Mother Jones Writer: On the Left, Nuance, Toleration, and Math

Many years ago, Stephen Colbert asserted that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Chris Mooney of Mother Jones wants to make sure you understand that mathematics (a well-known subset of reality) does, too.

This past Friday, Mooney, author of books including “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality,” posted a piece about a new book by mathematician Jordan Ellenberg which posits, in Mooney’s words, that “mathematics isn't simply about the calculations involving, you know, numbers; rather, it's a highly nuanced approach to solving problems...[M]athematics means glimpsing the entire structure of a problem, so that you can figure out how best to attack it, and so that you'll know how reliable your ultimate answers will be.”

A bit later, Mooney gets to his political point: “Although Ellenberg doesn't make this case explicitly, there's an argument to be made that the brand of mathematical thinking that he's embracing overlaps heavily with a broadly liberal style of thinking about politics and the world. Published psychological research has shown, after all, that one important difference between the left and the right involves the toleration of nuance and uncertainty.”

From Mooney’s piece (emphasis added):

Chances are that when you think about math—which, for most of us, happens pretty infrequently—you don't think of it in anything like the way that Jordan Ellenberg does. Ellenberg is a rare scholar who is both a math professor (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and a novelist. And in his fascinating new book, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, he deploys analyses of poetry, politics, and even religion in a bold recasting of what math is in the first place.

For Ellenberg, all the stuff you hated about math in high school isn't the core of the thing. He's emphatic that mathematics isn't simply about the calculations involving, you know, numbers; rather, it's a highly nuanced approach to solving problems that we all, unavoidably, encounter…

In this recasting, mathematics isn't just about solving problems, but about figuring out which techniques we ought to use to solve problems, and how much we can really trust the answers they spit out…

Ultimately, then, mathematics means glimpsing the entire structure of a problem, so that you can figure out how best to attack it, and so that you'll know how reliable your ultimate answers will be. "That's when you know you're doing mathematics," Ellenberg says. "When you see the skeleton underneath the flesh"…


For Ellenberg…mathematics is the thought process that allows you to recognize when a linear model is wrong, but a more complex curvilinear one is more appropriate to the problem. That involves a lot more than mere calculation. (In the book, Ellenberg also explores the infamous "Laffer curve," so loved by supply-side economists, which purports shows the relationship between tax rates and government revenue. In this case, Ellenberg doesn't say that the curve itself is misguided—he just questions some conservative assumptions about where we currently are on that curve, and where we were in the 1980s.)

Although Ellenberg doesn't make this case explicitly, there's an argument to be made that the brand of mathematical thinking that he's embracing overlaps heavily with a broadly liberal style of thinking about politics and the world. Published psychological research has shown, after all, that one important difference between the left and the right involves the toleration of nuance and uncertainty. Liberals tend to be the kind of people who are okay with stewing on things, dwelling on them, not making up their minds, and giving complex and detailed answers; for conservatives, this often comes off as indecisive and wishy-washy…

So is there really anything to the relationship between math and liberalism?

Well, conservatives themselves might say so. After all, they are often busy analyzing the politics of university professors to show their "liberal biases," and that sometimes includes mathematicians. According to one 2006 study, 72 percent of American university math/science faculty voted for John Kerry, and just 24 percent voted for Bush in 2004. Even more precise is a 2005 study, which found that 69 percent of college mathematics professors identified as liberal. That meant mathematicians were less liberal than denizens of the English department (88 percent) or sociologists (77 percent), but considerably more liberal than economists (55 percent) or business professors (49 percent).

One of the heroes of Ellenberg's book, the French Revolutionary figure the Marquis de Condorcet, epitomizes the connection between liberalism and mathematical thinking. A leading luminary of the French Enlightenment, Condorcet pioneered what we would today consider social science..:

"I would even go so far to say that he's inventing the kind of idea of political science and social science—the idea that one of the things that we do when we think about what is right and what is just, in politics, is ask numerical questions," says Ellenberg of Condorcet. "Which is so deeply wound into the way we think about politics now that it's almost hard to imagine someone inventing it. But it was quite radical.”

 

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters