Maths levels humanity

This is going to be a two-part blog. The first part is about how a claim which sort of seems to be logical can also be utter bullshit. But the second is about how mathematics, logic, and science, far from being tools of white patriarchal oppression (as some critical theorists claim), are in fact the great levellers of humanity.

1

I just had a job interview. And I knew they would ask about diversity of students, and how I felt about it, etc. So I thought about this, and I came up with a great answer. I started by responding by describing my experience teaching students from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds (which is true – my experience teaching at SUNY Buffalo and Oakland University, I have taught people from many groups, and one thing I have learned: dumb people can come from any group). But then, I went on to say that one of the great things about diversity and mathematics is that maths teaches us our common humanity, because, as one of the Greek philosophers said, ‘there is no royal road to geometry.’ In other words, before mathematics, we are all equal. None of us are better or lesser than another.

The director of HR replied, rather impressed, saying that she had never thought of it that way. And here is the thing: I wasn’t exactly wrong, but seriously, 99% of people will not learn this lesson from mathematics. I’ve been studying mathematics at the university level for 16 years, and I literally first thought of this last night.

Now as I will argue below, despite this, my statement is actually sort of accurate. But there are many people in the critical studies fields who will make connections, and then claim that these connections are both valid and widespread. For example, there was a claim, which I will not dignify by citing, that the white marble used in classical Greek sculptures contributes to white supremacy, because good art features people who are pale. In fact, I think the Greeks painted said statues (and even attached fake pubic hair to them), so they would not have seen the marble, but so what if they did? Almost nobody looks at these statues today and thinks ‘what is good about this is that the person is depicted using white marble, which is pale!’

And here is the thing: the connection between the marble, which happened to be white (which is nice for making it bright and easily visible and whatnot), and the fact that Europeans tend to have paler skin, is not one that is significant. It is a connection that can be made conceptually, if you really try, but not one that the artists or the viewers have in mind.

2

Now, most students of mathematics will not notice the levelling effects of mathematics and logic. However, some philosophers have. Nietzsche said, of logic, that ‘it treats even the crooked nose as straight.’ What he meant by this is that the Jews (those with ‘crooked noses’) were generally looked down upon by christian Europe. They were very much an ‘oppressed’ and ‘marginalized’ class. However, logical arguments cannot be denied via appeals to authority. Whereas someone in a ruling class can make a declaration and be followed by virtue of their power, the power of logic lies in its irrefutable nature, rather than in the power held by the person who uses it.

(As a side-note, although the ‘crooked nose’ comment might sound anti-Semitic to modern ears, Nietzsche was not at all anti-Jew, and in fact believed Jews were capable of leading Europe – and that this might be beneficial for Europeans and Jews alike. But this is neither here nor there.)

Now, critical theorists will claim that logic, critical thinking, mathematics, and science, have been used to oppress others. It is true that junk science has sometimes done this. However, real science, and real mathematics and logic, simply are what they are, and in this way, are levellers of humanity. If a member of an oppressed class writes down a logical proof, there is no refuting this by saying ‘They’re merely an X.’ Long before women working was a normal thing, Emmy Noether gained acceptance in the mathematics and mathematical physics community, by virtue of the fact that she wrote down brilliant logical deductions in mathematics. Similarly, long before women working was normal, Madam Curie gained fame for her scientific work with radioactivity.

The point is, with science, if you present properly gathered and analyzed evidence, your identity does not matter. People might hate you, but they cannot refute your evidence. With maths and logic, again, your identity is irrelevant. All that matters is whether or not your proofs are correct.

Of course, people can continue to be biased against you. Perhaps some will refuse to look at your research. But that is due to unscientific/illogical behavior upon their part. They are not following the tenets of science or logic, if they permit the identity of the scientist or mathematician to influence their judgment about the results. In both of these areas, science and mathematics, the only thing that matters has nothing to do with the identity of the person who does it. In science, all that matters is the evidence. In mathematics, all that matters is the logic. The result is that, in both cases, there can be no such thing as privilege (when such fields are correctly applied). Indeed, the greatest tool of the oppressed is logic. The oppressor can appeal to emotion and authority, but cannot refute the logic of the oppressed, no matter how oppressed they might be.

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