Stance and distance in popular writing about math

By jamespropp

Here’s something you’ll never see in popular writing about musicians:

“Music. For most of us, the mere word conjures up memories of metronomes and endless scales, the student’s never-ending fear of playing a wrong note (or the right note at the wrong time), and the frowns of teachers from whom a curt ‘Good’ was the highest expression of praise. And yet there are some people who just can’t get enough of making music; they practice hour after hour, honing their skills and punishing their bodies, long after the stage of life when there are parents and teachers forcing them to do it. What strange quirk of character compels this behavior?”

As I said, nobody writes about musicians that way. And yet, when the subject is a mathematician, writers sometimes come up with passages like this:

“You and math – one of the greatest love/hate relationships of all time. What is it about the subject that excites us yet sends a chilling tingle down our spine at the same time? How can it be so precise, yet so fickle? We may never know the answers to these questions, but we do know that math is ubiquitous, though some of us may try to hide from it.”

This is from the introduction to a 2010 profile of mathematics editor Vickie Kearn, which I recently saw on the blog-site of Princeton University Press, where Ms. Kearn has worked as senior editor for many years. The intro continues in a similar vein. “While math may sometimes cause us to cry tears of despair, it has caused Vickie to cry tears of joy.”

This is an extreme example, I grant you (the author was an undergraduate intern). But the underlying approach is one I’ve seen other journalists use, though usually not so blatantly. I think I get what those journalists are trying to do: they’re reaching out to people who wouldn’t ordinarily read an article about math and saying “Hey, I’m not so different from you; you should really give my article a try.” But how far can one take this device before it becomes demeaning to the subject matter? It’s good for a writer to establish a bond with the reader. But how far can a writer go in distancing herself from her topic without snapping the thread connecting her to the topic in the reader’s mind?

A related gripe of mine is news editors who, when publishing an article about mathematics, feel they need to dispel the tension conjured up by the scent of math by sticking in a jokey headline like “It all adds up for math whiz” or “Math proves to be winning formula for local teen”. (If you’ve seen headlines like these, please submit them in the Comments!) Do these editors know something that I don’t about the cues that make a reader peruse one article rather than another? Is it the same thing that Stephen Hawking’s editors knew, when they told him (back when he was writing “A Brief History of Time”) that every equation included in his book would reduce his readership by a factor of two? I’d like to think that these editors are wrong about the world that they and I live in, but part of me is worried that they’re right — in part because I sometimes stop reading an essay or article when I hit a passage that calls for a little more thought than the part that came before.

I’m guessing that some of those journalists and editors are mathphobes, while others are not themselves mathphobes but are eager to keep their stories appealing to a wide range of readers, including mathphobes. But whatever their motive may be for reminding math-anxious readers of their math anxiety, I worry that the cumulative impact of these messages normalizes or even valorizes that anxiety. Part of what’s going on is a conflation of mathematics with arithmetic, combined with a fear of numbers. Numbers frighten many people, or leave them feeling cold. But what is accomplished when so many articles about math start by reminding readers of this?

Question: Is this sort of pandering to mathphobia an American phenomenon, or is it found in other countries? Somehow I don’t imagine French newspapers (for instance) adopting this sort of tactic.

The intern who wrote the passage I quoted strikes me as someone who fears math too much to be a good tour guide on a mathematical journey for non-mathematicians. Someone like me may not be the best tour guide either, since I don’t know first-hand what it’s like to be a non-mathematician intimidated by mathematics (though I do know what it’s like to be, for instance, a non-algebraic-geometer intimidated by algebraic geometry, which is a vaguely similar situation). Probably the best tour guides are people who have a dual perspective as insider and outsider. Who are your favorite converts-as-evangelists in the domain of mathematics? Let me know in the Comments!

Scott Kim (check out his website), an early reader of this essay, felt that I should go beyond pointing to the problem and include a corrective call to action. He suggests that the many “Don’t worry, I hate math too” messages being broadcast nowadays might profitably be counteracted by “You only think you hate math” messages. It’s an interesting tactic. He points out that there are all sorts of paramathematical activities, like Tetris and Sudoku, that huge numbers of people find riveting. and that the popularity of these pastimes suggests that there is something mathphilic in many people who don’t think of themselves as mathphiles. Jumping off of Scott’s suggestion, I wonder if anyone has suggested a Freudian framework in which mathphobes and “misomaths” are seen as people who have “displaced” onto mathematics their fear and hatred of unsympathetic teachers or mindless drill or procedures divorced from meaning and context, and whether the appropriate “therapy” is to help them figure out that it’s really something else they fear or hate. (Of course, this doesn’t necessarily get rid of the fear and hatred; it just turns it into something other than mathphobia/misomathy and thereby makes it someone else’s problem, ha ha.)

I’m not sure what sort of journalistic style the “You only think you hate math” stance would lead to, but I’m sure I’d like to see it!

Thanks to Sandi Gubin, Scott Kim, Keith Lynch, Joe Malkevitch, Hilarie Orman, and Evan Romer.

Next month, two essays: Introducing “Thirdsday”, and The Magic of Nine.


#1. Yes, this month’s essay is short and on the rough side. Thanks to an end-of-semester work crunch, I didn’t have time to develop the essay I’d originally planned to write. At the same time, I happened to read the profile of Vickie Kearn, which inspired these musings about math journalism as a substitute topic. To compensate for this month’s skimpy offering, in January you’ll get two Mathematical Enchantments for the price of one.

#2. Pre-reader Sandi Gubin raised the question “How prevalent is math anxiety?” Of course percentages vary because there’s no clear-cut definition of the condition. A good entry point into recent literature is the 2014 article “Mathematics Anxiety: What Have We Learned in 60 Years?” by Dowker, Sarkar, and Looi. Other pre-readers felt that, with the increased use of calculators in math education and the decreased emphasis on arithmetic procedures, number anxiety plays a diminishing role in math anxiety. They suggested that modern-day math anxiety is really several different ailments, distinguished by which particular course turned out to be a brick wall for the student in question. (Thus, Geometry Jitters needs to be distinguished from Algebra Angst and Calculus Conniptions.)

#3. Several early readers of this piece felt that I was wrong in thinking that math is treated any worse in the popular press than other arcane endeavors, and that areas seen as even “geekier” (such as science fiction) are portrayed with even more hostile distortion than math.

One reader pointed out the difference between subject matter stories and human interest stories, and said that writers of the latter often feel that the whole point of the story is the oddity of the subject: if they don’t make the person seem unusual, perhaps to the point of weirdness, then why should they write about that person at all?

It was also suggested that headline writers are nearly always encouraged to hook readers with some sort of wordplay, regardless of the topic.

#4. Several early readers of this piece felt that much more could have been said about similarities and differences between math education and music education, and the negative impact that they can have. If I’d assimilated these comments and come up with a synthesis of them, this would be a more interesting essay, but one that I don’t have time to write by my deadline.

#5. The reason the profile of Vickie Kearn came to my attention is that she recently announced her retirement from the Press. This came as a bit of a blow to me, since I was hoping to work with her someday in turning some of these essays into book-chapters. Hardly any of my Mathematical Enchantments pieces are “blogs” in the traditional sense; rather, they’re my way of testing out ideas, trying out ways of explaining those ideas, and more broadly, becoming a better expositor. My main disappointment with the process of blogging is how little feedback I get in the Comments section. Hopefully the very sketchiness of this month’s essay will encourage more people to respond than usual.