Mathologer recently posted a long video addressing the “proof” by Numberphile of the “astounding result” that 1 + 2 + 3 + … = -1/12. As well as carefully explaining the underlying mathematical truth, Mathologer tore into Numberphile for their video. Mathologer’s video has been very popular (17K thumbs up), and very unpopular (1K thumbs down).
Many who objected to Mathologer’s video were Numberphile fans or semi-literate physicists who were incapable of contemplating the idea that Numberphile could have gotten it wrong. Many others, however, while begrudgingly accepting there were issues with the Numberphile video, strongly objected to the tone of Mathologer’s critique. And it’s true, Mathologer’s video might have been improved without the snarky jokes from that annoying cameraman. (Although, awarding Numberfile a score of -1/12 for their video is pretty funny.) But whining about Mathologer’s tone was mostly a cheap distraction from the main point. Fundamentally, the objections were to Mathologer’s engaging in strong and public criticism, to his lack of collegiality, and these objections were ridiculous. Mathologer had every right to hammer Numberphile hard.
Numberphile’s video is mathematical crap and it continues to do great damage. The video has been viewed over six million times, with the vast majority of viewers having absolutely no clue that they’ve been sold mathematical snake oil. Numberphile made a bad mistake in posting that video, and they’re making a much worse mistake in not admitting it, apologising for it and taking it down.
The underlying issue, a misguided concern for collegiality, extends far beyond one stupid video. There is so much godawful crap around and there are plenty of people who know it, but not nearly enough people willing to say it.
Which brings us to Australian mathematics education.
There is no shortage of people happy to acknowledge privately their frustration with or contempt for the Australian Curriculum, NAPLAN, VCE, AMSI, AAMT, MAV, teacher training, textbooks, and on and on. Rarely are these people willing to formally or publicly express any such opinions, even if they have a natural platform for doing so. Why?
Many feel that any objection is pointless, that there is no hope that they will be listened to. That may well be true, though it may also be self-fulfilling prophecy. If all those who were pissed off spoke up it would be pretty noisy and pretty difficult to ignore.
More than a few teachers have indicated to us that they are fearful of speaking out. They do not trust the VCAA, for example, to not be vindictive. To us, this seems far-fetched. The VCAA has always struck us as petty and inept and devoid of empathy and plain dumb, but not vengeful. The fear, however, is clearly genuine. Such fear is an argument, though not a clinching argument, for remaining silent.
It is also clear, however, that many teachers and academics believe that complaining, either formally or publicly, is simply not nice, not collegial. This is ridiculous. Collegiality is valuable, and it is obviously rude, pointless and damaging to nitpick over every minor disagreement. But collegiality should be a principle, not a fetish.
At a time when educational authorities and prominent “experts” are arrogantly and systemically screwing things up there is a professional obligation for those with a voice to use it. There is an obligation for professional organisations to encourage dissenting voices, and of course it is reprehensible for such organisations to attempt to diminish or outright censor such voices. (Yes, MAV, we’re talking about you, and not only you.)
If there is ever a time to be quietly respectful of educational authority, it is not now.