Political Math

Did you know 72% of Americans lack basic math competence, and the other 38% are below average?

That’s obviously a joke, but following the news or browsing a social media feed these days it’s hard not to feel that a population that understood the basics of mathematics might be a little less… agitated.

And then one sees something like the statement released on Friday by the Mathematical Association of America that claims to be standing up for mathematics by diving head-first into political sloganeering, and one remembers: it’s 2020, bitch.

The statement is entitled “Anti-Science Policy and the Censure of Discourse on Race and Racism.”

Here’s how it opens:

A statement from the MAA Committee on Minority Participation in Mathematics

We stand in the midst of a year of transitions. We have long been aware of broad shifts in the postsecondary education landscape, but 2020 has also been marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency distance/online/hybrid teaching. Each of these new challenges for higher education has evolved alongside a movement to stand up for Black lives. The data are clear: these issues are inseparable. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous lives are the most affected by policing, health, and education policies.  

“The data are clear,” the mathematicians say without offering any data, “these issues are inseparable.”

Oh, but wait, quick aside:

Summary: 96% of Latinos do not use the term “Latinx,” and only about one in eight of the 23% who’ve heard of the term actually use it. So these mathematicians are describing Latinos with a term most Latinos don’t know, and don’t even use once they know about it. Seriously, though: I’m a math guy and took four years of Latin, and when I see “Latinx” I think it’s a typo for tenth year Latin.


The inseparable issues that the invisible data make clear, our mathematicians inform us, are changes in the educational landscape, the global pandemic, remote teaching, and standing up for black lives.

If these issues are inseparable, then the commutative law (of mathematics!) means that each of them is individually inseparable from each of the others.

It means that the global pandemic is inseparable from standing up for black lives; it means standing up for black lives in inseparable from remote teaching. Ignoring the fact that the clear data haven’t been shared with us, I still have a hard time understanding what that means, let alone whether it’s true.

“Policy must be informed by facts and science,” the statement blusters on before we’ve had a chance to finish digesting the ambiguities they’ve already tossed out. Those ambiguities hang in the air, no facts or science to support them, held aloft by nothing more than an allusion to data we haven’t been shown.

It continues:

Thanks to science and mathematics, we understand now that masks, social distancing, frequent, rapid, mass testing, and contact tracing are all fundamental to keep our communities safer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to the subservience of science and mathematics to politics, we understand no such thing. That is, we have no scientifically or mathematically derived understanding of these things because at different times under different circumstances we have been told by scientists that they are and, alternately, are not fundamental to our safety. The lack of authoritative data is understandable, the insistence that the data do exist and are authoritative is… what’s the word? Horseshit.

Yet policies at the federal level have not consistently reflected these facts; for example, choosing not to incorporate a mask-mandate in the US has had serious consequences. As Michael Dorff and Michael Pearson stated in a recent Math Values blog, “We encourage MAA members, regardless of political persuasion, to speak out for the value of science and mathematics, and hold our leaders accountable to make use of the best possible scientific evidence in policy decisions.”

I agree with the statement of Messrs. Dorff and Pearson. The value of science and mathematics must be defended, and that is why when its supposed defenders go off the rails on political benders, I feel a need to speak out and hold them accountable.

The mathematicians are not Constitutional scholars, or they’d know that the federal government has no power to “incorporate a mask mandate” in the United States. Let’s ignore that, though.

Assume it was within the power of the fed to require the use of masks. In which situations? What kind of masks? Indoors, outdoors? What about mask usage? Anyone with eyes can see how many masks are worn incorrectly, or with behaviors that render the wearing of a mask almost superfluous.

Different states and localities (and different countries) have taken different approaches to when masks should and shouldn’t be required: which of them do the data say got it right? If that data exists, why hasn’t it been shared? Why don’t we all know the exact right times to wear a mask, and how to wear them? If Science and Math know, why haven’t they shared that information with the world so that everyone could have the sensible and correct and Mathematically Perfect mask policy?

After all, if masks solved everything, and we had enough masks, we could all wear masks for two weeks and that would be the end of the virus. Period.

And that’s the obvious truth. So what’s wrong with having the humility to say it? “Masks almost definitely reduce the spread of the virus, but only if the right masks are worn correctly, and only in the right circumstances. They’re not one hundred percent effective all the time, for everyone, everywhere, but they’re better than nothing. So it’s a good idea to wear a mask in crowds, especially in confined quarters with bad air circulation, but outdoors and away from crowds, they’re obviously not that valuable.”

As someone eager to “speak out for the value of science and mathematics,” (etc.), allow me to ask: with respect to your call for a national mask mandate, what are the parameters and where is your data?

The social sciences are part of this community, helping us understand how to effectively communicate these practices to people, while also simultaneously analyzing our practices and policies with a critical lens. Critical race theory, referenced in recent Executive statements by the President of the United States, is an established social science inquiry which is grounded in decades of scholarship. It is misguided, at best, to reduce this theory to the race-blaming of white people and to define it and the discussion of systemic racism as a “divisive concept.”

Here the statement takes an interesting turn.

The men and women of the social sciences, by which I suppose they mean the non-STEM sciences, are part of “this community” (of mathematicians?) and help the more sciencey scientists and mathematicians talk to other people about their ideas. Also they look critically at how they do things.

It’s an awkward segue, but there it is: next thing you know, we’re onto the sound scientific authority of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is a social science theory that has nothing to do with mathematics and everything to do with politics.

The statement says it’s misguided (at best!) to reduce CRT to race-blaming of white people and to call it divisive. In fairness to CRT, it is not merely race-blaming of white people; however, in fairness to the president, it is most decidedly divisive.

Curiously, the mathematicians don’t tell us more about CRT besides the fact that “it’s an established social science inquiry which is grounded in decades of scholarship.” That’s not much of a definition, even when you add on their ideas about what CRT is not, or at least what we’d be misguided to call it. They haven’t told us what it is or why it’s so important that the federal government should shove it down all our throats.

Furthermore, banning training utilizing this scholarship to raise consciousness, from federal and federal contractor workplaces, is an encroachment on science and the academy.

And that right there is just garbage language. These are mathematicians and they’re telling us that this scholarship should be used to “raise consciousness.”

What’s consciousness? Are we referencing Schopenhauer? Regardless: raise it from what, to what? How? To what end?

Doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that the mathematicians believe that the failure to allow such “raisings of consciousness” would be an encroachment on science and the academy. A withdrawal of funding is an encroachment.

At the first presidential debate this year, President Trump’s refusal to disavow white nationalism and his encouragement of groups that the FBI has identified as the greatest threats of domestic terrorism…

Flat out lie. Demonstrable fabrication. Deliberate, conscious misrepresentation of the truth.

…only serves to reinforce the sense that his administration seeks to reverse decades of progress on civil rights for all citizens. These actions frame a current United States leadership that consistently promotes policy in direct opposition to data and science-based evidence. 

“Reinforcing a sense that someone seeks to do something” is pretty weak tea, especially when based on a lie, but here we’ve got another case of invisible data: the Trump administration is trying to reverse progress on civil rights? Where? How? Give examples, and, in the words of all math teachers since the dawn of time, show your work.

The mathematicians are arguing that the administration is “in opposition to data and science-based evidence,” without providing any data or science-based evidence to support that.

Show. Your. Work.

Although mathematics, science, and higher education develop fact-based theories and practices that should inform policy, they are also political because they exist within a highly politicized system.  

That’s the poison. Deadly stuff. Mathematics and science are not political. The extent to which they are is exactly the extent to which they have been corrupted. Politics has no bearing on the Pythagorean Theorem, on magnetism, on the laws of physics, chemistry, and geometry that hold the universe together. The boiling point of water on earth is affected by altitude, not attitude. Politics ain’t math, and math ain’t politics. That the Mathematical Association of America doesn’t seem to understand this, or, more likely, has chosen to pretend not to understand it, is grotesque.

Acknowledging that the United States has serious systemic discrimination has somehow leaped from a political issue to a partisan issue.

Of course it has: because only one side of the partisan divide believes the country has “systemic discrimination” (although I’ve only ever seen it discussed as “systemic racism,” so possibly they’re talking about something else that I’m just not aware of). No “leaping” was required–and the distance from “political issue” to “partisan issue” doesn’t require a leap, anyway. I wonder if the mathematicians have science-based evidence of political issues that aren’t partisan?

Doesn’t the very word “partisan” mean “pertaining to one side of a political question?”

More alarmingly, what we see is a series of pronouncements apparently designed to suppress conversation and action on race and racism in the United States. 

The government has no power to suppress any conversation of any kind in the United States, nor has it tried to do so. The president has, however, issued an executive order to prevent the federal government from indoctrinating its employees with a highly politicized ideology. I think people of science should applaud that. I wouldn’t want the federal government requiring its employees be forced to grapple with the work of Frédéric Bastiat, G.K. Chesterton, and Thomas Sowell, even though I think the world would be better off if more people understood their ideas, because I don’t believe the federal government has any business telling anyone what they should and should not think.

I’m surprised mathematicians feel differently.

The American Educational Research Association recently released a statement that clearly addresses this troubling pattern of the federal response to racial justice unrest in the US, which reframes the conversation on race and racism as “unAmerican.”

I’m not, alas, superhuman, and can’t pause here to give the AERA statement the disemboweling it deserves. I have to stick with the mathematicians.

The mathematicians then list five “recent, deliberate actions” of the federal government that they find troubling.

One. They go after Trump’s executive memorandum on critical race theory, white privilege, and other related training that, in the words of the memorandum, “teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

I can’t possibly imagine anyone having any objection to (2), so I’ll assume the mathematicians are upset about (1).

But why? Why should the federal government be sponsoring classes on the evil or racism of its own country?

Remember, they’re not prohibiting criticism of America: they’re saying, “let’s not shell out taxpayer money on politically indoctrinating our government personnel to believe that our country is evil and racist.”

Note also that the mathematicians are being sneaky and dishonest here: they claim in the paragraph I cited above that the administration “reframes the conversation on race and racism as ‘unAmerican’.” But that’s not what the memorandum says. It says that the idea that the U.S. as a nation, or that any race or ethnicity, is inherently racist or evil is “unAmerican propaganda.”

If you disagree, you need to specify which truth you embrace: that America is inherently racist, that America is inherently evil, that certain ethnic groups or races are inherently racist, or that certain ethnic groups or races are inherently evil.

Which one of those four premises do the mathematicians feel compelled to defend? Which has science and math on its side?

Two. President Trump has instructed the Department of Investigation to withdraw funding from schools using the 1619 Project, which the mathematicians describe as “a Pulitzer-Prize winning project meant to help fill a gap in mid-20th century US history by providing educational materials on slavery.” That’s not the purpose of the 1619 project. Americans are already taught about slavery in school. What’s different about the 1619 Project is that it seeks to define America through the institution of slavery. It’s not trying to fill a gap, it’s trying to bulldoze the whole edifice of American history and salt the earth where it stood.

Imagine if a campaign arose to begin teaching Danish school children that Denmark’s story isn’t about cold and savage barbarian pagans gradually evolving into the happiest society on earth through a serious of successive improvements, but about cold and savage barbarian pagans building a cold and savage country, still barbarian in tooth and claw. You, Danish reader, you with your hygge and your biking and your love of the outdoors–it’s all a cover, a phony veneer: you’re still a fucking barbarian savage complicit in the misery of all the miserable people in Denmark, and until you acknowledge your role in perpetuating the savage barbarity of your culture, you’re part of the problem, fucko.

That’s the 1619 project.

The mathematicians should note that there’s an easy way to continue teaching the 1619 project, if it’s that important to them: stop taking money from the federal government, and you can teach anything you want. Wikipedia says the average American public school gets 8% of its funding from the federal government. Small price to pay for total intellectual freedom, is it not?

Three. The mathematicians accuse the Department of Education of “weaponizing” a public letter from the President of Princeton, which they characterize as “describing Princeton’s efforts to move forward with structural reform in response to reflection on their past.”

That’s true: the letter described those efforts. It also said, in plain black and white, “Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.”

It also said: “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”

The mathematicians are angry at the federal government for taking Princeton at its word.

No, really: think about it. In accepting federal money, universities are required to sign a document in which they pledge (among other things) that, in a nutshell, they’re not cesspools of racism and other bigotry.

So this university president stands up says, “We’re actually a pretty damn racist place, and we’re gonna work on that.”

And the federal government comes back and says, “Whoa, there, cowboy: you told us you weren’t racist. What gives?”

You could accuse the government of doing this as a stunt, but only if you believe the statement itself was a stunt. Because if the president of Princeton was sincere, then the government was just doing its job to prevent racism at American institutions. If the president was being insincere….?


The September 22nd Executive Order is framed by a preamble centering white men as being hurt by blame for racism in the US….

I’ve been trying to spare you by dropping most of the mathematician’s links, but I left this one in so you can see the EO for yourself. Read through the first section and try and see whether you’d characterize it as being “centered” on “white men as being hurt by blame for racism in the US.”

I’ve reread the thing a number of times and don’t see it. Nothing like it.

The word “white” appears eight times in the EO. One of those is in the address (“THE WHITE HOUSE”). Here are the segments from the EO that contain the other seven mentions of the word:

This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world. Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who, like President Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, maintained that our government “was made on the white basis” “by white men, for the benefit of white men.” Our Founding documents rejected these racialized views of America, which were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War. Yet they are now being repackaged and sold as cutting-edge insights.

That’s nearly half of them: in a quote from anti-abolitionist Stephen Douglas. The point isn’t to defend white men, but to argue against the idea that America was set up by white people for white people.

Instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the Federal Government and among Federal contractors. For example, the Department of the Treasury recently held a seminar that promoted arguments that “virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism,” and that instructed small group leaders to encourage employees to avoid “narratives” that Americans should “be more color-blind” or “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”

That’s not talking about “white men being hurt by blame for racism:” it’s talking about a program that actively accused all white people of racism. A program, in other words, that’s ostensibly opposed to racism, characterizing all people of a single race as being guilty of something. Believe it or not, judging people by the color of their skin is racism.

Materials from Sandia National Laboratories, also a Federal entity, for non-minority males stated that an emphasis on “rationality over emotionality” was a characteristic of “white male[s],” and asked those present to “acknowledge” their “privilege” to each other.

The mathematicians must have overlooked this one, because math itself is entirely rational (irrational numbers aside). Emotions have nothing to do with math: you cannot feel your way through Euclidean geometry. Are we supposed to conclude that math itself is therefore a white male thing?

(Alas, these days it depends who you ask!)

Also, isn’t assigning a characteristic to all members of a particular race and sex itself the very kind of stereotyping behavior we ought to avoid?

A Smithsonian Institution museum graphic recently claimed that concepts like “[o]bjective, rational linear thinking,” “[h]ard work” being “the key to success,” the “nuclear family,” and belief in a single god are not values that unite Americans of all races but are instead “aspects and assumptions of whiteness.” The museum also stated that “[f]acing your whiteness is hard and can result in feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, defensiveness, or fear.”

Those are the last two uses of “white” in the EO.

The opening of the executive order isn’t about white men being hurt by blame for racism: it’s about federal programs and federally funded programs explicitly promoting racism against whites and non-whites.

(Non-whites don’t value hard work or objective thinking? Who set up that Smithsonian exhibit, David Duke?)

Five. In its entirety:

The September 28th Executive memorandum, which directs Federal funding agencies to “identify all programs for which the agency may, as a condition of receiving Federal grants and cooperative agreements, require the recipient to certify that it will not use Federal funds to promote the list of concepts listed in Section 5 of the[September 22nd] Executive Order.”

I’ve got all eight of those terrible concepts listed below. They’re all crammed together into a single paragraph in the EO, but let’s take them one by one so we don’t overwhelm ourselves with the horror. Remember: these are things the administration has identified as concepts they would like to stop funding, and that the mathematicians apparently believe deserve funding.

(a) [the concept that] one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;

We’re still agreed that’s bad, right?

(b) [the concept that] an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;

How on earth can anyone be judged inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, consciously or otherwise, without getting to know them at the individual level? How is judging anything about people based on their race or sex anything but racism or sexism?

(c) [the concept that] an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex;


(d) [the concept that] members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex;

Ditto again.

(e) [the concept that] an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex;

That’s pretty much pure racism (or sexism), isn’t it?

(f) [the concept that] an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;

“Sins of the fathers…” and all that. I mean, I thought we’d settled that a long, long time ago. People are responsible for their own words and actions, nothing more, nothing less. Right? Why would we want the government to fund efforts to train federal employees to think otherwise?

(g) [the concept that] any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex;

The idea that people are getting paid by the government to make federal employees or contractors feel anything, good or bad, about their race or their sex should make any decent person want to vomit.

(h) [the concept that] meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

If people are being paid to teach that to other people, then frankly they’re doing a terrible thing and the sooner we stop paying them to be terrible, the better.

That’s it. Those are the eight concepts the EO wants to defund within the federal government. The mathematicians give no indication as to what they find objectionable, but I’d genuinely like to know. They’re science and data-based people, remember. So let’s see their particular objections, listed in clear language.

As mathematicians, we notice patterns – this is something we are all trained to do. We bring these Executive actions to our community’s attention for several reasons: we see the pattern of science being ignored and the pattern of violence against our colleagues that give voice to race and racism.

I’ve listed those five executive actions, including each of the eight concepts that make up the fifth, and don’t see science being ignored, or any hint of violence.

The mathematicians see a pattern of violence?


Show your work.

We need to fight against these patterns. As educators, we also recognize the threatening pattern of banning education and withdrawing education funding to suppress conversations on race and racism, extending from elementary to postsecondary institutions to the workplace and research spheres. 

Again: nothing is being done to “suppress conversations on race and racism,” anywhere. That is not in the government’s power. The government is simply withholding funds from educational and training programs whose curricula are themselves racist.

It is time for all members of our profession to acknowledge that mathematics is created by humans and therefore inherently carries human biases.

Mathematics is not created by humans. Proof: if the SMOD (Sweet Meteor of Death) hit the earth tomorrow and obliterated every trace of humanity from the universe, forever, would addition and subtraction become irrelevant? Would pi suddenly change values? Would gravity stop, would division stop working? Would the atomic weights of the elements no longer have any significance?

Until this occurs…

Wait, what? Until all mathematicians acknowledge that math is biased?

Until this occurs, our community and our students cannot reach full potential. Reaching this potential in mathematics relies upon the academy and higher education engaging in critical, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the detrimental effects of race and racism on our community. The time is now to move mathematics and education forward in pursuit of justice.

(Their emphasis.)

So until all math teachers acknowledge the bias of math, their students won’t be able to reach their full potential.

In terms of the bolded portion of that statement, how on earth does an understanding of mathematics require “engaging in critical, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the detrimental effects of race and racism on our community”? Your “community” is math teachers and math students. If it’s being affected by “race and racism,” you don’t need conversations of any kind: you need to get race and racism the fuck out of your classrooms.

It’s so uncomplicated even a mathematician ought to be able to understand.