Professor Blames Global Wealth Disparity on Mathematics

A British professor is stirring up discussions about the role of compassionate thought in modern mathematics and how a lack of empathy could trickle down from math into the real world.
Shelby Rogers

When one thinks of economics, one also often thinks of the math behind each economic theory. However, a professor at the University of Exeter says there might be a deeper connection between math and economics than a new economic formula. Professor Paul Ernest argues in a new textbook, called The Philosophy of Mathematics Education Today', that studying mathematics causes "collateral damage" by encouraging students to think without empathy. 

That "ethics-free thought," Ernest wrote, is to blame for exaggerated global disparities of wealth because it removes any element of compassion that could be found in reasoning.

“Money and thus mathematics is the tool for the distribution of wealth.”

“Money and thus mathematics is the tool for the distribution of wealth,” he states. “It can therefore be argued that as the key underpinning conceptual tool mathematics is implicated in the global disparities in wealth.”

It's important to note Ernest understands and acknowledges the centuries of benefits surrounding complex mathematics.

“Of course I acknowledge that mathematics is wonderful and beneficial in many ways,” he noted.

However, those benefits might not outweigh the damage and inequalities facilitated by pure math. 

Math Facilitates "Detached" and "Calculative" Reasoning

"The nature of pure mathematics itself leads to styles of thinknig that can be damaging when applied beyond mathematics to social and human issues," Ernest said. This is because, in Ernest's view, math facilitates "detached" and "calculative" reasoning. 

And Ernest's claims aren't completely unfounded. One only has to look at pop culture figures like Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House, or even Sheldon Cooper to see how calculations play into a sort of trademarked coldness in these characters. Ernest also addresses the assumptions of males being more primed for these "impersonal" calculations and analysis. He said the misunderstanding that men are somehow more primed to excel in maths than their female counterparts is also detrimental to society.

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“One of the persistent myths of the twentieth century has been that females are ‘naturally’ less well equipped mathematically than males,” Ernest wrote.

While Ernest didn't specifically acknowledge data that would strengthen his statement, his points regarding gender discrepancies are far from unfounded. There have been numerous reports over the last decade which show very little improvement in getting women involved in math. One recent study noted that in 13,000 editorial positions among 435 math journals, only 9 percent of those editorial positions were held by women. 

Mathematician Maria Emelianenko from George Mason University said she experienced this isolation firsthand. She explained how these assumptions further limit female voices in mathematics.

“[Editorial boards] are looking for someone who is mature, has expertise, and can review articles and point toward directions that elucidate deficiencies in others’ work,” said Emelianenko. “They want to be assured that this person is very well-qualified. But this doubt—“this lady has published a lot and gotten some grants, but it’s because she’s a woman”—may hurt women.”

“So two of the detrimental effects of images of mathematics that I shall foreground here are first the negative impact on female students following on from the masculine image of mathematics. Second, the negative impact of mathematics related experiences and images on the attitudes and self-esteem of a minority, including many girls and women,” she continued. 

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