News Flash: is the AMR really the anti-woke fortress in mathematics?
And what does this have to do with mechanization?
…nothing evokes as much hostility among intellectuals as the suggestion that social forces influence or even dictate either the scientific method or the facts and theories of science.
(Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist)
Last October 24 I unexpectedly received the following message from an extremely eminent colleague who had been invited to join the brand new Association for Mathematical Research, an organization of whose existence I had been unaware until then:
the thing that puzzles me is why do we need a new Society devoted to research? Especially since its mission statement is just: ‘research.’ I'm already a member of a number of them. Is there a subtext I'm not getting here?
For reasons I hope to learn some day, the colleague’s wife suggested he write to me, of all people, and I immediately wrote back:
I'm flattered to know that [your wife] thinks I might be able to say something about this invitation, but I'm no less puzzled than you are. Clearly the founders believe existing mathematical societies do not adequately address the needs of research, but I can't imagine what more they think is needed. My only thought, which is not very useful, is that I hope [the 11 mathematicians who signed the invitation] know what they have in mind.
Fortunately, I was not the only one whom my colleague contacted. On October 25, another mathematician, better informed than I, shared a hypothesis:
I think that the new AMR is a reaction to the AMS's recent focus on equity and inclusion. You can find the officers and board members listed on the page https://amathr.org/member/ .
Before I share what I wrote in response to this hypothesis, I want to stress that this was — and still is — a hypothesis. The actual invitation my colleague received compresses more blandness into a single page than I thought possible without special training. There is nothing about equity or inclusion in the invitation letter, nor on the organization’s website, which at the time of writing (February 2022) has so little text or context that it doesn’t even rise to the level of blandness. This very absence of defining characteristics is a clue to the answer to the question in this week’s subtitle.
Here, slightly edited, is what I wrote on October 25.
This explanation had occurred to me, especially given the last two names on the list, but I didn't want to believe that ❊❊❊ was associated with this sort of thing.
In view of this background, I think this is a terrible development, and if the intention is eventually to replace the AMS it will be a disaster. Whatever the intentions of the board members, the new organization will inevitably be attacked as racist (and probably sexist as well, see the Ted Hill affair below); it will create a great deal of acrimony, and I don't see what good can come of it.
(Let me immediately interject that the membership list on the website has grown immensely since October and, to get ahead of the story, while I do recognize the names of a few colleagues I wouldn’t hesitate to call racist or sexist, there are just as many whom I know to be actively committed to opposing racism and sexism; and most, if asked, would, like ❊❊❊, whose name was on the original letter of invitation, undoubtedly be offended by such accusations. But that’s also part of today’s message.)
I continued by mentioning two incidents with which some of the founding members had recently been associated.
I tried to make sense of these incidents in published texts. My full text on the Ted Hill affair is at Politics/Letters, an online publication run by a couple of friends that is not well known but that is often very interesting. Here's the link.
This was follows by links to what I had written about the second relevant incident, but I prefer to reserve them for a later and more appropriate point in this News Flash. Here is how I concluded my message.
So my advice is to stay away from AMR!
Before I continue, I want to insist that my intention in the message was not, and is not, to accuse any of the initial AMR founders of racism or sexism, nor for that matter to imply that their presence among the initial founders is key to the intentions of the organization as a whole. In light of subsequent events, I do think it’s fair to accuse them of questionable judgment. But I only bring that up here because it ties in with the question in the subtitle, namely: what is a News Flash about an organization explicitly devoted to mathematical research, and to nothing more or less, doing in a Newsletter devoted to the implications of mechanization of mathematics? And in what sense is this News, for that matter?
At least one colleague immediately spotted the connection, so let me spell it out. The letter of invitation does its best to be unprovocative, but it does contain something akin to a statement of purpose:
Though individual members may be active in educational, social, or political issues related to the profession, the AMR intends to focus exclusively on matters of research and scholarship.
The clear implication of this passage — that “research and scholarship” can be neatly separated from “educational, social, or political issues” — is analogous to the formalist principle that the content of a mathematical text is fully captured by its translation into a formal language, the principle that underlies what I called the Central Dogma in an earlier installment.1 In this connection it’s useful to recall how Jacques Derrida reacted to the assumption that his dictum that “there is nothing outside the text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte) allies him with formalism:
I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the ‘other’ and the ‘other of language…’
(Jacques Derrida, in dialogue with Richard Kearney, full reference here)
My prediction that the reading of the AMR letter of invitation would not be limited to the innocuousness of its literal text but would be seen in its immediate historical context was fulfilled about a month after I first learned of the organization. A European friend who had been invited to join told me he had suspected there was more to the founders’ intentions than what they literally wrote in the letter. He then added that his own prediction that they would be accused of racism was confirmed by the reaction on Twitter, which I must now reluctantly allow to infest this page, hopefully not irreversibly:
Here Kontorovich, a member of the AMR Board of Directors, whose responsibilities seem to include representing the organization on Twitter, is writing 2/3 of the way into the social media squall to which my European friend was referring. Though my patience with the medium is not unlimited, I did manage to find2 a brief and inconclusive exchange with a few mathematicians who were skeptical about the existence of a “coordinated campaign” of intimidation, as well as Noah Snyder’s explicit imputation of ulterior motives:
…leadership is made up of the most outspoken opponents of diversity efforts in the profession? … You couldn't pick people to make the point more clearly if you tried.
Antoine Chambert-Loir made a similar point more gently, but also more explicitly, one day later.3
The so-called Abigail Thompson affair occupied the excised part of the message I sent to that extremely eminent colleague in October. I’ve saved it for now, mainly to provide momentary relief from the aggressive Twitter typeface.
The pieces on diversity hiring statements are on my blog:
These pieces find fault with the rhetorical strategies as well as the analyses of both sides, but it was only toward the end of the episode that I began to suspect that the UC system was using diversity hiring statements indirectly as a way to revive the original aims of affirmative action while officially respecting the constraints of the Bakke decision. I've since heard reports that confirm this suspicion, and if this is really the case then the controversy is even more idiotic than I thought.
Adriana Salerno had already given Kontorovich the opportunity to preempt Chambert-Loir’s “legitimate doubts” about the AMR’s hidden agenda.
Salerno, the former editor of the American Mathematical Society’s Inclusion/Exclusion blog, is here voicing an expansive interpretation of “research” that denies the possibility of its separation from “educational, social, or political issues.”
For the record, I don’t think critics are likely to be mollified by Kontorovich’s invocation of “technological advances”:
There must be a back story to the presumption that “other organizations can’t” or won’t implement technology as flexibly or as effectively as the AMR, but I can’t figure out what it is.
It a sign of how disconnected I am from social media that I thought I was being original when I put “anti-woke” in the title. Readers who are truly plugged in don’t need me to tell them that the people who post obsessively on Twitter had already been there and done that even before, or maybe just before, the controversy just reported broke out in mid-November.4 And it continues. Before you have finished spelling out the full name of AMR in the search bar, Google will have suggested the auto-completion “Association for Mathematical Research controversy.” With Google as your guide you will soon find a page entitled There Is a Civil War Brewing among Mathematicians on the site “Economics Job Market Rumors”,5 where just before a few dozen lines of abuse of several Black women mathematicians you can read this confident summary of the controversy:
Many mathematicians feel that American Mathematical Society is currently being overtaken by the woke crowd. Hence, they decided to create an alternative society, which is AMR.
It’s a sign of how alienated I am from social media that I am willing to qualify neither the mid-November Twitter uptick nor this ill-mannered exchange as news. And I would have had no reason to mention this “Civil War” if two less alienated and better connected colleagues hadn’t independently sent me proof that the “controversy” had broken through into the legitimate press. What does count as news is that Scientific American has taken sides, in an article under this header:
Let me be be absolutely clear about what I mean when I say that Scientific American has taken sides. I do not mean that Crowell’s article expresses explicit support for or against the AMR or its critics, although you can make what you will of sentences like
With bias, harassment and exclusion widely acknowledged to exist within the mathematics community, many find it dubious that a professional organization could take no stance on inequity while purporting to serve the needs of mathematicians from all backgrounds.
It’s rather that the existence of such an article, in such a publication, that raises the issues it does, demonstrates the futility of attempting to isolate mathematical research from the “educational, social, and political” factors that shape the lives of every human mathematician, without exception. It also transforms Noah Snyder’s interpretation from opinion to news and confirms the misgivings I expressed in my message to that extremely eminent colleague, and casts a shadow over the [***]
To date, neither Kontorovich nor any other representative of the AMR has replied to either Salerno or Chambert-Loir. I am personally sympathetic to declining to answer questions on Twitter, because I don’t think it’s a medium that lends itself to reasoned exchanges on any topic. But since the AMR decided to use Twitter to promote its vision, its refusal to respect the rules of the medium inevitably reads as a refusal to respect those who question their motives, and this attitude, in turn, inevitably reads as a further legitimation of the “legitimate doubts” that Chambert-Loir shares with the majority of the mathematicians quoted in Crowell’s article.
The latest news from the AMR — practically the only news from the AMR since its foundation — is the formation of a “working group” to create a new colloquium series. The members of the group whom I know are not especially political, but they are also not on record (as far as I know) as taking the kind of “outspoken” positions that have motivated the on- and offline hostility to the AMR that was reported in the Scientific American article. Guilt by association is the kind of “terrible development” I anticipated in writing to that extremely eminent colleague, but I strongly disapprove of guilt by association.
So, although a new colloquium series is about the last thing mathematics needs — which old colloquia would we have to cancel to make room for this one? — I can only wish these colleagues the best of luck in trying to find excellent speakers and the energy to fit them into our ever-shrinking allotment of free time. But I must conclude with two predictions.
The AMR leadership will not seek a confrontation with Scientific American. Since certain AMR founders chose to characterize their position as opposition to McCarthyism, a prolonged disagreement with a publication that was actually targeted by historical McCarthyism would be perceived as excessively ironic.
If the AMR does manage to institutionalize itself by acquiring a share of the authority currently enjoyed by professional organizations like the AMS, it will find itself confronting the very educational, social, and political issues it had hoped to avoid. The complexity of mathematics as a practice involving real human beings — real political animals, as Aristotle might have said — can be neither formalized nor wished out of existence.
Comments welcome at the Mathematicswithoutapologies blog.
I guess I can divide my readers into those who find this analogy ridiculous and those who, like the colleague I just mentioned, saw this immediately.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Antoine Chambert-Loir was a student in the very first course I taught after moving to Paris in 1994. (The topic was Hilbert modular forms.) If, like some of the colleagues I’m quoting in this section, you believe in guilt by association, here’s your proof (I’m not sure of what).
The other day I ran into a Columbia colleague who falls strictly in the middle of the a priori wokeness spectrum; when I asked his opinion of the AMR he immediately replied, “Oh, the anti-woke group?”