It has been a horrible week. A post on Pieria was the cause of a series of really rather nasty personal attacks both in the comments on the post and on Twitter. It seems that some people didn't like me criticising one piece of sloppy work by an academic econometrician whose other work they admire.
I find this bizarre. One piece of poor work does not invalidate someone's entire output. When I was at the Royal College of Music, I attended a Stravinsky Festival at the South Bank. It went on for weeks and covered Stravinsky's entire instrumental output. By the end of it I never wanted to hear another piece of Stravinsky ever again. But one of the things I learned in the course of this was that great composers are fallible. Igor Stravinsky is a great composer. The Rite of Spring is one of the greatest orchestral pieces ever written. But that doesn't mean that every piece he wrote is great. Far from it. Some of his output is frankly rubbish and should be consigned to the dust of history. And quite a bit of the rest is mediocre. There are a few wonderful pieces, and it is these that make him great - not his extensive output of potboilers, experimental sketches and dead ends.
Now suppose that, rather than sitting through every piece of instrumental music Stravinsky ever wrote, I attended a single performance that happened to be an experimental twelve-tone piece that really needs to be quietly buried. I might write an entire essay about the piece that I heard, explaining in detail exactly what is wrong with it. I might even conclude at the end of the essay that Stravinsky is a rubbish composer. I would be correct within the limits of my knowledge of Stravinsky, but incorrect in relation to Stravinsky's entire output. Would Stravinsky fans tell me that I am ignorant of music (even though I was a music student)? Would they attack my musical understanding? Perhaps - but not if they are responsible critics. Stravinsky is a great composer, but not all of his music is great. A responsible Stravinsky fan would surely say to me, "Frances, this is a poor piece by Stravinsky, but he's written some really wonderful pieces - listen to these" and send me recordings of The Rite of Spring and The Firebird.
So it is with the critics of my post. They could simply have said to me "Frances, this was not one of Milas's better efforts, but some of his other work is excellent" and sent me some links. But that's not what they did. Instead of accepting that my criticisms of his piece might be valid, they attacked my mathematical ability. Instead of informing me about Milas's better work, they accused me of saying things I did not say. They even said that since I had not done a similar piece of work myself, I was in no position to criticise. That's like saying that because I had not written a piece of twelve-tone music myself I was not in a position to criticise Stravinsky's piece. Is the educated listener unable to judge the quality of a piece of music? Clearly not. Nor is the educated reader unable to judge the quality of a piece of mathematical analysis.
Of course, to my critics I am not an "educated" reader. I did not use the right terminology, and therefore - to them - I lack understanding. Not using econometric terminology is no more an indicator of lack of understanding than not using twelve-tone terminology necessarily indicates lack of understanding of the twelve-tone system. But all too easily we mistake linguistic fluency for comprehension.
But worse, my failure to use the right language marked me as an "outsider". My principal critic was perfectly reasonable to the person who translated my post into econometric-speak, even though that person was really only repeating what I had said. Use of the right jargon is a tribal identity, a badge of "belonging": if you use our jargon you demonstrate that you are "one of us" - but if you don't use our jargon you aren't one of us, you are potentially an enemy and if you criticise one of us we will attack. Academics and econometricians are as guilty of tribal behaviour as anyone else, and my critics today demonstrated this in spades. I am neither an academic nor an econometrician, and I criticised one of their number. They went for the jugular.
My criticism of Milas's work was severe, because it was in my view a very poor piece of work: bad statistical analysis by econometricians has led to some very bad policy decisions, with serious consequences for welfare. It may be that I went too far in my criticism, since I was not familiar with his other work. And I accept that the way I presented my criticism could be interpreted as an ad hominem attack, though it was not intended in that way. But the personal attacks on me in the comments were every bit as bad, and in some cases far worse, than my comments about Milas. This was no credit to anybody. Fighting fire with fire achieves nothing. However loyal people are to the person whose work I am criticising, and however much they may disagree with me, vindictive personal attacks are always unjustified.
I made the mistake of admitting in the post that I am not confident about maths - a point that one critic explicitly used as a reason to criticise my mathematical competence. But it has dawned on me that this is ridiculous. I am no less competent in maths than I am in music. I have an MBA with a specialism in financial risk management, for heaven's sake. You don't get that without being a competent mathematician. So never, ever again will I suggest in a post that I am not confident about my mathematical ability. And never, ever again will I accept criticism of my mathematical competence from people with axes to grind.
What I will do, though, is think about how I "do" maths. In this post I have mentioned twelve-tone music, which is the most mathematical form of music. It has had an enduring fascination for composers as diverse as Schoenberg, Webern, Berio, Dallapiccola and even Benjamin Britten. Many composers, including Stravinsky, experimented with twelve-tone music but moved on beyond it, finding their own unique musical voices. And I have in the past written twelve-tone pieces myself, though I don't find it easy - it feels like a foreign language. I understand the system and the terminology, but it isn't how I "do" music. I too have had to find my own musical voice. So it is with maths. I think logically and mathematically, but standard mathematical terminology feels foreign to me. I need to find my own mathematical voice.
UPDATE. The Pieria post has now been taken down at my request, as dealing with a continual stream of adverse comments was becoming a major distraction from other work. This post will remain up though.
The problem of mathematics
A selection of Stravinsky's music:
The Rite of Spring