Uncovering the two faces of mathematics: exploring the ethics of mathematics in education and society
02 Mar 2023 | Guinever G. Vera
On February 15, 2023, more than 160 online participants attended what turned out to be a provocative lecture on “The Ethics of Mathematics and Mathematics in Society” by Paul Ernest, currently Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of Mathematics Education at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Known for his work in the philosophical aspects of mathematics education and his contributions to the social constructivist perspectives, Ernest is the founding editor of the Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal. He has published numerous books and articles on mathematics education and is currently working on a book on the ethics of mathematics.
In his 50-minute lecture, Ernest delved into the ethics of mathematical applications, the impact of mathematics on society, and the ethics of mathematics itself. He showed the two faces of mathematics and its applications. He discussed the aspects of mathematics that can solve a wide range of problems, create new technologies, and design new products, as well as generate models that could perpetuate inequality, or harm vulnerable populations. Hence, he claimed that pure and applied mathematics are good but can be harmful. Ernest also highlighted the hidden harm of the unethical applications of mathematics and the overvaluation of mathematics in education. He ended the lecture by emphasizing the importance of regulating and reforming mathematics teaching to help “mathematics insiders” shape their thinking into seeing mathematics and its applications more ethically.
During the open forum that happened immediately after Ernest’s talk, the audience brought in a wide range of perspectives to the conversation. Questions and comments delved on the nature of mathematics and its applications, authentic assessments, accreditations, rankings of universities, functional math curriculum that places emphasis on ethics, and demonizing student errors in a mathematics classroom. There were also some discussion on how to spot authenticity of published articles, instances where pure mathematics is being used in fakery or misinformation, and new ethical challenges that could emerge because of the growing importance of data science and artificial intelligence.
Overall, the lecture was highly insightful and thought-provoking especially since the event brought together individuals from different backgrounds to discuss a critical topic and exchange ideas and views on the role of mathematics in education and society. The attendees were mostly undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and faculty of the Ateneo Department of Mathematics. Some Loyola Schools faculty, members of the Philippine Council of Mathematics Teacher Educators (MATHTED), Inc. and the Mathematical Society of the Philippines (MSP), and special friends and collaborators of the Ateneo Department of Mathematics also joined the event.
As a fitting close to such a critical conversation, a debriefing session among students and faculty of the Ateneo Department of Mathematics was held via Zoom on February 22. All who came to the debriefing session spoke freely, as its true goal was to provide a venue for the attendees to react, assess the main points, and share their reflections on the arguments presented during Ernest’s lecture. Whether you agree or not to Ernest’s arguments, his talk definitely stimulated both mathematics educators and pure mathematicians to think critically and reflect on the ethical implications of mathematics and how they could work towards a more equitable and inclusive mathematics in the future.
Ernest’s lecture is the initial offering of the Ateneo Department of Mathematics research seminar series for this year. Hosted by the Didactics of Mathematics Research Group (DiMRG), the lecture was facilitated by Dr Catherine P Vistro-Yu, Program Coordinator for Mathematics Education of the Ateneo. The event was also livestreamed on YouTube for a wider participation. To access the video recording of the lecture, go to https://youtu.be/tQa6g_4EIPw.
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