Hand waving

As I must have alluded to at least once, I am a lapsed pure mathematician – or, if not lapsed, then certainly very rusty.  When I was a proper mathematician (i.e. my numerator was smaller than my denominator), we used the phrase “hand waving” to describe the sort of proofs that other lesser disciplines (i.e. all of them) present to justify their theorems and pronouncements.  I think the idea is that if they wave their hands about enough, they will distract the audience who will then fail to notice the logical flaws, hidden assumptions and wild guesswork upon which they are relying (a form of logical legerdemain).

One of the reasons for my choice of mathematics as a degree subject (possibly the most significant reason) was the absence of any need to write essays or the like.  With maths, either you can produce the answer or you can’t – there is no point (or indeed, way) to write a 40 page essay dancing around the fact that you don’t know the answer in the hope of bamboozling whoever set the question.  As a result, I find it particularly distressing that a bunch of very senior mathematicians have been forced to put pen to paper (rather than chalk to board, or pencil to paper) and write an open letter to the PM bemoaning the current funding of mathematics at the post-doctoral level.

It would seem that the EPSRC – the main funding body – is only providing support to two areas of study (of which more later) which may lead to many young mathematicians fleeing the country to more supportive domains (perhaps those that permit unique factorisation?).  These decisions would also seem to have been made without consulting the maths community – so were presumably made entirely on the basis of hand waving (at best).  I do wonder if those poor unfortunates who run the EPSRC, and who failed to make it in the highest of all disciplines, are seeking revenge on their betters.

I suppose mathematics must be seen as a pretty soft target for cuts.  It seems unlikely that the public will rise as one (or if so, quite literally in that only one will rise) to fight for maths in the way they might for libraries, hospitals or the countryside.  I fear too many harbour traumatic experiences with maths from their schooldays, and never made it to the sunlit uplands of higher mathematics where there is beauty and elegance to rival any work of art or landscape.  Marcus de Sautoy has been doing his best – but he just doesn’t have the flowing locks of Brian Cox (yes, I promised you poetry – and, here at last is a bit of rhyme!).

What’s that Sooty?  Which two areas are still being funded?  Well, as you asked so nicely I’ll tell you;  the EPSRC is only funding the areas of statistics and applied probability.  I sense a, not very well, hidden agenda here.

  • Statistics is the primary method by which our government seeks to communicate its ‘successes’ to (and hide its failures from) the public.  It looks as though we are continuing to fund new ways for our masters to lie more effectively to us – to paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli rather freely and let’s face it, I think politicians passed beyond damned lies some time ago (though there is no proof that BD ever made his most famous quote).
  • I would paraphrase applied probability as the study of gambling.  So I assume that George Osborne is planning to put a pretty big wager on the gee-gees, or perhaps on a spin of the roulette wheel, as his only hope of reducing the deficit. Perhaps I should share with him my long-held thought that, if probability theorists are that good and really know how to gamble successfully, why do they still need grant funding?

So, I am unconvinced that the funding of lying and gambling is where I’d place my mathematical priorities  – but I can certainly see the appeal to the political elite.  Or, perhaps being more charitable (which given the cuts we will all need to be) they are not hand waving but drowning.

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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