Why People Hate Mathematics and Atheists

Jason Green’s response to the readings for Week 1 of the Downes&Kop Critical Literacies course concludes with the question  “how does one think critically without it coming across as a baseline of distrust?”

I actually think that a “baseline of distrust” is appropriate, but that social harmony often demands that the level of distrust not be fully expressed. This phenomenon (of people taking offense at any hesitation to accept their assertions and beliefs uncritically) is presumably related to the importance of trust in building a social network but ironically we appear to have evolved a need to be trusted that exceeds our need to be trust-worthy.

One of the puzzles of life as a mathematician is how proud many people are of their incompetence in the discipline, but perhaps it really is a social advantage – after all the one who can claim to have “never been any good at math” is less likely to bring the threat of unequivocal exposure of error which all of us in the field have to live with (and suffer repeatedly), but which most others would rather, it seems, avoid by various kinds of waffling, ambiguity, and evasion.

Perhaps the same psychology motivates those who accuse the so-called “new atheists” of stridency and belligerence where I only see bluntness (and perhaps admittedly a bit of smugness as well).

In my comment to Jason’s post, I suggest that “perhaps the key in such cases is not to deny the validity of a proposed conclusion, but just to provide enough feedback to allow the proponent to re-consider”.

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One Response to Why People Hate Mathematics and Atheists

  1. alan says:

    With regard to math-hating there’s a discussion on LinkedIn at


    Commenter Syreeta Charles-Cole shares my feeling that it has a lot to do with “the right or wrong nature of the subject” and I added the following:

    I think Syreeta has identified an important point about the right-wrong aspect but that the reason its a problem specific to mathematics needs more elaboration.

    Other subjects all have a share of the right-wrong business, but in those cases it is mostly confined to memorizable facts which most people seem to be more comfortable with. Memorization may be boring, but most people aren’t offended when they get it wrong – perhaps because they can always imagine that with enough effort they’d be able to get it right. Reasoning on the other hand in other subjects seems to be expected to allow for endless dispute and negotiation, and there seems to be a real sense of offense at being found absolutely wrong. In those subjects anyone who has done the memory work can weasel and waffle their way out of any apparent reasoning error, but in mathematics this is not the case. No matter how much we study there is always the possibility of being exposed as just plain wrong, again, and again, and again.

    The problem is exacerbated by teachers who are themselves unsure of their grasp of the subject and (perhaps as a result of their own insecurity) apply an even more rigidly dogmatic approach to the subject than it really warrants. (One of my pet peeves in this regard is the failure to distinguish between actual mathematical facts themselves and the choices of convention and definition in terms of which we express them.)

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