Identity politics and the principle of proportionality

In the old days the idea was that if A annoyed B, they sorted it out among themselves. Now, it is increasingly likely that B will accuse A of being a homophobe or a racist or some other kind of oppressor. Yesterday a woman I’d met only sixty seconds earlier accused me of talking like a man, adding that at her age, she didn’t have to put up with that any more. It hurt.

I may have been guilty as charged, but still, I think her response was¬†inappropriate. The issue is what lawyers call the principle of proportionality. When B brings identity groups into the discussion, a tussle of one against another becomes a battle of millions against millions. In cases of genuine oppression, the big battle may be needed, but most of the time, day to day, that scale of response is disproportionate. It’s like sentencing Jean Valjean to five years for stealing a loaf of bread. It’s like pulling out a gun to settle a fistfight.

[7 February 2019]

How mathematicians think

You’d think knowing mathematics would help me understand things, but there’s an article in this week’s Economist for which it was just the reverse.

It seems that women tend to give birth in the wee hours of the morning, for reasons of natural selection. The article describes two groups of women studied and then says that “the average time of birth” was 6.34am for one group and 4.18am for the other.

The average time of birth??!!  To a mathematician this is patently a meaningless notion. How can you talk about the average time of something when the time variable is periodic?

After some thought, you realize that they must be measuring time by a 24-hour clock starting at midnight, and then, well, maybe it’s arbitrary, but at least the average is well defined. After a little more thought you realize that to anyone without mathematical training, this would be perfectly obvious.

[27 April 2017]