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Math and Science Links Jan 2022

·3 mins
Dots and Boxes demo
The game I knew in childhood as Sheep in Pens.

I’ve got one math link and one meta-science link this month.

Math: I’m excited about Ben Orlin’s forthcoming book of math games. Ben loves math and puns. He’s witty and perceptive. His post on being stuck is something I’ve included in work trainings to explain how data analysts should think.

Science: Then there’s Bruce Charlton’s longform essay Not Even Trying: The Corruption of Real Science. It’s from 2013, but I just found it this month. It’s an answer to the question “Why are so many scientific papers wrong?”, and also an answer to “Why are so many of the people who leave academia disillusioned with it?” Charlton argues that scientists no longer pursue Truth above all else, elevating career and prestige instead. In this framework, peer review does not serve truth; rather, it obstructs progress by making “expert” opinions the gatekeepers. Also, anonymizing reviewers only absolves each individual of useful responsibility.

Interestingly, Charlton ties the devaluing of truth to the Western loss of religion. He thinks the medievals and early moderns had the right values. After atheism spread in the 19^th century, the first two generations of atheists inherited enough of a longing for truth to do good science. But Feynman was the last of those, and now it’s been lost.

This obviously flatters my views, and it’s refreshing to see someone give pre-modern people the credit they deserve. Furthermore, I definitely relate my own longing for mathematical truth to my longing for the person who is Truth.

But it’s strange, because I’m used to thinking of relativism as a boogeyman. Anthony Kennedy aside, I don’t know any atheists who would say they care more about their careers than about the truth. When a Christian calls atheists moral relativists, I tune out. This piece is making me rethink that.

I think the key is in the institutional failures. The system still produces some truths, and the people in the system generally have good intentions. The system has just developed in a way that makes mincemeat of good intentions. I don’t know whether atheism was responsible, or whether the abuses of peer review were inevitable as the number of researchers scaled up and their average quality inevitably scaled down.

As an aside, math seems less susceptible to devaluing truth than the lab sciences. Unlike any other department in a university, mathematicians almost universally agree about what is true in their field. There’s no way to hide behind a hard-to-replicate experiment; everyone can read your proof, and everyone in your specialty can understand it. If it’s wrong, it will quickly be debunked. Careerism is still a problem, and will be as long as research is done by humans. And fragmentation of specialties and the rush to publish to make tenure are definitely happening too. But I think math avoids half the problems here.

While Charlton presents the worst-case scenario, his essay and others have convinced me that universities are not about to evolve back towards the truth, and we should focus our energy on building alternative channels for advancing science. But regardless of which earthly direction we go, as he says, the most important thing is to love the truth more than anything else.