In the February 2, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, the writer Alec Wilkinson begins an otherwise excellent article on the mathematician Yitang Zhang's success at solving a century-old mathematics problem this way:
I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I passed high-school math only because I cheated. I could add and subtract and multiply and divide, but I entered the wilderness when words became equations and x's and y's. On test days, I sat next to Bob Isner or Bruce Gelfand or Ted Chapman or Donny Chamberlain - smart boys whose handwriting I could read - and divided my attention between his desk and the teacher's eyes.
Without wishing to be humorless about this - and admitting that in high school math was my *best* subject and I never thought I had any talent for writing - and while agreeing that this is, in its way, a refreshingly honest personal story that I would hate to see turned into an excuse for public shaming and a morality play...
Why is it acceptable for a writer in a major publication to say he cheated at math? Let's try that sentence some other ways. "I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I only passed high school English because I cheated." "I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I only passed high school Spanish because I hacked into the school's computer system and changed my grade." "I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I only made my high school rugby team because I took steroids."
We probably don't assign the same level of "badness" to those scenarios, but they all ultimately have the same effect: someone was awarded the rights that come with passing tests while avoiding the specified work assignments and consequently was accepted into whatever came next. Logically, in all those cases someone else lost the place taken by the person who cheated. Granted, Wilkinson's biography shows jobs won on merit, not credentials; before becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker he was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and before that a rock and roll musician. You can't conclude that if he hadn't cheated at math he would not be an award-winning writer now.
But Wilkinson's career trajectory isn't what's bugging me. Instead, it's his presentation, and its acceptance by The New Yorker's editors, of this transgression as an entertaining opening gambit. The New Yorker, which prided itself for decades never (well, hardly ever) publishing an inadequately checked fact or a typo!
The also story reflects a truly damaging attitude: math is hard, no one really needs it, and cheating at it (or dropping it from the curriculum) is OK. Instead, algebra, on which Wilkinson foundered and which in 2012 was dismissed even more readily by Andrew Hacker in The New York Times, teaches abstract thinking and problem-solving. These are assets in every society in every era. Granted, Wilkinson grew up to write about the very complex problem that Zhang solved with a no doubt hard-earned comprehension of detail, and the irony of Wilkinson's opening gambit is not lost on me. But although you might argue that The New Yorker's value for mathematics was shown by its decision to publish this piece, the *story* was that familiar American trope of the lone wolf who solves a problem that has long defeated better-acknowledged experts. Every publication loves that story, no matter what the field.
Hacker's argument, which does at least advocate teaching statistics and the ability to understand and critically evaluate the numbers in use all around us, seems to me to blame mathematics for teaching and social failures. The statistics he quotes show that math is a major stumbling block for enormous numbers of kids. In a 1990s interview, Peter Cochrane, the former head of BT Research, told me he was one of those kids. Having failed the 11-plus exams, he had to return to night school to get through the math barrier to build his fine career. If even bright, highly motivated kids have this trouble, shouldn't we look elsewhere for the source of the problem? Perhaps beginning with the repeated attitude, from parents, school teachers who self-select away from math, and TV shows and media all around, that math sucks.
Asked his view now by email, Cochrane was robust: "You can't do security without algebra or indeed electronics and many other topics." He added, "Choosing education courses that are easy gets you to the UK situation where all the baristas in my local coffee shop have degrees in sociology, media studies, political science, business studies et al! Not one of them has a future and not one of them will ever contribute to the generation of the GDP. They have no profitable future ahead of them and a debt mountain from their education costs. What a waste!"
I would argue that we still need sociologists, political scientists, and even (sigh) people with business degrees. But I'd like them to understand the basic rules of logical thought. Maybe The New Yorker can take the view that cheating to pass high school math doesn't matter because they don't perceive that as happening to *them* in the way that plagiarism would. But the lack of society-wide logical problem-solving ability certainly is happening to all of the rest of us.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.