26 Mar 23:43 2006

## WHY ARE WE CONCERNED? I

F W Lawvere <wlawvere <at> buffalo.edu>

2006-03-26 21:43:31 GMT

2006-03-26 21:43:31 GMT

WHY ARE WE CONCERNED? I When Saunders Mac Lane penned his hard-hitting 1997 Synthese article, he was defending mathematics from an attack many of us hoped would just go away. But Saunders was aware of the seriousness of the threat, which indeed is still here with greater determination. Although the title of that article was "Despite physicists, proof is essential in mathematics", he was not opposing physics, nor even that immediate handful who, assuming the mantle of "mathematical physicists", gave themselves license to insult generations of scrupulously serious physicists and to demand that mathematics adopt a culture that considers conjecture as nearly-established truth. In essence it was an attack on science itself, as the highest form of knowing, that Saunders was opposing. The increased determination of that attack is expressed in two ways. To equip and organize the attack, finance capital has set up several institutions, some of which rather openly proclaim their goal of submitting science to the service of medieval obscurantism. Others say that they support mathematical research, but encourage a barrage of "popular" writings to shock and awe the public into continuing in the belief that they will never understand mathematics and hence never be able to actively participate in science. The contempt for Mac Lane's fight, recently expressed in articles supposedly memorializing him, takes the form of the claim that category theory itself is a "cool" instrument for deepening obscurantism. Not only Harvard's "When is one thing equal to another thing?" and the Cambridge "morality" muddle, but also a 2003 article aimed at teachers of undergraduates, quite explicitly support that claim. In the MAA Monthly, a Clay Fellow states as fact that category theory "is mathematics with the substance removed". Mastering the technique of disinformation whereby the readers are first told that now finally they will be informed, the article suggests that some raising of the level of understanding of the relationship between space and intensively variable quantity is going to be achieved. Then the author short-circuits any such understanding via the simplifying assumption that omits the distinction between covariant and contravariant functors as "unwieldy". As final display of the mastery of expositional technique, the categorical object which has, for nearly twenty pages, been heralded as simple, is revealed in the final pages in the most complicated and unexplained form possible. (Totally passed over is the issue that had led Grothendieck to the considerations allegedly being treated: not only the category of affine schemes, but also the category of all its presheaves, where the author implicitly wants us to work, fails to have the geometrically correct colimits needed to define projective space.) Another level of attack was launched when Cornell University was given very large sums of money to develop methods of teaching geometry without mentioning any geometrical concepts. No proof of the desirability of such a draconian excising of content needed to be given, beyond some phrases from the Dalai Lama. "Dumbing down" is an attack not only on school children and on undergraduates, but also one taking measured aim at colleagues in adjacent fields and at the general public. The general public is thirsty for genuinely informational articles to replace the science fiction gruel served constantly by journals like the Scientific American and the New York Times "Science" section. Those journals have never published anything resembling a mathematical proof and hence have rarely actually explained any scientific subject in a usable way. Nor have they even undertaken any program to raise the level of knowledge of calculus or linear algebra among their readers in a way which would make such explanations feasible. Instead, they provide games and amusements to divert the mathematically-interested public. In January of 2005 the Notices of the AMS announced that they had for a full ten years been strictly following a certain editorial policy. There had been a widespread demand for expository articles. To that demand, the response was a new definition of "expository": all precise definitions of mathematical concepts must be eliminated. Authors of expository articles were forced to compromise their presentation, or to withdraw their paper. Mathematicians, who were for several years becoming aware that these new expository articles are absolutely useless for developing a mathematical thought, were shocked to learn that a conscious policy had forced that situation. A peculiar sort of anti-authoritarianism seems to be the only justification offered for degrading the role of definition, theorem, and proof; certainly, serious expositors have never considered that the use of those three pillars of geometrical enlightenment excludes explanations and examples. Others have urged, however, that those instruments be eliminated even from lectures at meetings and from professional papers. That threat is part of the background for the concern expressed in the many messages to the categories list over the past weeks. Deeply concerned mathematicians ask me "How can we know?". Indeed, how can we know whether it is worthwhile to attend a certain meeting or a certain talk, and how can a scientific committee know whether a proposed talk is scientifically viable? If the "you don't want to know" culture of no proofs, no definitions, is accepted, we will truly have no way of knowing, and will be pressured to fall back on unsupported faith.************************************************************ F. William Lawvere Mathematics Department, State University of New York 244 Mathematics Building, Buffalo, N.Y. 14260-2900 USA Tel. 716-645-6284 HOMEPAGE: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~wlawvere************************************************************