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November 26, 2002
Ethnic mathematics?

Last Wednesday Giants & Dwarfs, who describe themselves as "A Blog on Academia and "Culture" (thanks for the email introducing yourselves gentlemen), had this tantalising report, tantalising because the link embedded in it went to something entirely different:

THE NEXT STEP into madness. The University of Hawaii at Hilo has been awarded a $2.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation, which will be used in part to teach "ethnomathematics" (everyone knows 1+1 doesn't equal 2 if you're of Hawaiian-American extraction).

Anyone know anything about this? It may not be as mad as G&D make it sound, but it does indeed sound decidedly unmathematical. I have never forgotten being told by the Professor of Maths at Essex University several decades ago that mathematics is the study of what everyone is compelled to agree about, regardless of race, colour or creed. And it's surely true that maths is that, even if that definition might be said to include some other things besides. Maths is a huge and expanding clutch of statements of the form "if this is true and this is true then it must follow that this also is true". If you're a Martian, never mind a Hawaiian, you may not get this or that bit of maths, but if the mathematicians have done their stuff right, you can't deny it. It says something very revealing about maths that when humans are trying to strike up relationships with aliens, by including messages in those rockets they fire off into the wild black yonder, they always include mathematical messages.

If all that "ethnomathematics" says is that the language in which the universally true statements of mathematics are expressed may be somewhat culture bound, then fine. But I suspect it of saying something more, something untrue. Comments are always welcome (and thanks very much for all the comments on postings here so far) but on this matter especially so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:53 AM
Category: Maths

Hi Brian,

Thanks for spotting that! No one else noticed...
The correct link (now restored) is:


Comment by: Giant on November 26, 2002 03:07 PM

Thanks Giants. I followed the above link, and as I hoped (I originally put suspected here - but I suspected something worse), it's not that bad. The claim to universality of maths is not being challenged in any way by this scheme. They're merely trying to sell maths in all its abstract universality in a Hawaiian-friendly way, by showing how it measures and generally illuminates matters of Hawaiian interest. That may be no better than the previous "Hawaiian-hostile" way, although I wish them all the luck in the world. It may fail by coming over as too demeaning and patronising, for example. But the point here is: the core content of maths itself is not being presented as being in any way ethnically variable.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on November 26, 2002 04:07 PM

These things start out with Lila having three pineapples and giving one to her friend. Real math in a Hawaiian context. Then the students do just as poorly on math tests as they did when Lila had three snowballs. Educators decide that math itself is snow-centric, and start replacing math with anthropology. Lila will intuit mathematics by eating pineapple. When you hear the phrase "ethnomathematics," reach for your eraser.

Comment by: Joanne Jacobs on December 2, 2002 01:52 AM

I know that some societies developed strange and difficult systems of counting and arithmetic, in part to keep track of geneology. My guess is that this is more sociological than "all math is equal."

The grant is quite outrageous, and I can think of much better things for the NSF to be doing than granting for sociological research. The NSF exists to provide a base of pure science which the U.S. economy needs to function. It's done a remarkably good job of this with a relatively small budget. Why, then, should it be devoting its time and money to science education, sociology, and applied research?

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on December 2, 2002 05:15 AM
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