Serge Lang: Rats in a Box

A colleague of mine sent me a very interesting document: Serge Lang’s article/memoir “Rats in a Box,” written in 1970 and explaining his views on the Vietnam War and his decision to leave Columbia in the aftermath of the unrest of 1968. The ambivalent and introspective tone of this early work is quite striking, especially if you’re used to Lang’s later, more strident “files” on the mathematical inadequacy of Samuel Huntington, the cause of AIDS, or the proper attribution of conjectures about modularity of elliptic curves.

But what each one of us individually does, I don’t know. If I have to worry about writing papers like this one, getting information, get articles xeroxed, read the press thoroughly, keep up with proceedings in the Senate, read what Admiral Rickover has to say, send out letters, fight against effort reports, get involved in affairs at my own university, find out what projects are there, what’s going astray, I can’t do mathematics. I can’t do what I like to do and what I’m really best qualified to do, because of lack of time and lack of energy — and I have more than most. But all this involvement requires a lot of concentration, and if I have to concentrate on this type of things, I can’t concentrate on mathematical theorems and on educating students. It’s a genuine choice — I cannot do both.

3 thoughts on “Serge Lang: Rats in a Box

  1. John Cowan says:

    It’s a tough problem, one going back to the Athenians, whose conservatives used to ask, “How can one be a good shoemaker, say, and also have the time to be a good member of the polis? Wouldn’t it be better to leave politics to us, who were trained from it from birth?” In a curious inversion from modern times, it was the plain people, the democrats, of Athens who were the imperialists — they wanted an empire to do the shoemaking and other grunt work so that the whole city could focus on politics alone. The conservatives wanted to stick to their own estates and keep the city oligarchical.

    The biggest problem with Huntington’s correlation between aspiration and satisfaction that Lang cites in the Time magazine article isn’t actually the inevitable shakiness of the underlying numbers, but the bald-faced absurdity of the statistics. A correlation coefficient of 0.50 is considered pretty good in the social sciences — and yet it means that a mere 25% of the variance in the effect is explained by the cause. In my not-so-humble opinion, any alleged cause that can’t explain at least half the effect (for a correlation coefficient of better than 0.70) isn’t worth discussing at all. You can throw out almost all social-science numbers on that basis alone.

  2. James says:

    I’m not a particular fan of the use of statistical analysis in the social sciences. Yet what is wrong with analysis which focuses on causes explaining less than 50% of the variance in the outcome being observed?

    If you assume that, in the social world, most phenomena of interest are the product of multiple causes, it may be that no one factor will ever approach this standard. Does this mean that social science isn’t worth studying? That social science should be studied exclusively without statistics?

  3. Scott Carnahan says:

    The Time article didn’t mention the events that led to Serge’s notorious “Huntington Test”, but they may have happened after the article was written. It seems that Huntington not only used bogus metrics for his fake quantitative analysis, but he fabricated history to back up his claim that South Africa under Apartheid fit his definition of a satisfied society.

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