Applied mathematics: lessons in the moral sciences

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Bonnie Shulman
Bates College, USA



This paper chronicles the personal journey of an applied mathematician to understand the role of mathematical thinking in shaping and creating our world, motivated by the events of September 11, 2001. From thinking about the connections between mathematics and war, I was led to consider more broadly the relationship between mathematics and ethics. Are there values embedded in mathematical practice that can be applied globally to promote peace and cooperation? Can mathematical models provide a framework for clarifying ethical issues? What is the individual’s responsibility for the uses to which their mathematical research is put? What is the appropriate relationship between science and society? Is mathematics apolitical? Should it be? In this paper I have tried to increase awareness of the myriad ways mathematics and mathematicians are enlisted to further socio-political ends. These efforts to make visible the cultural work done by mathematics can be viewed as a new twist on “applied mathematics.” Writing this paper has clarified for me how many of the lessons I learned in my socialization as a mathematician can be applied in other contexts. In a sense, the most significant applications of mathematics are to be found not in the techno-scientific realm, but rather in the socio-cultural context in which all knowledge production is embedded.

Keywords: science and society, mathematics, ethics, social responsibility

“The men of science must refrain from all politics, and think only of purely scientific matters. If science can’t remain above the current political problems, everything will be ruined.”

—Gosta Mittag-Leffler (to Max Planck, 1919. In Dauben 1980, 270)
“A democracy, like science, functions best only when all actions are open to question, and when we require the highest levels of accountability. If there is a risk that politics is being placed above empirical truth on issues of vital national importance, inaction by scientists may be unethical.”

—Lawrence Krauss (2003)

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