Vladimir Shlapentokh

Январь 20, 2011

Mathematicians and social scientists are both the participants in the same glass bead game

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 9:34 пп


Mathematicians and social scientists are both the participants in  the same glass bead game  

A mathematician sent me the article “Good-looking men and women have higher IQs: Beauty and brains DO go together!” It was published in the British newspaper Daily Mail as a scholarly article based on empirical data.  My mathematician friend cited this article as more evidence of the laughable character of social science and seemingly expressed her disdain of social science on behalf of the entire mathematical community.  However, it is clear, a priori, that this piece is an example of pseudo science. However, mathematicians should use caution in looking down at social science and its practitioners.

 The article clearly entertained several thousands of readers and even triggered this discussion. But what about the value of most theoretical mathematical works?  They do not increase, with their arcane subject manner, social utility, because a layman –and even professionals from other fields of mathematics –cannot understand nor be entertained by the theoretical mathematical works. The results of mathematical reasoning can claim to be useful to society only indirectly by helping fields like physics and computer science which directly help society.   
Each year, the mathematicians in the world produce hundreds or perhaps thousands of articles (let us suppose that most of them are more or less correct). As once told to me by the prominent mathematician and Nobel prize winner Leonid Kantorovich and by Spartac Beliaev, an outstanding physicist and full member of the old Soviet Academy of Science, 95 percent of mathematical works are meaningless, because nobody will use them in the future.  One outstanding physicist told me in connection with this discussion that the situation is the same in theoretical physics, while another great expert assured me that 95 percent of the articles in engineering simply never meet even one reader.  The cemetery of mathematical works in total oblivion is enormous, even if  most of these redundant works were a basis for promotion within the mathematical hierarchy.  Most likely, there are also tombs for the theorems of the prolific Gauss (why not, even Mozart authored several absolutely insipid pieces).  How many mathematical articles will solve problems and be cited and how many of them will prompt other mathematicians to generate new problems and solutions?

Dear mathematical friends, are you not mostly engaged in the glass bead games with your own rules, which are so perfectly described by Hermann Hesse?  Are you not to some degree delusional about your importance as the priests of «real science»? Of course, without useless works mathematics would not have been able to create the fundamental discoveries which indeed changed the world.  Of course, as Vladimir Zakharov, an outstanding mathematician and physicist, said, even useless scholarly works help to sustain and develop the culture and education of the next generations. But can not the same be said about social scientists? Are not the articles like the one which we discussed in the beginning also helpful in promoting intellectual activity and in creating the climate for the advancement of social ideas and programs, which ultimately change the world? Do not tell me about the nefarious consequences of many of these ideas. Are not the chances that the progress in natural science and mathematics will continue to move the world toward its annihilation? Today, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, this perspective which looked lost steam at the end of the cold war has reemerged and done so quite seriously. 
    Dear mathematicians, you do not have grounds to look down at us,social scientists, only because the rules of your glass bead game are a little different from the rules of ours.

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