I was sitting in an INFORMS talk on analyzing textual data from a funded project on studying HIV/AIDS responses. HIV/AIDS is a much less controversial topic than it used to be, thankfully. But it made me wonder, what is the most controversial talk being given at INFORMS this week? Whether it be in terms of social mores, or methods of analysis? And should we have more of them, perhaps?
It’s tempting to avoid controversy; INFORMS material tends to be less controversial than, say, some of the social sciences or humanities. Also, at times researchers wait for more or clearer information before studying certain topics. But controversies aren’t necessarily going to take place on our preferred schedule. Like many of us, I stayed up to watch the surprising election results on Tuesday night. Wednesday morning, I teach a Quantitative Methods class, where we had just finished up our Forecasting module a week ago. Discussing why the polls may not have predicted correctly (and also a better understanding of forecast error) was well within the boundaries of class topics. But I found myself resisting, wanting to wait until some hypothetical time when things would calm down. I finally did discuss it in that class, but gingerly, and I’m admittedly a little nervous even mentioning the election on this blog.
But perhaps we have forgotten that even INFORMS material itself can be controversial. For example, the infamous quote from the movie Network, where mathematical analysis is seen as a tool of control and/or war: “…There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do.” There are plenty of examples of math being controversial in the present day, as well. Take, for example, the work of Dr. Sandvig and others on algorithms being racist (http://www.npr.org/2016/03/14/470427605/can-computers-be-racist-the-human-like-bias-of-algorithms). The controversies are there.
I do appreciate teaching in one of the less controversial academic disciplines. And I don’t claim that we should seek controversy for its own sake. But it’s worth thinking about. Perhaps at some point, a session on controversial applications at INFORMS would be fascinating.