4 August 2010

Promoters of Science and Mathematics need to understand Science and Mathematics

In my previous posting I talked about a case of someone who feels the need to introduce religion into science.
Changing gears now, I would like to talk a bit about those people who do like science and mathematics but are not qualified to promote them.

Take, for instance, the case of someone writing an article about the need to use Probability Theory, say, in estimating the risk for the purposes of insurance. For example, how much should a chemical factory pay to insure against the possibility of explosion? To answer this, one needs to know both the details of the factory operation (and enough chemical engineering) as well as enough mathematics and probability. Also, one needs to have some data.

Suppose now that a science lover writes an article in an applied mathematics/statistics journal promoting the need to use mathematical models for problems as the one I described above. But let's say that his main argument is this:

"We need to use mathematics when we take decisions (such as deciding the level of insurance payment), and not leave matters to politicians. For if we don't use mathematics and science we may make horrible mistakes. For example, there is a well-known case in the State of Indiana where, in 1897, they almost passed a law saying that π = 9.2376. My main concern  is to show that mathematics needs to be done before laws and regulations are passed so that we avoid mistakes such as the equivalent of having to use π = 9.2376 in our calculations."

My question is this: Would you publish an article whose purpose was to promote the need of use of mathematics for the purpose of not overestimating π? What would you say to the author of such an article? Is this not a poor, very poor, reason for doing mathematics? Would you not tell the author to try harder to come up with a better reason? Or tell him or her that enthusiasm for mathematics is not, by itself, sufficient enough to warrant publication?

More generally: While it is easy to dismiss people (such as the one in my previous posting) claiming that religion and science should be taught and done together, we should not encourage promoters of science without proper understanding of the subject. Just as Shallit wrote, science writers need to know science, so should promoters of science understand what they are promoting. Otherwise, weak arguments like the above can leave the door of science open to anyone from clueless politicians to religious fundamentalists.

What is your opinion on the matter?

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What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant