Dumping On the Quants

by John Derbyshire

Great mathematicians are often political dimwits. Cauchy was probably the last person of any intellectual eminence to believe in the Divine Right of Kings (Catholic version); Einstein approved of Stalin (at least until the vozhd started persecuting Jews); and so on.

My stock explanation for this is that at those highest levels, math is so hard it leaves you with no mental energy to think coherently about other matters. Be that as it may, political idiocy keeps raising its head in the world of math. There has been a recent example in Mathematical Intelligencer.

MI is a quarterly put out by the Springer publishing house, which issues a lot of math and science books. It’s a sort of middlebrow math magazine with lots of interesting historical and biographical articles, some not-too-demanding expositions on actual mathematical topics, reviews of books about math, a “Viewpoint” guest column for math-related opinions, and neat little filler featurettes — poems, jokes, and so on. It’s a fun read if you like math — I’ve been subscribing for years.

The Summer 2010 issue carried a “Viewpoint” column by Marc Rogalski, an expert on infinite-dimensional convexity. (Which means exactly what it says: the study of convex shapes in spaces of infinitely many dimensions. Cool stuff.) Prof. Rogalski’s column huffed about the responsibility of mathematicians for the financial crisis. Sample:

The immediate cause of the crash was the “subprime” crisis, and the deep (unregulatable) working of capitalism was the ultimate cause of this collapse (and of the last, and of all those that will follow if nothing is done to replace the capitalist model), but we still see that financial mathematics played more than a negligible role by putting itself in the service of one side in the class struggle.

You see where the prof. is coming from. “The class struggle”! Well, it’s a tad more up-to-date than the Divine Right of Kings, I guess.

Rogalski’s piece was published with a counter-piece from financial mathematician Ivar Ekeland, opining from a center-left standpoint that “finance is too important to be left to financiers.”

[I should explain here that prior to the growth of computerized pricing and forecasting models in the 1970s, there was no way for a mathematician to make serious money. When I left university clutching my own math degree in 1966, the advice ringing in the ears of those of us not good enough to be academic mathematicians was: "Be a teacher or an actuary." There really wasn't anything else. Then came the rise of the quant, and suddenly math could make you wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, or at least get you a solid upper-middle-class lifestyle while you were young enough to enjoy it. Grrr.]

The topic was taken up again in the Summer 2011 issue by Jonathan Korman of the University of Toronto. Korman contributed a hilariously batty “Viewpoint” column supporting Rogalski’s original “class struggle” arguments.

A person who goes to work for the banks may be desperate for a job and have no other choice, or he or she may even dream of getting rich. Many people working for the banks surely feel no moral issue. To me, these jobs are morally unjustifiable.

In Korman’s very next paragraph, Godwin’s Law kicks in:

In her famous analysis of the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt observed that Adolf Eichmann was incapable of thinking about the moral consequences of his actions: nothing of the sort ever occurred to him. He was morally blind — seeing his operation of the concentration camps only in logistical terms. We hold him responsible for his crimes, but the system in which he operated had its role. A large organization — like a government or a corporation — is conducive to this sort of moral blindness. Of course banks are corporations par excellence, and it is easy for mathematicians there to see no need to justify their work for the bank, because they work in a moral vacuum.

This was too much for at least one MI reader. The current (Winter 2011) issue carries a letter from one Janusz Konieczny of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., protesting Korman’s Eichmann reference:

Controversy is welcome in “Viewpoint,” but the editors may exercise their right not to print some views. The comparison of a large group of mathematicians (and others) to Nazi murderers may well be one of many things that is not worth printing.

(The editors offer a feeble defense.) I’m not acquainted with Dr. Konieczny, but if he’s ever in New York I’ll gladly buy him a drink. Then we could go throw water bombs at the “Occupy” hippies — in whose ranks I would not be the least bit surprised to find Prof. Rogalski and Dr. Korman.