Notices recently published several papers about applied mathematics, whose conclusions are disputable. The latest one is titled Principles for Implementing a Potential Solution to the Middle East Conflict, which was widely discussed among mathematicians. Sergey Yakovenko published a blog post Applied Mathematics:How-Not-To in which he explains his reasons to consider this text “a travesty of applied mathematics”. Here is the last paragraph of the post:

Today mathematics is still considered as one of the last bastions of objective knowledge, and mathematically justified conclusions are generally accepted by the public opinion as a reliable truth modulo a possible human error, unlike many other areas, e.g., climate science, political science etc. The imprimatur given by publication in the respectable and peer-reviewed mathematical journal will carry with itself two very sad consequences. First, the parties at the real negotiation tables will be pushed in the wrong direction: indeed, how can you argue against “the optimal solution obtained by rigorous mathematical methods”? But such misconception may and most likely will distort realistic expectations of the sides and result in more protracted (or even failed) negotiations. The other implication, more sad for our professional community, will be an unavoidable conclusion that mathematics can be twisted to the whim of politically driven people, and mathematicians are no more honest in their work than scientists massaging or even fabricating their experimental data or sociologists who derive from biased polls pre-designed conclusions. Of course, mathematicians are also humans and may hold very polar views on various subjects, however, an attempt to justify the views by invoking the authority of the sterling mathematical models is plain wrong and harmful.

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About Artem Novozhilov

I am an applied mathematician interested in studying various evolutionary processes by means of mathematical models. More on my professional activities can be found on my page
https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~novozhil/

I am not quiet sure why this is news to anybody, economics has a long history of twisting mathematics to get whatever results they want. This illusion of objectivity is even more pronounced with computational models.

It is fine to believe that mathematics is objective when it is talking about mathematics, but does anybody really believe that mathematics is objective when it is applied? How you decide to interpret an external reality within mathematics can often be a subjective experience. The subjectivity is determined by the norms of the application field, not the tools. In physics we can still claim some objectivity, but just because an anthropologist can use mathematical tools doesn’t mean he has suddenly escaped subjectivity. The only new thing I see here, is that this was presented directly to a mathematical audience instead of the usual economics or social science audience.