Chris Mooney of the Inquiring Minds podcast interviewed Jordan Ellenberg about his book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, and in a fascinating accompanying post, Mooney investigates whether mathematics are "liberal." His argument is that liberal thought is characterized by "wishy washy" uncertainty and that math professors tend to vote left:
For instance, Ellenberg is big on busting tendencies towards what he calls "false linearity" in our thinking—and not afraid to use political examples to make his point. Early in the book, he takes on a Cato Institute scholar who wrote a 2010 blog post about health care entitled, "Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden When Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?" As Ellenberg explains, the whole conceit of this argument, the mental model involved, is linear in nature. He includes this amusing hand-drawn figure in the book (one of many) to illustrate the point:
If the United States and Sweden are both on a straight line, one end of which is prosperity and one end of which is a "Black Pit of Socialism," then of course the US should move away from socialism and towards higher prosperity—and Sweden should too. "But if you take one second to think about that consciously, that's obviously not true," Ellenberg explains.
Suppose instead that the two countries are located on a curve, one where prosperity peaks at some degree of socialism/"Swedishness" that is greater than that of the United States but also less than that of Sweden, but declines when you have too much socialism—or too little of it. More like this:
"There's such a thing as taxing too little, and there's such a thing as taxing too much, and there's kind of a Goldilocks point where it's just right, somewhere in between," Ellenberg says. "And so there's no contradiction to say that, maybe the US should have more of a welfare state than it does, and maybe Sweden should have less of a welfare state than it does."
Of course, as Stephen Colbert has reminded us, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,
Is Math Liberal?
[Chris Mooney/Mother Jones]