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AMS Panel on The Public Face of Mathematics

January 10, 2014


A week from today I’ll be at the Joint Math Meetings in Baltimore to join a panel discussion on the Public Face of Mathematics. I’ll steal the blurb for my panel from this page:

The Public Face of Mathematics, Friday, 2:30 p.m.–4:00 p.m. Moderated by Arthur Benjamin, Harvey Mudd College. Panelists Keith Devlin, Stanford University; Jerry McNerney, U. S. Congress; Cathy O’Neil, Johnson Research Labs; Tom Siegfried, Freelance Journalist; and Steve Strogatz, Cornell University, will share ideas and lead discussion about how the mathematics community can mobilize more members to become proactive in representing mathematics to the general public and to key audiences of leaders in discussions of public policy. Sponsored by the Committee on Science Policy and the Committee on Education.

One thing I’ve already noticed that might make me different from some of the other panelists is that I don’t spend too much time explaining math to the general public, although my notes on teaching at HCSSiM might arguably be the exception. And sometimes I explain how to do modeling, but that’s not stuff I learned as a mathematician.

Mostly what I do, at least from my perspective, is comment on the culture of mathematics (for women, for example) or talk about how unfortunate it is that the public’s trust in mathematics and mathematician is being perverted into a political campaign about the (supposed) objectivity of mathematical modeling by people like Bill Gates. I specialize in calling out the misapplication of mathematical imprimatur.

Anyhoo, two questions for my readers:

  1. Are you going to JMM too and wanna hang with me? Please know I’m only there during the day Friday, it’s a short visit. But please contact me!
  2. The moderator, Art Benjamin, is asking us panelists for questions that he should ask the panel next week. Please comment below with your suggestions, and thanks!
Categories: math
  1. January 10, 2014 at 7:00 am

    You’ve written some great pieces about math and Wall St. and (I think) about how the flawed math there has been damaging to the public perception of math. There must be opinions all over the place on that issue.

    For example, math models definitely played a role in JPM’s “London Whale” problem (in showing that a position of that size had little risk, and later in marking it). When this issue hit the papers, do the panelists think there was a hit to the public’s perception of math?

    Separately, on a fun and sort of small world note, a high school class mate of mine posted on FB yesterday – ” my brush with celebrity today: I got to drive Arthur Benjamin from [my son’s] school to Palo Alto. . . . “

  2. January 10, 2014 at 7:05 am

    I won’t be there, unfortunately, but I’m curious to know what the panelists see as the role of mathematicians and the mathematics community in addressing the [ever-increasing?] misappropriation of mathematics to support political and corporate agendas. I’m thinking of specifically of John Ewing’s excellent piece on the “Mathematical Intimidation” of value-added ratings for teachers and the ubiquity of dubious economic/statistical studies that purport to meaningfully measure things, but also of much of what you write about here seems to fit, too, like the prevalence of faulty modeling and bogus models in industry.

    Does the panel think mathematicians have an obligation to speak up about these matters? Do they wish they could, but feel they lack a forum? Or maybe they don’t see it as a problem?

    • January 10, 2014 at 7:06 am

      Great questions, thanks!

      • bart
        January 10, 2014 at 11:06 am

        Patrick Honner’s questions are important and indeed great. I hope the panel will have the chance to discuss them. Besides the piece in the May 2011 Notices of the AMS already mentioned by Mr. Honner, Ewing wrote another very good and related article in June/July 2012. From the last paragraph: “Some things are not measured by data and are not well suited to statistical analysis. The beauty of a great painting, the magnificence of a great symphony, the power of great poetry cannot be captured by data. Similarly, many prosaic parts of life are not aptly judged by data and statistics alone. Great and inspired education is among them.”

        Related to another current debate, Peter Woit’s recent “Trust the math?” post and its comments suggest other questions. For example: does the panel think that mathematicians have an obligation to speak up about the fact that “part of the math community and the main US standards organization have been actively trying to deceive [the public about cryptography standards]”? (quoting from one of Woit’s comments).

    • Guest2
      January 10, 2014 at 7:50 am

      Nothing new about this — goes back to Sir William Petty’s Political Arithmetick (1676/1690).

      In fact, “the [ever-increasing?] misappropriation of mathematics to support political and corporate agendas” is the reason that Galtonian statistics has survived this long — handmaiden to mass administrative bureaucracy that tyrannizes over us all, and dictates to the elites what they can and cannot do. The standard history for this is “Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930: The social construction of scientific knowledge,” (1981) Donald MacKenzie.

      For those interested in this problem as it played out in finance and banking: Physics and Finance: S-Terms and Modern Finance as a Topic for Science Studies


      This is now especially true, as you say, in public education. See David Labaree’s


  3. January 10, 2014 at 8:35 am

    From No Child Left Behind to Common Core, is a one size fits all the right formula for mathematics? Is the “dumbing down” of math, as some would assert, or as the late great NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan might have said: “defining deviancy down,” cheating our brightest students and making us less competitive in the world arena?

  4. January 10, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Gender segregated math studies, is it at all beneficial to any gender? If yes, at what cost?

  5. Robin Marek
    January 10, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I’m planning to attend the panel discussion next week, and it would be great to say hello. Happy to share in a conversation with others who are similarly interested.

  6. January 10, 2014 at 10:28 am

    When and how should “public mathematics” be counted toward tenure? (I don’t think it’s entirely coincidence that the panel lacks untenured faculty!)

    • Josh
      January 10, 2014 at 3:02 pm

      My version of that question: does the mathematics community actually want to support people who serve as the public face of mathematics? Support would include:
      – training
      – consideration for faculty appointments
      – funding

      How should this rank relative to other non-research obligations, like teaching, research mentorship, and administrative duties?

      • Kaisa
        January 10, 2014 at 4:47 pm

        I will also be at the JMM and would love to hang :) I want to support Ursula and Josh’s questions and add some economics questions. There are fewer tenured & tenure-track people who can be the public face of mathematics. Tenure-track folks and postdocs know that being the public face of math is likely to do you no favors in getting the golden tenure prize. Follow the money! If folks at the top want to support outreach, how are they going to do it?

        Outside of academia, what’s the benefit to being a public face of mathematics?

  7. suevanhattum
    January 10, 2014 at 10:29 am

    I noticed you were the only woman on the panel. I’m not sure who else to suggest, but I wish they had chosen at least two women. Not sure how to translate that into a question.

    I wish I were there. I’m sure hearing everyone speak would inspire me with lots of questions. Please let us know how it goes.

    • January 10, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      I’ll be going to a financial conference in Chicago later this month. The first panel, moderated by a man, has one woman panelist. The second panel, moderated by a woman, has two other women on the panel. I think the trick is for a woman to be the moderator and having her choose her panelists. (Abe who is an abu’l banat (Arabic: father of daughters).)

  8. Christina Sormani
    January 10, 2014 at 11:14 am

    The AWM Panel at the JMM this year concerns “Building a Research Career in Mathematics” and should be of use for the postdoc and tenure track mathematicians at the JMM as well as those wishing to mentor them. Here’s the link:


    All our panelists are women although the issues discussed will be helpful to men as well. There are also other AWM events bringing together women at the JMM (and men are also welcome there). See the Association of Women in Mathematics Events under:


  9. January 10, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    This may well already be on their radar as a question, but I guess I’m wondering how they see the role/impact of the math blogosphere in particular (and other math websites/social media as well) in reaching out to a more general audience — or are we largely an ‘echo-chamber’ talking mainly to one-another?

    • Kaisa
      January 10, 2014 at 4:48 pm

      I also would like to hear about this. Science blogging is huge and has really reached out. Where does math blogging/Twitter/etc need to go?

  10. Japheth Wood
    January 13, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    I’ll look for you at the HCSSiM breakfast on Friday, if you’ll be there.

    How about a math circle question? Do the panelists see this grassroots approach, where mathematicians engage in math directly with segments of the public (students and teachers in particular, and maybe parents) as having a significant and positive impact? Should the mathematical community invest more in the math circle movement through volunteering, funding, and other resources?

  11. January 15, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    I’m here at the JMM, and I’d love to meet you. I’ll be coming to your panel, so I’ll introduce myself afterwards.

  1. January 14, 2014 at 6:35 am
  2. January 19, 2014 at 7:08 am
  3. January 27, 2014 at 2:47 pm
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