers. We agree that where practical the mathematical community should use terminology that gives nonWestern mathematicians proper credit, but this is not the meaning of decoloniality.

The QAA suggests promoting a decolonialist perspective as follows:

Students should be made aware of problematic issues in the development of the MSOR content they are being taught, for example some pioneers of statistics supported eugenics, or some mathematicians had connections to the slave trade, racism or Nazism.

The mathematicians are correct; math curricula should be about math alone.  But what is the QAA recommending? This is hard to believe, but seems to be true:

The QAA guidance suggests that professors should note that “some early ideas in statistics were motivated by their proposers’ support for eugenics, some astronomical data were collected on plantations by enslaved people, and, historically, some mathematicians have recorded racist or fascist views or connections to groups such as the Nazis”.

Maths professors said that the agency wanted to teach “a skewed view of the history of mathematics”. They noted that the QAA did not recommend teaching “the universality of mathematical truth, the use of statistics to disprove historical racial theories or about the Jewish mathematicians persecuted by Nazis”.

If you take this tactic, then every single academic subject must devote its time to showing how famous achievers in its area were politically impure. If you want to discuss things like how slaves collected astronomical data, do it in a history or sociology of science class.

But the scariest thing in these guidelines—and I can’t verify this because I can’t find the guidelines themselves—is that the QAA did NOT recommend teaching “the universality of mathematical truth, the use of statistics to disprove historical racial theories or about the Jewish mathematicians persecuted by Nazis”.  Is mathematical truth not universal?  Yes, I know that Euclidean geometry differs from non-Euclidian geometry, but that itself is a universal truth. And they recommending teaching how mathematicians promoted slavery, racism, and Nazism, but, curiously, don’t recommend teaching how slaves enriched astronomy or how Jewish mathematicians were persecuted by Nazis? And, as a secular Jew, I want to know why Jewish persecution get a pass here.

In truth, none of this should be in math class, but I find it deeply weird that of all the philosophies held by some mathematicians, including the morality of slavery and of Nazism, they leave out Jews, who of course were the very victims of Nazi persecution, just as slaves were the victims of racism.

But there’s pushback beyond the letter:

Dr John Armstrong, a reader in financial mathematics at King’s College London, and a signatory of the letter, said: “Education for sustainable development may sound like a positive thing, but when you look into what that is, what they are promoting is encouraging all students to become activists on issues of social justice.

“It’s really quite a remarkable thing to change education from goals such as understanding, learning and appreciating art and shift everything towards consideration of social justice.”

It is simply bizarre that we all sit back and accept this explicit injection of ideology into science, a practice that not only takes time away from science (and, in this case, math), but tries to turn young mathematicians into ideologues. Were I a parent, I’d want my children to decide their views themselves, not have propaganda stuffed down their throats by math teachers.  These are bizarre times we live in, but we can’t let those who are most vocal foist their politics onto children who want to learn math or science (or anything else, for that matter).

Oh, and in light of the letter, the QAA has added this:

A spokesman for the QAA said: “Subject benchmark statements are written by groups of academics from the relevant discipline. Institutional autonomy and academic freedom are crucial principles, and therefore the statements do not mandate academics to teach specific content – they are a reflective tool to support course design and are not compulsory. We agree with the letter’s assertion that course content should be taught by academics in line with their own expertise and academic judgment.”

Indeed. Why, then, did they insist on producing a benchmark statement? And, as one of my friends asked, “How did it all go off the rails?”  It’s almost as if we’re being subject to “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds,” as the famous book was called.  This foisting of ideology on education is our version of Tulip Mania.

32 thoughts on “Mathematicians warn of ideology polluting their discipline

  1. On twitter you wrote: “And then they came for math. . .” But remember this should start with “First, they expunged the conservatives but I did nothing because they were my political enemies.” Now there are no conservatives in academia left to stand up against this.

  2. “And, as a secular Jew, I want to know why Jewish persecution get a pass here.”
    I hate to say it because it’s awful but because the Jews who were persecuted were what they would now call white and that doesn’t fit their current oppressions hierarchy. I’m afraid that may be the reason.

    I think it’s critical to teach in history class (and in science class) the prejudice against “Jewish science” expressed in Germany and other Western countries in the build up to WWII. The exodus of Jewish scientists to the US from Europe shortened the war for the Allies and gave the US a huge boost in science post war.

    Math and Science is universal now with contributors from every country, race, and religion and that is wonderful. We mustn’t let the modern ideology segment the world again.

  3. The idea of cultural infection from a “woke mind virus” (recently discussed by Elon Musk and Bill Maher) has recently come under some severe criticism, but what else could account for the claim by Luis Leyva (Vanderbilt), as reported a few months ago on YahooNews, of math education being too white and “cisheteropatriarchal”?

  4. And, as a secular Jew, I want to know why Jewish persecution get a pass here.

    It’s because Jewish kids (in all countries) do fine on maths exams, whereas black American kids don’t. Therefore they need to make out that black American kids are “oppressed” as the only acceptable explanation. And since there’s little actual evidence of that today, they need to hark back 200 yrs to slavery.

    By the way, being interested in astronomy, I followed the links on “some astronomical data were collected on plantations by enslaved people”, and the nearest specific example seems to be of astronomers collecting data on ocean tides from slave ports, that is, ports that hosted slave ships amongst other shipping.

    1. … and since I seem to be in a cynical mood, I’ve just thought of an alternative explanation:

      Plenty of Jewish people will feature in the history of mathematics through their contributions to mathematics. Black Americans have to be shoe-horned into the story some other way.

      1. To be fair, there was Benjamin Banneker, the black female mathematicians of the 20th century, and I am sure many others I don’t know about.
        In fact, I think it is fine to mention their contributions to math. This would underscore the universal nature of math, and maybe provide role models for black students. I find it unfortunate that today’s media see fit to glorify not black mathematicians, scientists, doctors or engineers but people like Michael Brown and George Floyd.

        1. Out of interest, what did Benjamin Banneker contribute to mathematics? Was it the sort of contribution that would be remembered if he had not been black?

          I fully agree with highlighting such contributions, if the contributions merit it in a color-blind accounting.

          1. Nothing of note. Banneker was primarily an astronomer. He was and is best known for producing an almanac, which required extensive calculations. But his actual contributions consist of a few puzzles. For example:

            A significant portion of the Wikipedia article on Banneker is given to refutation of the considerable hype that has built up about him over many decades.

            If he hadn’t been black, no one would care about the puzzles.

        2. The women whose stories are told in the book (and embellished in movie), Hidden Figures, also seem more noteworthy for being “the first African-American women to do…” this that or the other thing than for any novel contributions to the field of mathematics. For NASA’s predecessor organization they were skilled “computers”—a job title that meant they operated slide rules and paper trig tables —themselves calculated by an earlier generation of “computers”. They crunched the meticulous calculations over and over again to analyze prodigious aerodynamic data from wind-tunnel experiments, detail work for which the “big-picture” engineers lacked the necessary patience and persistence. Later at NASA they became mathematical technologists and computer programmers learning and teaching FORTRAN to compute the orbits and re-entry trajectories of spacecraft more efficiently than humans could. All this work took knowledge, skill and dedication but there is no evidence that any of them were personally essential or made insights or discoveries, “without whom this could not have happened.” They became respected by those on the inside but worked in large teams of dedicated professionals toward getting the job done. The story that John Glenn wanted Katherine Johnson to check the electronic computer’s results before he flew is true but it doesn’t mean he thought she had special genius. He just trusted that she would be less likely to make a mistake than a computer programmer. A touching and generous human tribute.

          When you read these women’s bios you can’t help but think they could have become research mathematicians or professional engineers—“computing” seemed way below their mathematical prowess in the 1950s—and it seems that family concerns had as much impact as did segregation on the doors that opened or didn’t open for them. (Katherine Johnson became a school teacher after graduating summa cum laude at 18 with a math major.). That’s certainly a story worth telling but it’s not really about them as mathematicians so much as it is about America at the time.

          But do check the Wiki pages for their own stories.

  5. “The theory of decoloniality is a postmodernist critique…” one of whose pioneers is Frantz Fanon (1925-1961).

    “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder.

    Decolonization, therefore, implies the urgent need to thoroughly challenge the colonial situation. Its definition can, if we want to describe it accurately, be summed up in the well-known words: “The last shall be first.”

    In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists. This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have
    them clamber up (too quickly, say some) the famous echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence.

    You do not disorganize a society, however primitive it may be, with such an agenda if you are not determined from the very start to smash every obstacle encountered.”

    (Fanon, Frantz. /The Wretched of the Earth./ [1961.] Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. pp. 2-3)

    (By the way, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a preface to this book.)

  6. “Is mathematical truth not universal?” – Endorsing epistemic relativism and particularism, postmodern critical theories such as decolonial theory (decolonialism) reject scientific universalism.

  7. I love the QAA response: “The statements do not mandate academics to teach specific content – they are a reflective tool to support course design and are not compulsory.”

    Translation: “Feel free to ignore this BS, it’s just something we were required to produce because someone at a committee meeting said we should, and we were too afraid of being called racists to disagree with them.”

  8. This is what “decolonizing” scientific education means from the woke perspective: Teachers and students must stop doing “business as usual” in the sciences, because continuing to do so means continuing oppression and discrimination—especially of non-white/non-Western people. For this reason, white/Western knowledge must be “decentered” (i.e. marginalized), and non-white/non-Western “knowledges” must be “centered” (i.e. demarginalized).
    Additionally, an evaluative “critical” history of white/Western science (including “critical” biographies of scientists) and a normative “critical” politics of science implementing decolonialism must become essential parts of every scientific curriculum. Moreover, in order to realize social equity, i.e. to ensure that “the last shall be first,” meritocracy in science must be abolished.

  9. I used to smile at science fiction stories, written in the middle of the last century, where the space ships and fleets of the ‘bad guys’ always had political commissars standing at the captains shoulder to ensure loyalty to party principles. Nothing to do with mere strategy or tactics, just loyalty to the Party ideology.

    Standard Agencies and other Professional Bodies appear to be this century’s Political Commissars. I’m not smiling now.

  10. If you look at their most current financial report, approximately 60% of QAA’s revenue comes from fees provided by educational institutions (roughly 300 institutions). The rest is made up by government funding councils.

    “Our expertise helps universities and colleges meet and balance regulatory requirements, including those of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs), as cost-effectively as possible.”

    Educational institutions pay QAA fees to ensure they stay in statutory compliance. In 2022, they published about 150 quality reports for various institutions.

    This is the type of service that can be easily replaced by ChatGPT style AI. I took the liberty of reading their MSOR document and AI can eat the content for lunch.

  11. It is pretty nuts. Even if the US, you see some of it. Example: my narrow sub-field is something called “wild embeddings” (roughly speaking: I study embeddings of the circle in 3 space that have no tangent at any point).

    And of course, some of the “justice mathematicians” have a problem with the word “wild”: they see it as “colonialist” (“nature bad, conforming to White people’s tastes: good” type of thing).

    The sad thing is that these are NOT stupid people; many of them are very good mathematicians.

    It is almost as if they have a “humanities envy”: they desperately want their research to somehow be part of the right against the chic ***isms of the day.

    Sometimes, they’ll start a talk with a “land acknowledgement” (ok, kind of harmless but I roll my eyes at it)

  12. Along the lines of Oldgote’s “humanities envy” in comment 13 above, I would suggest that we not totally dismiss this post-colonial claptrap. I think that there is a place for it in even high school and certainly higher ed. There is a place for understanding the idea of decolonization, in particular the learning about certainly hundreds and likely thousands of years of colonization. And it covers pretty much all disciplines as to questioning impacts. It would not reside in a math dept per se, but a mathematician would be part of the team that creates and teaches the course. It might be part of a course called “Studies in the History of Colonizations and their impact on Modern Day Disciplines in Science, Mathematics, History, Religion, and Government”. Student Research papers for such a class would be very enlightening I think. As a mathematician-ish person, I would love to do some math modeling from simply descriptive to that which deeply respects the anthropology and history that motivated peoples’ movement. I know that the post-moderns would hate this sort of thing in that it brings enlightenment thinking to the table, which would expose their very superficial game of victimhood without progress.

    1. What sums all this up is the hoax paper submitted by physicist Alan Sokal to a respected humanities journal in 1996 entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. The article is a pastiche of humanities “right on” terminology (1990s-version, which was mild by comparison with its latest incarnation….). It asserted that quantum theory is a social construct, and proved this with all the right language — redolent of an actual humanities paper published some years previously which claimed that Einstein’s e=mc2 formula is a reflection of male genitalia…. (I kid you not). Anyway, Sokal’s paper sailed through the review process unscathed and was duly published. Sokal then revealed the hoax. If I remember rightly, there were claims in the right-on fraternity that it was the exposure by Sokal that was the hoax, not the original paper. It’s amusing, but a desperately sad reflection on the state of play and how little has changed since C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” paper in 1959. For anyone interested, there’s a lot more on this in my book “The Trouble With Science” (published in 1995…..) — which I sometimes describe as a medieval theological tirade against modern idiots. Sadly, nothing has changed. And, by the way, the decolonisation rhetoric that underpins a lot of this stuff is sadly ignorant of the actual history of the Empire, or anything else for that matter. At least I have first hand experience of the latter, which is more than most critics have!

  13. “One would think that math would be relatively impervious to the ideological tides inundating other sciences, but one would be wrong.” I guess I’m wrong. (I note that in the US ‘maths’ are called ‘math’, irrelevant observation?)
    It is like calling Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” a ‘rape manual’ (courtesy of Sandra Harding, 1986): it is exquisitely neither here nor there, -and it is old stuff. If I’d want to rape, the “Principia” is really the last place where I’d look. I’ll bet a good bottle of wine that 99.9% of rapists never read it, or maybe even heard of it.
    If I’m looking for racism, mathematics is not really a good starting point. Squaring the circle?
    The whole thing is beyond ridiculous, yet, here we are.

  14. One doesn’t understand the postmodern perspective on science unless one understands that for postmodernists (postmodern critical theorists)…

    “The question of whether we consider a statement right or wrong depends not only on what is being said, but also on /who/ says it /when/, /where/, and /to whom/. For /objectivity/ (‘What?’) is – inevitably – a matter of /social authority/ (‘Who?’), /spatiotemporal contextuality/ (‘Where and when?’), and /interactional relationality/ (‘To whom?’). The idea of abstract epistemic universality evaporates when confronted with the multilayered constitution of normative – that is, value-laden, meaning-laden, perspective-laden, interest-laden, power-laden, and tension-laden – realities.”

    (Susen, Simon. /The ‘Postmodern Turn’ in the Social Sciences./ Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. p. 10)

  15. “Students should be made aware of problematic issues in the development of the MSOR content they are being taught, for example some pioneers of statistics supported eugenics, or some mathematicians had connections to the slave trade, racism or Nazism.”

    I did an undergraduate degree in Statistics, and I don’t think there was even mention of the “pioneers of statistics”, let alone any biographical details of any of them.

    Yes, we were taught the Pearson coefficient, but (to my memory), we were never even told who Karl Pearson was, let alone what his beliefs were. In order to make us “aware” of this (and similar facts) would have required repeated and lengthy digressions into the History of Statistics, that would have been both irrelevant and disruptive to the syllabus.

    1. I’ll differ from you a bit on that. When I did undergraduate maths I found the occasional asides on the history of the subject and the personalities involved in its development thoroughly interesting and I am glad that they were provided. I do not think they should be a required part of the curriculum or form part of the exams unless you’ve opted to take a unit on the history of the subject.

    2. One of my lecturers in mathematics was a massive fan of WR Hamilton. He’d bang on about Hamilton all the time, seemingly irrelevantly.

      In the final paper for his course, one of the questions was to write a short biography of Hamilton.

  16. I have just read Fukuyama’s short book “liberalism & its Discontents” – this chimes with that book…

    If you REALLY want to respect diversity, you have to accept ALL the diverse views & opinions.

  17. I believe that the main reason Jews don’t get mentioned is that despite constituting one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in history, if not _the_ most, they have as a whole risen to great prominence and achievement. Today one is more likely to hear complaints that they dominate in Hollywood, medicine, and finance. They did this without any outside help in the form of public activist movements. This completely blows out of the water the _entire_ narrative of Critical Theory, which claims that power is everything and that rising up in society like this is impossible. The theorists cannot acknowledge any of it lest they be exposed as frauds.

  18. I agree these things are remarkably stupid and seem to be more common now than before but it’s also not unique to us. There’s this clip about maths (and education more broadly) being politicised from a satirical show released back in 1988!

  19. I suppose when “everything is political”, it was inevitable that they’d come for STEM. It reminds me of those who say nuclear weapons is “science going wrong” as if the purpose of science is to be morally upright rather than understanding how the world works.

    Given the diversity of viewpoints, I would have thought that nonpartisan subjects would be the goal of a liberal education. It should be that anyone going through the subject learns about the subject itself, and the goal at the end of learning maths is better maths skills. It speaks of an overconfidence in the acceptance of their own worldview that they have no problem politicising the apolitical. Not unlike the creationists who go after science for similar reasons.

Leave a Reply