We have absolutely no time for this, but we feel obligated to write something. In their latest issue, the journal Nature – yes, that Nature – has a double-banger contribution to the “decolonization of mathematics”. To begin, there is an unsigned editorial, Why we have nothing to fear from the decolonization of mathematics. Then, the main event is a long article by “math and science writer“, Rachel Crowell, Charting a course to make maths truly universal. Both pieces are, of course, ridiculous.
We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here plenty in the future. These freak arguments are breeding in universities, and too few academics are willing to poke their heads above the parapet to object. A couple months ago, we wrote about the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency, and their hamfisted plans for “equality, diversity, accessibility and inclusion”, and “decolonisation”, of mathematics. Nature‘s current offering is a very similar mix of absurdity and poison.
We’ll try to be brief. The Why Evolution is True guy has written the obvious in some detail, making for a very good critique of Nature‘s nonsense. There are a few aspects, however, that are so bad, and so annoying, they are worth re-hammering.
The editorial begins,
What’s the point of decolonizing mathematics?
Very good question, and of course the answer depends upon what one means by “decolonizing”. For the editorialists, decolonizing mathematics is presented as little more than throwing in a little history. The editorial notes the Arabic origins of algebra, Hindu-Arabic numerals, and the like, and contains little else of substance. The penultimate line of the editorial is,
So, to answer the question: what’s the point of decolonizing mathematics? It is so we can get a more accurate picture of the subject’s origins and development, and the variety of problems it helps to solve.
As if we white guy lecturers had never thought of including such colour in our lectures. As if it wasn’t by now entirely standard to reflect upon and to teach the multicultural origins of modern mathematics.
It is difficult to find anyone who objects to such history in mathematics subjects. Different lecturers may consider it more or less valuable in this or that undergrad subject, for all manner of valid reasons. But if there is any maths lecturer hostile to the idea of spending at least a little precious lecture time on humanising their subject, or is unappreciative of the fuzzy and complicated origins of most mathematics, we haven’t met them.
There is plenty of sting, however, in the editorial’s tail:
such questions [of decolonising mathematics] reprise aspects of an older, more academically focused debate on whether — or to what extent — scientific knowledge is socially constructed.
The editorial’s “case in point” is algebra. Since Arabic algebra was rhetorical rather than symbolic, and was more geometric, and was focussed upon the solving of practical problems, this somehow proves algebra is a social construct.
This is absurd. Yes, Arabic algebra looked different. But the idea that it wasn’t the same basic stuff, quadratics and cubics and so forth, solved in fundamentally the same ways, is nonsense. Different civilisations did different mathematics, expressed very differently, for differing purposes and to very very differing degrees. But what they did, or didn’t do, is the same basic stuff. Mathematics is not a social construct. It is weird that it is not, but it is not.
The editorialists want this “social construct” thing, however, so they can pretend that mathematics is the contribution of many cultures much more than it is:
Decolonizing science is the antidote to exceptionalism, the idea that any single culture or civilization possessed special abilities in advancing science.
Well, we were talking about mathematics rather than science, but whatever. They’re still wrong. The word “abilities” is loaded, and “single culture or civilization” is a straw man, or straw person, or something. But for various reasons, some obvious and some mysterious, certain civilisations produced way, way more mathematics than others. The Babylonians did quadratics. The Arabs did quadratics. Indigenous Australians did not do quadratics. No social construction framing is going to change that.
The editorial ends by denying, hand on heart, that the decolonisation push could be in any sense a political exercise. They give the “last words” to the editors of Nature’s special issue on racism:
These are not political or ideological acts, but part of science itself — an example of science’s self-correcting mechanism in the pursuit of truth.
Those aren’t quite the last words. The very last word is “bullshit”.
Now to Crowell and the main event. This part will be brief, since Crowell writes almost nothing of substance on decolonisation. She writes plenty on good people doing good work in reaching students from poorer backgrounds and minority groups. She writes in depth about mathematician Edward Doolittle, who distinguishes “Indigenous mathematics” from “indigenizing mathematics”: the latter involves selecting examples from given cultures to be discussed in a standard mathematics subject, and the former involves “getting inside a culture and examining the mathematical thinking in it”. Sure, if there is sufficient mathematical thinking there to be examined, and if that’s what interests you and/or your students, go for it. Will that give your students a better training in mathematics? Maybe, maybe not. But, unless you prove it does, why should anybody else much care?
Beyond this, Crowell has some amazing lines. To begin,
Maths is built on a modern history of elevating the achievements of one group of people: white men. …
No. Modern maths, well into the 20th century was, by and large, the achievement of white men. It is what it is.
This means that the accomplishments of people of other genders and races have often been pushed aside, preventing maths from being a level playing field.
How many “other genders” are we talking about here? If you’re claiming it’s more than one, you need to bone up on your maths.
Crowell mentions a few mathematicians, seeming to claim, without evidence, that they have been “pushed aside”, and that they are somehow comparable to Cantor and Gauss and Poincaré. It is no reflection on the fine mathematicians she names, but this is embarrassing.
As to the difficulties of decolonisation, Crowell writes,
Sometimes it’s even challenging for mathematicians and other researchers to imagine how to decolonize a quantitative subject such as maths, because they’re not used to identifying how their curriculum might be affected by colonialist or racist mindsets.
Crowell provides no examples or evidence for such colonialist and racist mindsets, nor how they affect any curriculum.
Finally, hilariously, Crowell quotes John Parker, head of mathematical sciences at Durham University, on the awkward start to Durham’s decolonisation program, largely authored by a white guy. This and other aspects were criticised, and Durham responded:
Durham’s senior mathematicians felt that their curriculum-reform process had to be led by the students, because otherwise “we’re in the awful situation of deciding for ourselves what’s best for them”, Crossman says. That, Parker adds, would be at odds with the concept of decolonization, because colonization “was some group of people thinking they knew best for some other group of people”.
Yep, there are foolish teachers out there who somehow imagine they might know what’s best for their students. And such foolish practice is obviously comparable to colonisation.
The willingness of so many properly smart academics to put aside their critical faculties, to buy so completely into this nonsense, is as clear a sign as any of the insanity of our times.