antimeta in the house

One of my favorite bloggers, Kenny of Antimeta, was in Vegas last weekend and gave an interesting talk on philosophy of mathematics to our department. His basic aim was to find criteria that separated probabilistic proofs from other proofs (including, hopefully, proof sketches and computer-aided proofs). I'm not going to discuss that directly here.

I'm interested in a related claim Kenny made: that in mathematics, a theorem will be accepted only if the proof does not (he put it variously) appeal to authority/ depend on the reliability of other people/ rely on the testimony of others. That is, for a specialist in the field, they should be able to start out as serious skeptics of the theorem's truth, but end up at the close of the proof as believers. The contrast with experimental science is pretty clear: even specialists in a sub-field of experimental science have to trust (to some degree) the experimental reports of their fellow-workers, or the field would grind to a halt.

Question: Is there such a thing as mathematical fraud, of the sort we hear about periodically in experimental science? If not, that fact looks like evidence for Kenny's distinction being important and robust (since fraud is much harder in the absence of trust).

Comment 1: Some of the posters on FOM endorse Kenny's idea to the extreme: someone suggested that Fermat's Last Theorem will not really be proved until it is written in a way that average mathematics PhDs (whoever that is) can work through it themselves. I don't think Kenny wants to say anything nearly that strong, but the fact that such a strong position exists is a sign that the sentiment Kenny claims to discern really is there in the mathematics community.

Comment 2: At the end of the talk, Kenny suggested that philosophy may be closer to mathematics than experimental science in this regard. He may be right, but one thing that distinguishes philosophy from math in this regard is that in philosophy far more than in mathematics, one person's modus ponens is another person's modus tollens. This is just a direct result of mathematical axioms' being widely accepted throughout the mathematical community, whereas philosophers will challenge any premise, no matter how obvious or fruitful.



At 22/10/07, Blogger Kenny said...

Thanks for the plug!

Anyway, that's a good question about mathematical fraud - I hadn't thought of it like that before. There are definitely some cases of people fraudulently claiming priority (compare another thread on FOM right now), and of people claiming to have a proof of something they haven't yet published (I think I remember Deirdre Haskell talking about a case like this at the ASL once), but neither of those would be the relevant type, I think.

And you're right - I definitely wouldn't go nearly as far as some of the people on FOM have been saying recently.

I'll have to think about that ponens/tollens point.


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