Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Conservapedia, P=NP, and the Fields Medal

Conservapedia, the right-wing, Christian alternative to Wikipedia has once again broken new ground. In previous entries we've discussed Conservapedia's founder Andrew Schlafly self-Godwining and Conservapedia's interesting take on Popperian falsifiability. Others have discussed Conservapedia's objections to special and general relativity. Now, Conservapedia is at it again.

Apparently, Conservapedia has taken a recent interest in mathematics. First, they added to their mainpage a take on the recent reports that Deolalikar had proven that P ≠ NP . Conservapedia announced:

University professors pile on against a non-professor's claim to have solved one of the millennium problems. MIT Assistant Professor Scott Aaronson declares, "Vinay Deolalikar still hasn’t retracted his P≠NP claim, but a clear consensus has emerged that the proof, as it stands, is fatally flawed." He absurdly adds, with a cite to Richard Dawkins, "the only miracle in life is that there are no miracles, neither in mathematics nor in anything else."

But the best of the public, aided by the internet, will inevitably solve more problems than liberal colleges will - just as Grigori Perelman solved another millennium problem. The future belongs to the conservative public.
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Apparently, Aaronson's decision to quote Richard Dawkins meant that math must be evil. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to note some of the other more glaring errors. However, this was not the end of Conservapedia's attack on establishment math for being just too liberal. Shortly after this declaration, an addition about the Fields Medal went up. The Fields Medal, awarded every four years, is for mathematics roughly equivalent to a Noble Prize(there is no Nobel in math). Conservapedia announced a "Conservapedia exclusive":

[T]his Thursday liberals will likely give the coveted Fields Medal -- math's highest honor -- to an underachieving woman and to a communist-trained mathematician from Vietnam. Is the lamestream media holding back stories about this to create a bigger splash on Thursday?
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It is not clear what "underachieving woman" Conservapedia is thinking of, but apparently the "communist-trained mathematician" is a reference to Ngo Bao Chau, who made headlines last year for proving the Fundamental Lemma of the Langlands program. Apparently Conservapedia believes that the general media cares so much about mathematics that a failure to speculate on who will win the Fields Medal is a sign of a media conspiracy. Why a "communist-trained" mathematician would be a big deal is not clear given thatabout half of the Fields Medal winners have been either from the USSR or trained in the USSR.

Also, apparently Conservapedia is unhappy that after Terence Tao got the Fields Medal four years ago he then endorsed Barack Obama for President, Finally, we come to the detail that forced me to write this blog entry. To deal with this apparent liberal bias and affirmative action in the Fields Medal, Conservapedia is starting its own award for mathematicians, the "ConservaMath Medal." According to the website this Medal is "the merit-based alternative to the Fields Medal, with winners announced at the same time so that real achievement is recognized." I'll let that speak for itself.


KyleT from CP said...

Conservapedia's long taken an interest in math -- RationalWiki has an overview of some of its more bizarre episodes. Particular topics which Schlafly views as liberal conspiracies include the axiom of choice and complex numbers.

Greg Laden said...

Its about time someone put those damn liberal numbers and formulas and stuff in their place!

Johan (Jr) said...

Do we think they have actually heard a rumor? Could he not just have made the whole thing up?

So I suspect he read about Ngo in some newspaper and that is why he thinks Ngo will win the prize. The part about the underachieving woman is I guess not about any particular person, just anti-feminist paranoia and sexism. I imagine his thinking is something like: "there are obviously no qualified women. But those affirmative action-loving liberals will give one a prize anyway"*.)

* The track record of the Fields Medal committee might assure him that they do not practice affirmative action in favor of women. But of course, taking empirical evidence into account is not his strong point.

Joshua said...


Ngo Bao Chau is a clear front-runner at this point and has been for some time. Andrew's brother actually has a graduate degree in math (I don't remember if it is a Masters or a PhD) so it is possible that he heard something from him. From the Conservapedia difs, it looks like Andy first put up the claim about females and then added the part about a "communist-trained" mathematician. So my hypothesis is that after he put up the knee-jerk remark about females he then went and Googled the subject and found out about Ngo.

Sheer probability doesn't actually make it unlikely that a female will win. As a rough estimate there are probably around 20-30 people who could plausibly win a Fields Medal, and probably 2-4 who are female. Assuming that Ngo is a shoe in and that they select four people (as they normally do) that gives assuming 2 females and 30 candidates a probability that one will be female of 1 - (27/29)(26/28)(25/27)= 20% aout. And assuming the other set of bounds (4 females, 20 candidates) one has an estimate of 1- (15/19)(14/18)(13/17)= 53%. So if I had to guess I'd say I'd put around a 35% chance that a female will win.

Blake Stacey said...

Grigori Perelman good! Communist-trained mathematician bad!

Wait a minute . . .

toto said...

Conservapedia is "Christian" like the Burqa is "Muslim".

Johan said...

toto, I think we all understand that not all Christians are like Schlalfly. Nevertheless he is clearly one type of Christian.

Joshua: Yes he might have heard something from his brother. But I'd say it would be more likely he heard about Ngo from his brother than that a woman would get it. His brother might after all be able to conclude on his own that Ngo will get it (if he really is a clear front-runner) but he probably could not honestly say with any confidence that a woman would get it.

Anonymous said...

"the merit-based alternative to the Fields Medal..."

I suspect the merit, in Schlafly's eyes, comes not from the mathematical achievement but from saying or doing something mathematical while being a political Conservative.

In fact, if they seemingly proved intelligent design using mathematics, they would be lauded as a genius.

Burkhard said...

Fascinating to see how this lunacy develops a dynamic of its own - there now seems to pop up badly written,badly researched and understanding-free entries all over Conservapedia, belittling e.g. the Langlands Program to shore up the opinion of their cult leader.

And to call Ngo communist trained, while at the same time extolling the equally communist trained Perelman (an atheist to boot), who in addition attacked the US academic system for embracing capitalist models of production - the mind boggles. ever mind the mathematics, but should they not at least be able to get their ideology consistent?

If the Fields go to Kathrin Brinkman (which would be well deserved)they'll be in a nice knot - she also has a Theology degree and taught at Sunday school. Maybe their heads will explode. (personally I'm hooting for Matilde Marcolli)Maryam Mirzakhani is probably too young, but would have the advantage to really drive the Schlafly lot crazy, being Iranian and all.

Johan said...

It is Bringmann, not Brinkman.(As I found out by googling.) And I assume Schlalfly dislikes people with theology degrees from any institution that does not share his brand of fundamentalism. I suspect he thinks they are worse than evolutionary biologists.

I realize by the way that my posts my seem somewhat pointless. I was reacting to the statement of Joshua where he wondered what underachieving woman Conservepedia was referring to. I merely wanted to make the point that they may not be referring to anyone in particular.

vic said...

Conservapedia's credentials regarding mathematics begins and ends with irrationals.

Johan said...

Why haven't they announced a winner of the Conservapedia math medal? I thought they said that it would be awarded at the same time as the fields medal.

At the present all the page contains is a suggestion that giving Ben Green the medal might make Terence Tao less effective politically. (How can one not love Conservapedia after reading things like that?)

David Gerard said...

You would enjoy RationalWiki.

Joshua said...

David, yes I'm familiar with it. It can be quite amusing. I don't spend time on it myself because I worry about the danger too much in defining oneself by those one disagrees with, especially when one is talking about the more delusional, stupid, or ignorant of those people. Pointing and laughing can be fun but it isn't something that I'd spend all my time on (although RationalWiki has managed to some extent to transition to being a more robust project.)

Anonymous said...

"...about half of the Fields Medal winners have been either from the USSR or trained in the USSR."

Um, maybe a quarter at the most. Usually it's about 0 or 1 person out of four medalists, except for one recent year with 2 out of 4, and one year with 1 out 2.

Anonymous said...