FOM: the need for standards

Stephen G Simpson simpson at
Fri Aug 14 13:42:53 EDT 1998

Martin Davis writes:

 > I believe that much political discourse in the US over the past
 > decade has been greatly distorted by the myth that resources
 > (though finite of course) are much scarcer than they actually
 > are. Of course, this is getting pretty far from F.O.M.

I disagree with Martin's point about "the myth of scarce resources".
It's obvious to me that taxation is strangling the productive energy
of the US, not to mention the rest of the world.  However, let's not
go off on a tangent.  This political issue is much broader than
f.o.m., and the FOM list is unlikely to reach general agreement on it.

I think we *can* all agree on two facts: (1) resources are limited;
(2) research programs must be evaluated.  The perhaps more
controversial point which I would like to insist on is: (3) there is a
need for explicit standards in evaluating research programs.  And from
there I'd like to proceed to (4) a public discussion of what are the
appropriate standards or higher intellectual goals of f.o.m., and then
to (5) actual evaluation of current research programs in mathematical
logic and f.o.m., in light of higher intellectual goals.  I know that
this exercise will make many people uncomfortable, but I see it as
absolutely essential for the health and well-being of our subject.

Remember that, even apart from the issue of allocating scarce
resources, there is a need for higher intellectual goals and standards
in order to set the tone for this field, and to guide the efforts of
its less experienced researchers.

 > As long as resources are seen to be not merely finite but so
 > limited that supporting Prof. X means that some equally deserving
 > Prof. Y will be left out, then political power, pull, friends in
 > high places, cliques will inevitably (if regrettably) play a key
 > role.

This is in fact the case.  Harvey's "profound changes" posting of 12
Aug 1998 02:24:08 explained the pattern of how subjects decay when
limited resources are allocated without regard to higher intellectual
goals.  Machover said that Harvey's account is "uncannily accurate" as
a description of what is going on in another field.  Regrettably, this
pattern is rampant in contemporary mathematical logic and f.o.m.  That
was Harvey's point.

However, I don't think it's inevitable.  In my vision, the kinds of
corruption that Martin Davis mentions can be held in check by the
application of higher standards.  The FOM list is a forum where high
standards and intellectual goals can be explicitly and seriously
discussed and advocated.  My passionate hope is that the application
of such standards will have a beneficial effect on our subject, f.o.m.

 > If even 1% of such do something that ultimately turns out to be
 > really useful/important, it will have been an excellent investment.
 > And past experience does not suggest that people have been very
 > good at picking out the good bets ahead of time.

Ah, the old one-percent argument.  "There's no way to evaluate
anything in advance, so let's treat everything as equally valuable."

I seem to remember that the one-percent argument has been discussed
earlier on FOM, as part of the debate on general intellectual
interest.  I'll try to find the exact reference.  In any case, I don't
accept the one-percent argument.  It seems to me that the ultimate
effect of the one-percent argument is to undercut all discussion of
standards and higher intellectual goals, and thereby to elevate the
worthless and demean the truly valuable.

Let's set aside the sterile one-percent argument.  Instead, let's
discuss high intellectual goals and standards for f.o.m. research.

-- Steve

Name: Stephen G. Simpson
Position: Professor of Mathematics
Institution: Penn State University
Research interest: foundations of mathematics
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