A Mathematician's Secret: We're Not All Geniuses
You don’t have to be a genius to become a mathematician. If you find this statement at all surprising, you’re an example of what's wrong with the way our society identifies, encourages and rewards talent.
As a mathematician who studied at Berkeley, Harvard and Princeton, I’ve known geniuses. I got to hang out with Andrew Wiles, who is credited with solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, and I met Grigori Perelman, who solved the Poincare Conjecture. They’re great guys, but they didn’t do it on their own. For each certified genius, there are at least a hundred other great people who helped achieve such outstanding results.
Math requires altruism, hard work and fact-checking. Although presented as a platonic ideal of logical argument, a mathematical proof really passes muster only if it persuades a critical group of colleagues within the field. As such, it's partly a social construction. Long and difficult proofs require enormous -- and unpaid -- effort to find the flaws that in most cases exist. The mathematical community deserves more thanks than it gets for this selfless toil.
The same applies to society at large. The winners, be they CEOs, senators or Nobel laureates, owe much of their success to a functional system. I’m not the first to note that Steve Jobs likely would have been a subsistence farmer if he had been born in another time (if he survived childhood at all). Yet his achievements tend to be portrayed as entirely his own.
In short, we over-reward those at the top and dismiss the rest. It’s an unhelpful and unnecessary bias that facilitates hero worship, undermines the goal of nurturing creativity and discourages valuable contributions to communities, worthy causes and scientific projects. It also influences the way we educate our children, on the flawed premise -- reflected in articles with titles like "How to Raise a Genius" -- that standardized tests can identify potential geniuses, that the right upbringing can turn them into actual geniuses and that they will be compelled to solve the world's problems.
I’m not saying we shouldn't have high hopes and standards for our children. But by focusing our attention on the kids who get the top SAT scores, we reinforce the fixation on genius to the detriment of everyone else -- and particularly to the disadvantaged kids who don’t have the resources to compete. In such a system, math loses its playful and curious nature. It becomes a gatekeeper, intimidating instead of clarifying.
I speak from experience. When I won a math competition back in high school, the prize was Men of Mathematics, a book that profiled a bunch of dead white male geniuses. Since I was a girl, the math team coach replaced it with Women in Mathematics, which did the same thing with women in a uniquely depressing way. The coach undoubtedly meant well, but I didn’t need to know about a bunch of people who solved problems I couldn't understand. A book of mathematical brain teasers would have done a lot more to send the right message: that math is fun!
To even imagine becoming a mathematician, I had to ignore the question of whether I was a genius, or whether I would need to be a genius. Had I been poked and prodded and measured to see how exceptional I was, I probably would have lost the nerve.
We do ourselves a disservice when we focus only on the exceptional, in math or in any other field. We should instead strive toward literacy for all, added challenges for those who want them, and well-funded research for the crazy few who are willing to devote themselves to it. We’re going to need a whole lot of smart and confident thinkers to take on the problems we’re creating.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Cathy O'Neil at email@example.com
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