Category: Perspectives of a Math Major

A year is long enough for surprises to happen, especially this past year. People suddenly found out that the world they live in has gone through a course that no one could ever have predicted. One year ago, hardly anyone foresaw the European Union losing its most important player and perhaps in the future losing a second one; hardly anyone could say affirmatively that a billionaire without any political experience could become the president of US. People are shocked, fearful, and puzzled by these facts. We call this series of events a wave of anti-establishment—not only anti-establishing the social system that we have relied on so much, but, more importantly, challenging the ways we look at and interpret the world.

While people are asking, “What is wrong with our world?” it is equally important to be introspective and ask what is “Wrong with my own thinking that causes so much disillusionment with what really happened?” It is not an easy question, and people can have diverse answers for it, but besides the debates of ideology, social norms and political correctness, maybe we can focus on something that is less paid attention to, something that seems to be irrelevant to politics: math.

Throughout human civilization, people have used reason to understand the world, and after thousands of years of development, almost every field of study has become dependent on the use of rationality. Usually, we tend to call such rational tool “model.” People use models to capture the factors of the issue being studied and use logical representations to depict the fundamental laws that govern the behavior of these factors. The most widely used model among people is the mathematical model, where the logical representations are necessarily mathematical expressions. Such a use of math has been adapted in economics, political science, sociology, and even psychology. Investors use math to make investment strategy, economists use math to understand the behavior of economics, politicians use math to predict the patterns of voters, and policymakers use math to structure the best policy for the country.

For a long time, math has successfully captured the behavior of the world and did a pretty good job in assisting people with their applications in the real world, and people have been more and more dependent on math to solve the complex situations they face. But because of these successes, people also ignore the shortcomings of mathematical models in social sciences, and such ignorance could cause problems.

One weakness of math models is that in order to achieve more accurate depiction of the scenario, comprehensiveness is sacrificed. The first thing to do when constructing a math model is to make assumptions and simplify the situation to a bunch of factors that are representable by math expressions. But in this simplification some important factors are tossed away because they cannot be clearly quantitated. One clear example is people’s sentiment, which in some cases dictates the situation, but because it is too hard to be modeled, it is usually left out or excessively simplified. With an absence of sentimental factors, the model can sometimes interpret facts incorrectly.

Another shortcoming of math is not a shortcoming in nature, but could hurt people when they are too dependent on a math model. The nature of math assumes a deterministic model. That is to say, with given conditions and given principles, the outcome can be well defined. Usually the models taught in economic classes and political science classes don’t assume any stochastic scenarios, and they don’t talk about things that are not solvable (otherwise what is the point of studying it?) But neither of the preconditions are always true. Sometimes we cannot grasp the condition correctly due to our limited ability to observe the complete picture, and sometimes we just simply don’t have the correct principles on which this world functions. In either case, model thinking could fail.

The use of math modeling in our daily life is not essentially problematic. It is the overdependence on it that causes some misleading in perceiving the world and interpreting it. If we don’t fully grasp the pros and cons of using mathematical reasoning in social science fields, we will constantly encounter conflicts between our assumptive beliefs and real facts.

 

Several days before the Nobel Prize Committee awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the current Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, a referendum took place in Colombia that rejected the peace deal made by Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This result put the Nobel Prize Committee in an awkward position, as the committee awarded Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end,” yet the millstone on the peace journey was just rejected by Colombia’s population. Though people rejected the peace deal mostly because they were unsatisfied with the conditions set in the peace deal, such as releasing FARC officers who are currently in custody, the rejection still reveals the immaturity of peace in Colombia and poses questions on Santos’ legitimacy of the award.

Besides the awkwardness from the referendum rejection, people also question whether Santos’ contribution is significant enough to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The conflict between Colombia government and FARC could be traced back to 1960s, when the left-wing revolutionary force was established in the wave of communism in Latin America. The conflict was brutal and inhumane, and claimed the lives of more than twelve percent of Colombia population. However, due to the relieved tension between United States and Latin America countries, as well as the diminishing power of FARC that could no longer stand for more aggression, a peace deal seems to be inevitable to resolve the conflict that both parties could no longer support.

The Nobel Peace Prize endorses those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” yet it has been criticized for being too political. Some critics believe that the reasons for awarding is based on the contemporary significance, which makes the prize lack eternality. Current president Barack Obama has been awarded “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” only nine months after his presidency, and it is doubtful how the committee could examine the effectiveness of his international diplomacy in such a short period of time, as the increasing tension in Syria and the rise of ISIS raise more questions of the legitimacy of his award.

A political Nobel Peace Prize does not endorse its original purpose, as it is supposed to endorse some higher stakes that go beyond contemporary politics. It should be more humanitarian, more cosmopolitan, and more inclusive. In terms of this year, the Syrian Civil Defense organization, which was nominated but not awarded, may have been a better choice, as the group continues humanitarian rescues in the most dangerous country with no assistance from other political groups. Getting rid of influences from politics and political norms is hard for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it is necessary to keep the prize’s eternal significance.

Perspectives of a Math Major runs alternate Wednesdays. To contact the author to submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

The Chinese community has been cheesed off recently by the Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor, as the correspondent Jesse Watter came to Chinatown in Manhattan and asked stereotypical and racist questions. Social media exploded after the segment was broadcasted on national television, and Chinese protesters gathered demanding an apology. Yet, Bill O’Reilly remains standing by Jesse Watter and refers the outrage from the public as an “organized campaign.”

I watched this footage. I asked the same question as Ronny Chieng does on the Daily Show: how is this thing news? And among all the disrespectful things he did in Chinatown, what I find the most shameful is the moment when he questioned two old Chinese people who couldn’t understand English. He thought it was funny to show some awkward silence when talking to someone who didn’t understand the language, but what he actually did was challenge the most basic and fundamental respect and politeness this society values.

Language is important in shaping a community and identifying a community member. Common language is the basis for communicating, sharing opinions, collaborating and even debating. However, people are forgetting the fact that speaking is fundamentally an ability, just as walking or seeing. It should not be taken for granted that everyone in this country has enough language proficiency to express his or her opinions and utilize speaking as a way to defend his or her rights. As in O’Reilly Factor, when facing a man asking racist questions in a language they don’t know, the old Chinese people could not, even if they wanted to, retaliate the ridicule imposed on them. They could only respond to Jesse Watter with an awkward smile, half friendly and half puzzled.

And it is not them to blame. If we can respect people who can’t walk, if we can respect people who can’t see, why can’t we respect people who can’t speak? We have made great effort to make our facilities and infrastructures accessible to people who have special needs, yet it seems that we forget how to make our society accessible to those who have difficulties in speaking for their rights. We have emphasized making an environment comfortable enough for those who have physical disabilities, yet our community is shying away from those who can’t express their opinions properly.

The barrier of language may be more deep and severe than the barrier of race and identities, but there is less awareness of it, because the victims suffering from this do not have a voice and cannot confront the injustice they face, and so we may never hear their stories. It is difficult to protect their rights and keep them from bullying in terms of language. We can only count on our conscientiousness and our humanity. But for a civilized community, it is necessary.

Perspectives of a Math Major runs alternate Wednesdays. To contact the author to submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

This Monday was highlighted by the first presidential debate. But sadly there is no television in the lounge of my residence hall, so I watched it on Facebook using my cellphone. I walked into an elevator, listening how Donald Trump say about his tax return, while another student bumped into the elevator with his cellphone displaying the same live video as mine. We caught each other’s eyes, and we smiled. And it was that moment I felt a strong connection with my peers, that we are the same species, that we care about the same issue.

Columbia has had a reputation for being politically active, and I know it especially true when I saw the crowd in Lerner’s piano lounge watching the presidential debate. We have different political groups. We have student government. We have campaigns and initiatives calling for political actions. All these things remind me that I am in a political atmosphere, and political discussion is a thing embedded in the practice of our community.

Aristotle says, remarkably, that “men are born political.” This statement is especially true in this time, where social media and internet expose us to a life with ever-growing political focus. The question for us, however, is not whether a political life matters, but rather in what way should political discussion integrated in our daily life. Should it be in a serious manner, as if we are talking politics in an academic setting and must pay attention to the details of the subject we are discussing, or should it be in an easygoing way where we treat political discussion as a daily routine that every person would take part in? Should we be scientific in our political life? Or should it just be about personal reaction?

I am not trying to answer these questions, as I believe different people could have different philosophy towards their lives, and what role does politics play in it. The more important thing is the fact that we are looking at the way we talk about politics in an introspective lens. Because of that, we know what position we are, and why we are at this position. It is this self-examining process that makes us better understand politics, and ultimately ourselves.

Coming from an applied math major, I always find that the most important thing in my study of math is not the solution to a problem, but rather the way that leads to the solution, and I think there is a similar thing in our political discussion. It is always easy to have an opinion, but it is hard, yet more importantly, to understand the reason behind the opinion. That is what this column is trying to achieve: it attempts to examine behind the kaleidoscope of opinions and ideas in politics, international relation, and economy, and provide insight into our understanding of our world and society.

Perspectives of a Math Major runs alternating Wednesdays. To submit a response, email submissions@columbialion.com