Thursday, 7 April 2016

Piper Harron’s Identity Politics

Piper Harron is a black woman who feels oppressed by mathematics. She has a PhD from Princeton and is married to a mathematics professor at the University of Hawaii. Her PhD is written in an informal style that crosses the border to cute a few times. She's been interviewed by no less that MathBabe Cathy O'Neill and Michael Harris has talked about her at least twice on his blog.

Here’s an extract from a post called Why I Do Not Talk About Math
“My experience discussing math with mathematicians is that I get dragged into a perspective that includes a hierarchy of knowledge that says some information is trivial, some ideas are “stupid”; that declares what is basic knowledge, and presents open incredulity in the face of dissent. ”
Translation: other people have strong ideas about what’s worth spending time on that they don’t hold back and I get upset by that.

To which the reply is; woman up, behave like an adult and join the community, or quit. Because that is going to happen to her wherever she goes. Some places they may be more polite about it, and then she will finish the year with a “struggling” grade in her appraisal, which she will know is their way of telling her to be employed elsewhere.

Attention-seekers feel oppressed by lack of attention. They don't want attention for what they have done, but for who they are, or perhaps for the fact that, being who they are, they have done what they have done. Attention-seekers take to identity politics like cats to catnip: it gives them so many ways to define the "being who they are" that makes their otherwise journeyman work attention-worthy.

And if Ms Harron thinks a bunch of nerds in a math seminar are bad, she’s going to get the shock of her life when she tries to fit in with the other mothers at the school gate. Then she will know scorn and rejection.

Harron’s affiliation with identity politics is a shame. Because she’s on to something with the style of mathematical papers and communications. Fifty years after Imre Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations, a lot of mathematicians still write like Bourbaki. That’s something worth writing about.

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