Sunday, November 6, 2016

"The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility"

This quote is fine and dandy when referring to scientific knowledge, or knowledge on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. But it becomes more difficult of a question when you think about it in relationship to math. What ethical responsibility does knowing the quadratic formula carry? Or the pythagorean theorem? Or any mathematical operation for that matter? Numbers are just agreed upon values that exist platonically at best and at worst are a useful fiction. 

To make sense of this it all depends on the definitions you use.  Knowledge is defined by Merriam Webster as information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education. Ethics is defined as involving questions of right and wrong behavior : relating to ethics. With this established how does mathematical knowledge carry an ethical responsibility?

Given that mathematics is defined as the science of numbers, quantities, and shapes and the relations between them, and these numbers themselves have no inherent value besides what is assigned to them, mathematical knowledge demands implementation or it is useless.

The questions of knowledge and implementation as well as ethics in math are very common in the classroom. Every student has said or heard another student say "When will I use this in real life?" and this question is a valid one. Too often we hear the cop out answer "It teaches you to think" but this is simply an excuse for the fact that mathematical knowledge without implementation is useless. Because the math questions we deal with are useless and hypothetical for the most part. What use is it to ANYONE to find out how how much Mrs. Johnson spent on apples and bananas if apples are 7.50 and and bananas are 9.00?????? There is no ethical responsibility in that kind of math because math is not being implemented properly. It lies in a hypothetical world, the banana is a lie, and why can't the worker at the counter tell Mrs. Robinson how much the cost of her fruit was? 

When mathematical knowledge enters the real world however is when the ethical responsibility occurs. When it's not hypothetical apples anymore. When the math is imperative to finding out laws of the natural world, or building something important to your community, or learning more about nature through math. the essential thing with math and ethics is that math must be first applied to a field for it to be anything more than useless hypothetics.

Applying mathematical knowledge has led to numerous advancements in science, technology, chemistry, economics, and so much more. This trend applies to more than just math however. Just like math, IB students have an ethical responsibility with the knowledge we learn. Otherwise, like math, it is useless. Just as faith without works is dead, knowledge of any sort without implementation for the betterment of your local and global community is useless.

1 comment:

  1. I think you make a good point that applied knowledge is where to look for ethics, but you haven't really dug into any really good examples of the ways that this plays out! Where, IN REAL LIFE, has some specific mathematical knowledge taken on ethical implications?

    Avoid dictionary definitions: they smack of arbitrary absolutism (why does Merriam Webster have a monopoly on the Truth?!), and they add little of interest to the discussion. Instead, tease out possible meanings, and explore the places where meaning is ambiguous.

    For example: IS pure mathematics ethically neutral or even ethically agnostic? Doesn't suggesting that ANYTHING can be done "Outside the world" contain an embedded moral claim. I mean, even the name, PURE mathematics, brings to mind some exalted plane of existence.

    Likewise, "it teaches you how to think." In actuality, "It teaches you how to apply pure reason." And the claim that "thinking" = "reasoning" is embedded in a very particular historico-cultural context, right?

    Is applied mathematics always leading to "advancements"? Doesn't the ethicist say, "it depends on HOW you apply it"?

    As your last blog, this feels like a lot of good thinking without much learning. Use the blog as a space to dig into something MATERIAL.