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The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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1370 words

When Serge Lang visited our department last term he talked a lot about his book Challenges. Lang is what could be considered a household name in mathematics. Walk into any maths library and most likely you’ll find a few books by him – or a whole shelf. Apart from his role in mathematics he also engaged in discussions which are political and/or concerned with science and its practice itself.

The latter point is what his Challenges are about. Going back to the late 1970s, he was pissed off by the way certain people did things which they then declared as science. This involved people who are considered ‘authorities’ in their particular subject or institutions like the American NAS. As a consequence, he decided to be what probably seems like a royal pain in the ass to the affected people. His technique in this is simple: He painstakingly collects documentation on the respective files which he then mails to long distribution lists, trying to let the first-hand material make logical shortcomings or poor research obvious. Very rarely does he actually make statements concerning the topics of the works he criticises – not being an expert in those areas himself – but he focuses on the techniques people use. In a second step he also documents the way the respective communities react to his intrusions, with magazine editors writing biased editorials, him not being able to reply to those publicly and general stonewalling being common.

Needless to say that this won him quite a few enemies. And following his challenges of other people’s work he often saw people attacking him more or less personally or questioning his motivation in doing so, hinting for some kind of political agenda. Lang claims that there was none but he’s just concerned about science and its quality – particularly when it can be of practical importance, such as when advising the government. In addition, the question whether science is done properly or not shouldn’t be a question of political opinion. And I tend to believe him. He’s a mathematician after all. And that’s how mathematicians tend to think. First and foremost things have to be correct – even if that makes stating them difficult. And sometimes you can tell arguments aren’t correct just by their logical form, without even looking at the contents.

This suggests that Lang’s book may be a tedious read. And, in its 800 page glory, it can be at times. He reprints generous amounts of original sources with a fair bit of repetition and encourages the reader to skip bits if he is bored and doesn’t need to see any further evidence. It also makes the points he makes rather dry and unspectacular, particularly for the amount of attention that Lang requests to be given to his cases.

On the other hand, the book is perhaps an interesting sociological study of scientific communities. It may remind us of the fact that while science is (or should be) done to some standards, it is done by people. And while the results mostly meet objective criteria, the way they are achieved and the way the communities work don’t necessarily. Non-scientific concepts like authorities who are trusted without being questioned or communities who feel threatened by people challenging their theses do exist. I’m not sure this was Lang’s intention in writing the book, though.

To sum my impression up, the book is a bit dull at stages and Lang seems a bit over-zealous at times but it’s worth looking at to learn about the scientific community. The varied cases it covers are also quite interesting and I’ll list them – omitting many of the details – to finish off.

The Huntington Case

This may be the most famous case. In the 1980s, Lang prevented the political science authority Samuel P. Huntington to be elected as a member of the American NAS. We learn a bit about how the elections work and that every member has to vote for people from every other section. Lang wanted to investigate thoroughly and did a bit of research. That’s when the shit started hitting the fan. Apparently

Huntington’s work included bits where he declared South Africa in the late 1960s (after the beginning of apartheid) as a ‘satisfied’ society and justified this pseudo-mathematically by some strange definitions and numbers which didn’t include what actually happened there at the time. Of course a lot of arguments developed on how precise mathematics need to be, but that’s beside the point. Sometimes mathematics aren’t the best way to do things. Particularly in social sciences. They are, however, often mis-used to make things look more precise and scientific.

Lang was attacked for this, for various reasons which often hinted that, as a mathematician, he holds social sciences in low esteem anyway. This is a feeling that probably many people share. And luckily Lang makes clear that this isn’t the cause of his critique. He does acknowledge the importance of social sciences, particularly when considering that governments have to be advised (which seems to be one of the NAS’ tasks). Thus social sciences need to be done particularly well and to sound scientific standards. Excessive use of numbers and similar tricks may make those science look more precise but actually be wrong. And that’s the whole point.

The Ladd-Lipset Case
Probably chronologically the first file about a questionnaire sent to American professors which only allowed for multiple choice answers in a tendentious way. Probably everyone knows the situation where you feel a ‘none of the above’ field is missing. We are encouraged to not answer such questions at all, particularly as people tend to draw conclusions from the answers given.
The Baltimore Case
It’s about a biology paper co-authored by a few, including David Baltimore, where the empirical evidence was a bit dodgy and hence questioned by one of the postdocs in the same lab. That postdoc told people she had doubts about the evidence but wanted to sort things in a friendly manner, without accusations. But the relevant authorities would only act on a full accusation or say well, everything’s fine then. We see a lot of weaseling out, politics getting involved and learn that such ‘whistleblowing’ isn’t good for a career in science.
The Gallo Case
About the discovery of the ‘AIDS virus’, how it was isolated or not and who deserves the credits and patents for it. There was also a lot of media coverage.
The Case of HIV and AIDS
We learn that the definition of what AIDS is isn’t entirely precise. We also learn that evidence for HIV causing AIDS isn’t as conclusive as it could be. Apparently this is a minority opinion, though. I am not sure how evidence changed in the six years since the book was published but it seems like Lang stresses that opinion too much. Of course it is valid to ask how sound the medical/scientific evidence is, particularly as there’s a lot of money involved. And if the evidence isn’t as conclusive as it is for other illnesses but it’s be best people can currently do, there’d no need to be ashamed of that and claim they’re 100% sure. But people should be careful with such points as they can easily mislead people into being careless. (Read the text at ‘virusmyth.net’.)
The Shafarevich Case
This one must have been painful for Lang as he supported Shafarevich, who is an influential Russian mathematician, himself by signing petitions when Shafarevich was expelled from his institute by the Soviets. Shafarevich wrote a book Russophobia which is said to be both nationalistic and anti-jewish. Lang expresses his disappointment and asks Shafarevich to justify the allegations he makes. Lang also reports that the American NAS asked Shafarevich to put down his membership (which he was awarded without being asked) because of the anti-jewish bits. Lang criticises that this is silly because this reflex of political correctness doesn’t have any merit (exposing that Shafarevich is writing nonsense, would be) and that they’ll want to consider twice whether to include non-scientific opinions in their criteria for membership.
… the ability to tell the difference between a fact, an opinion, a hypothesis, and a hole in the ground.

August 22, 2004, 19:06

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