Thursday, November 09, 2006

Is there a socialist maths?

I was once forced to ask a question at the SWP's annual Marxism event because everyone found the meeting, on Alan Turin, too difficult to contribute to.

How many?I was in the same boat as them frankly but because I was on "the team" it was my duty to ensure all embarrassing silences were filled with embarrassing questions. So instead of doing the usual "talk with confidence and people may be fooled into thinking you know something." I opted to ask a stupid question instead - "Can there be a socialist maths."

Excitingly the answer was "no, maths is maths, stupid boy". But I'm not so sure. I say this because I've just noticed that Respect have claimed there were 60,000 on the climate change demonstrations on Saturday - more than twice the organiser's claim of 25,000. Thank the gods that the organisers have been exposed as the reactionary stool pidgeons that they are, underestimating their own demonstration in order to suck up to George W Bush.

Of course, there are other alternatives. Respect have a new, more socialist way of counting or they don't tell the truth.

It's a particular bugbear of mine, lies. If twenty six people come to a meeting you don't round it up to forty. If there are eighty people at a local demo you don't count an extra twenty who were there in spirit. It's a trap you can never escape from. If this year's demo was 25,000 and you claim 60,000 what happens next year if 50,000 show up? Whilst in reality you've doubled your numbers, attendees could feel like the movement is slipping backwards. So you have to lie again.

Don't accuse people of things you're willing to do yourselfHow are you meant to make a real analysis of the situation if you don't know the facts. I had no way of knowing how many were there - I have to go by the estimates and then compare it to my experience. This doesn't just go for numbers of course, but numbers are the easiest way of demonstrating the point.

Now, whilst I'm always very careful not to lie about these things - in a vain hope that other people will follow a good example - there's little guarding against being wrong or influenced by pessimism / optimism. Mistaken can be argued with, lies cannot. When your theory does not fit the facts you can't simply change the facts and keep smiling.

If the left should have a code of ethics, and I think it should, point one should be "Never lie to yourself, the movement or the class." It's not easy, particularly when the truth undermines a point you've been making or cuts against your theory, but it's these times in particular when we need to be prepared to look facts in the face. Thankfully, on this occasion, no one will be sucked in by an obvious exaggeration.


Peter said...

There is a book called Socialist Mathematics Education

Given that maths is all about equality, it's already quite socialist, isn't it?
(although imaginary numbers are probably a symptom of bourgeois decadence).

I found this, after an internet search for socialist maths - quite funny...

Evolution of the Math Problem

or a tribute to socialism in education

In 1960: "A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of this price. What
is his profit?"

In 1970 (traditional math): "A logger sells a truckload of
lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of
this price; in other words, $80. What is his profit?"

In 1970 (new math): "A logger exchanges a set L of lumber
for a set M of money. The cardinality of set M is 100,
an each element is worth $1. Make one hundred dots
representing the elements of the set M. The set C of the
cost of production contains 20 fewer points than
set M. Represent set C as a subset M, and answer the
following question: What is the cardinality of the
set P of profits?

In 1980: "A logger sells a truckload of wood for $100. His
cost if production is $80, and his profit is $20.
Your assignment: underline the number 20."

In 1990 (Outcome Based Education): "By cutting down beautiful
forest trees, a logger makes $20. What do you think
of this way of making a living? (Topic for class
participation: How did the forest birds and squirrel feel?"

badmatthew said...

Keep to the Method: double the police/media estimate, halve the organisers estimate and split the difference. Course, it goes awry from time to time. Fortunately in this case Respect or the good folks at Socialist Worker (50,000 I do believe) aren't the organisers and it can be put down to 'optimism'. I have been accused of counting 'pessimistically', which strikes me as a good motto.

Jim Jay said...

You see this is where your method comes unstuck matthew.

Police estimate 22,500
Organisers est. 25,000

My method is to average the two and compare with my own experience, works just fine - simple and effective - but yours leaves us with an odd result...

PE * 2 = 45,000
OE / 2 = 12,500
57,500 / 2 = 28,750

A result higher than either estimate... which of course gives an indication of the kind of method Respect must have used in this case, although where they found the other 20,000 or so is beyond me.

Jim Jay said...

I wish it were true Peter - but the swathe of business studies course tells me otherwise.

I think socialist maths has something to do with multiplying good stuff and dividing bad stuff (and the wealth)

Disillusioned kid said...

This is one of my bugbears and a key point of principle for activists in my opinion. Swappies don't like this being pointed out, mind.