In relation to the nomination of Terry Tao for Australian of the
year, a question arises. It was well and forcefully put by a friend
of mine. Paraphrased, it goes as follows.

Isn’t it just as odd to congratulate people for
their genetic brilliance at maths, as to congratulate them for their
genetic brilliance at sport? Isn’t it better to see awards go to
those who help the disadvantaged, or those who undertake greater
effort and sacrifice, rather than those who are just naturally
highly talented? Sure, it requires determination as well as talent
to become a top mathematician, or a top cricketer, but this doesn’t
seem as important as, say, reducing the number of children living in
poverty.

This is certainly a very laudable point of view, and I pretty much
agree. I was very much aware of these shortcomings and
contradictions in the argument for Tao’s nomination, even as I was
urging people to nominate him. I did not want to burden the
recipients of my urgings with a long discussion of these issues, but
I am certainly happy to have that discussion, because they are
legitimate questions.

Let us be clear. It is absolutely clear, no doubt about it, this
Fields Medal and this nomination for Australian of the year is a
reward for winning in the genetic lottery, and being exceptionally
well endowed in mathematical problem solving ability. There is
presumably also a large amount of effort involved on Tao’s part, but
this isn’t the point. Certainly the effort required in solving maths
problems doesn’t compare to the effort required in, say, teaching in
a third world country or working in a coal mine (or thousands of
other difficult things). Probably many less-talented mathematicians
work harder than he does. The elements of `desert’ or `just reward’
are far outweighed by elements of `genetic predisposition’ and
`fortunate upbringing’.

When we talk about reward people for something, as a moral thing to
do, it only makes sense if they have performed some effort or made
some sacrifice. I think this argument extends far beyond awards like
the Fields Medal or Australian of the year awards. On a more
immediate and everyday level, one can look at the reward that every
working person earns every day. It follows immediately from this
argument that income distribution and remuneration norms in our
society, and any capitalist society (and many others), are highly
unjust and, if you want, immoral. They reward according to genetic
lottery, financial inheritance, subservience to power, and marginal
revenue product — elements of effort, sacrifice and creativity
are, again, far outweighed in my view. Income does not look at all
proportionate to effort/sacrifice. Well, this is a whole other
story; suffice to say I think a lot follows from this point of view,
which has clear ethical force.

So yes, in a sense, there’s nothing worth rewarding here. There’s
plenty to recognise in an exceptional intellect, and plenty of
importance in the mathematics, but that’s different from reward. And
not only is it, in this sense, undeserved, it also strengthens
repressive tendencies: feelings of worthlessness in the face of the
genius; the feeling that I could never do that; the idea that
mathematics and science more generally are elite occupations for
only a specially privileged few, of which I have no chance of
becoming part; it strengthens elitism and class differences; if one
is inclined to be uncharitable, it encourages the view that Tao is a
freak and increases revulsion of mathematicians, scientists and
other outcasts; it increases the alienation of intellectuals and the
academically inclined.

So, yes, there are plenty of shortcomings in the whole idea of
rewarding someone like Terry Tao! Why, then, did I advocate
nominating him for this award?

When I urged people to nominate Tao, one of the things I said was:
“As Terry says, the mathematics itself is far more important than
any one person. But it is great to see mathematicians and
mathematics — indeed, science and scientists more generally —
receiving some attention in Australia.”

I was very careful to say not just Tao or just mathematicians, but
also mathematics, and that it is the mathematics which is important.
I want mathematics to be promoted more widely, to be viewed as less
elite, more a part of mainstream society, to be humanised, to be
taken up as an interest by more people. I think a society which
values and better understands mathematics — and more generally,
science, critical thinking and proper debate — will be a
(slightly) more democratic, (very slightly) less ignorant,
(extremely slightly) less prejudiced, less violent, (perhaps) more
civilized, (hopefully) more creative, better society.

There are plenty of qualifications to this statement, of course:
mathematics and statistics are often used to manipulate information,
to deceive, to lie; in the present context I think there are
supposedly-scientific disciplines (such as economics) which often
serve as an intellectual cover for very specific ideologies and
politics; there is a consequent anti-intellectualism which is
sometimes justified. But on balance I calculate — a question of
strategy, not an absolutely good or bad thing — that the benefits
of having a mathematician as Australian of the year, rather than
(presumably) a sportsperson or entertainer, outweigh the
disadvantages. Terry Tao vs. Steve Waugh is clear. Terry Tao vs.
heroic third world aid agency, is probably also clear (in favour of
the agency). Given that mathematics is so marginalised, and given
that we have a chance to take it out of the margins, I think it’s
worth doing something, on balance, nonetheless.

Incidentally, and on a lighter note, I will not deny that I have a
self-interest in this: higher profile for mathematics in Australia
implies more funding for mathematics in Australia implies more
academic positions in mathematics in Australia implies job for Dan
in Australia in the future!

Anyway, it’s an interesting question.

The Tao Nomination: Additional Considerations – Effort and Sacrifice vs. Genetic Predisposition

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