Counting Trophies



Derbendammerung was a bigger moment for the media than I would have guessed. News wonks knew about him so they gave their take on his broken career. Some were good, most were lazy. One rang my bell.  


There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners. Derbyshire calls this fact “civilizationally consequential."  Really? If you follow Derbyshire’s link, you’ll find that the Fields Medal is awarded for outstanding discoveries in mathematics. It has been given to 10 people in this century and to another dozen or so since the first cohort of post-desegregation students reached the age at which top-level math achievement could be assessed.

That’s an absurdly small sample on which to base any claim about the mathematical ability of a minority population. (If every Fields Medal were awarded to an American, on a proportional basis you’d expect one black recipient in this century rather than zero.) The list of Fields Medal winners tells you nothing about blacks. But it tells you a lot about Derbyshire.


True. That is one of Derb’s many questionable "measures" of the success of races of people. Hell, all of those words should have scare quotes, but I don’t do cocaine so my arms get tired.

No black people in your lifetime won a Fields Medal? To most of us that would be as much a measurement as no citizens of Okinawa have ever won Miss Vermont. When were those chances generated in the cosmic lottery? By whom? The medal is for science. The medal is not science.  

Which brings me to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Astrophysicist, educator, Great American. Planet-killer.*


Walk away. Leave the helmet. No one gets hurt. 


Tyson, once, in the course of making several great points, said a really dumb thing. Right here (8:30):



Nobel prizes won by Jews vs. Nobel prizes won by Muslims. Ow. What. Jewish people are disproportionate  Nobel winners for so many reasons that have nothing to do with Islamic mysticism. Some of them great. Like a tenacious culture of education and ambition fostered across the Middle East and Europe and now America. Some of them awful. Like the relative odds of surviving as a Jewish person of middle-intelligence and quiet, average temperament in the centuries between Masada and Shoa. Safe people get to be more average. This might say something about how to um, impact groups so that they achieve high per-survivor yields of Nobel Prizes, but is probably not what Tyson wants to mean.

Also, as a result of these and a hundred other trends, there were a lot of Jewish people in Western Europe and California when they happened to be giving out Nobels. I don’t think you could say in 1205 that they had a cultural plan to be there and do a lot of math, or that their Muslim governors had a cultural plan to not. 

And what does any of this have to do with whether Baghdad deserved or did not deserve to be burned to the ground by middle Asians in the 12th century, just after Tyson’s thesis event? Would there even be a Nobel Prize if one man had not died in Mongolia forty years later? And what does that have to do with Egyptians under British rule not winning a Scandinavian academic award, another iteration of which was saved for the enlightened and world-improving Henry Kissinger? 

Objectively, among all people, we are the greatest advocates for peace. 

Awards are not given by gods. They are given by people in places. They are given expecting something back. They are given to build particular communities. I don’t doubt that the Fields and Nobel committees evaluate the real science. But to achieve visibility to them in the first place, it is helpful to be born on land that was Mongol-free in 1305 or redcoat-free in 1805, or conversely, a place which was redcoat-full in 1805, but is not so now. I’d claim Abu Al-Ghazali and liberal Jewish theology have very little to tell us about those things. That evaluating these broad ideas in some kind of cosmic horse race by counting Swedeish trophies is dumb enough to give me whiplash in an otherwise cool lecture. 


Is this recent? The shiny psudeomeasurements? Cute facts about obvious things that Reveal Big Trends? The huckster tricks employed by Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks? Maybe Tyson saw too many people rewarded for comparing sumo wrestlers to bagels.

Too bad. Most of the time you can’t tell something about, say, the "essential character" of "Indonesians" by what matchbooks they buy or what sports they excel at. Sports are largely geography and matchbooks are accidents of commerce. You could count them. But what are you counting? 

Tyson and Derbyshire share acres of mental real estate (however much Derb twists his vision to never find that out). The amateur and the professional are both men of science, skepticism, curiosity, and a concern with the future of those traits in our people. Each in his own way wants to be rigorous. Each wants to state only things he can know, and demonstrate. 

Each still, in weak or rambling moments, reaches for the god prize. The shiny thing given by someone else which will settle all arguments. 

If they, especially Tyson, can’t always resist this, what hope is there for the rest of us? Can we ever stop wanting to know for sure? To be approved of? To ask the cosmic chicken guts to pass judgment?

Probaby only a little. 



 *Doesn’t this underline how broken Derbyshire’s dogmas are? Imagine having his ability to dialogue with Tyson about physics and math. What a gift. Now crush that ability because you say and believe, "IWSBs are something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous." Imagine you’re a 15 minute train ride from generational geniuses who could be your friend, but you see them, at best, as trophies. Midas had it better.