14 December 2007

Why mathematics doesn't need a Mitchell Report

Yesterday, the Mitchell Report, on steroid usage in baseball, was released. A large number of players were named as users or potential users.

The media coverage of this has routinely mentioned that amphetamines seem to be more common in baseball than steroids; one source I ran into said it's believed that half of baseball players use amphetamines regularly.

Now, when I think of amphetamines, I think of Paul Erdos, and the following story: Ron Graham bet Erdos that he couldn't quit amphetamines for a month, cold turkey. Erdos did. Graham paid up. Erdos said "you've set mathematics back a month".

As far as I know, we mathematicians don't have a drug problem. (Unless you count coffee. I'll freely admit I have a coffee problem.) But I don't think that anybody would say that Erdos should be stripped of any award he won because he was using drugs. The difference is that in sports, the players are competing against each other; thus a level playing field is essential. But in mathematics, we like to believe that we are not competing against each other but cooperating to discover truth; thus we may gladly accept all the chemical help we can get.


dnordquist said...

You're right that athletes have one reason not to use performance-enhancing drugs that mathematicians don't: athletes compete and are bound ethically against cheating. Since there are no rules of competition in mathematics, it's not really cheating. You gloss over one important point: every other conceivable reason not to use performance-enhancing drugs (health risks, legal issues) still applies.

Bill Mill said...

I was thinking about this the other day; I may write a post titled "I code better on stimulants". I think it's important to remember when you indulge that coffee habit (which I share) that you're doing the same thing we lock literally millions of people in jail for doing.

aviet_error said...

the real reason athletes shouldn't be allowed to use performance enhancing drugs is that what they are doing does not matter in any way. when a game reaches completion everyone just goes home, having learned and advanced nothing. there is no meaningful benefit to performance enhancing drugs. it only alters the grounds of the competition.

mathemeticians, on the other hand, are solving problems. when a problem reaches completion, we learn something and advance understanding. because the outcome of the performance is useful, it makes reasonable sense to me that using performance enhancing drugs is acceptable.

John Armstrong said...

Just a hypothetical, taking no position one way or the other:

It's known that dextromethorphan (DXM) use stimulates abstract, and particularly self-referential, thoughts. I personally know of at least one person who felt significantly more comfortable with Gödel's theorems after coming down from one such experience. Thus DXM not only is a general enhancer like a stimulant, but may be specifically useful to improve certain kinds of mathematical performance. Would you advocate its use, rather than merely not condemning it as you do in your post?

Anonymous said...

Erdos should not be stripped of any awards because one is not banned from doing math while high on drugs. As dnordquist noticed, athletes, unlike mathematicians, are prohibited from using drugs.

Although what John Armstrong says about DXM indeed raises interesting ethical questions. I recall reading a story in the Rolling Stone a few years ago about a freshman at one of the Ivy League schools who died due to his or her abuse of antidepressants, which are commonly used in binge study sessions.

ars said...

I was thinking about something similar recently -- the situation in law schools. From what I gather, the competition to graduate in the top 10%-25% of the class is pretty intense because you're guaranteed to be snatched up by big law firms. This leads to the use of attention-focusing, sleep inhibiting drugs. I don't know exactly how widespread it is, but it's not uncommon I think. I wonder if you should have your JD stripped if you were found to have taken such drugs.

George Jempty said...

i once tied for the "class c" prize at a chess tourney in NYC when I was a teenager while tripping on acid and the tournament director didn't want to pay me my prize money :(

Michael said...

I am not happy about the steroid use in baseball; i'd love to see football and hockey players get tested.

BUT having said that I was wrestler and fairly good. I knew of steroids but the only people I knew messing with them were body builders. This was the late 50's and 60's and in fact lifting weights was just getting accepted. Anyway, I can easily understand taking steroids; most jocks don't know why they can do what they and many work very hard training and like many mathematicians and physicists have a short productive life span. So yes I would have been very tempted. Wrestlers make no money so add in the huge amounts of money it is easy to understand the pressure.

Considering how good Ruth was I wonder why no one has investigated alcohol's ability to enhance an athletic performance.

Coke and meth and coffee are not the same, or am I the only one who has known meth and heroin addicts ? and its not just that they are illegal.

My experience is that many students cheat; and reading the newspapers scientists also cheat.

Paul Clapham said...

Yes, we like to believe we aren't competing with one another. But you're being just a little bit idealistic. There's more mathematicians out there than there are tenured positions, so yeah, you're competing with other mathematicians.

Reginald said...

@Bill Mill: with this difference, coffee is a legal drug.

Bill Mill said...

@michael: I don't intend to equate specific drugs; I know that coffee != heroin != cocaine. What I do intend to say is that drugs are not an unalloyed evil, and that our (US) society does a terrible job dealing with this fact in a rational manner.

@reginald: that was part of my point?

Anonymous said...

Erdos used amphetamines mostly later in his life. He had been suffering from depression and was prescribed amphetamines. No doubt, amphetamines helped extend his mathematical productivity.

If used to study for an exam or engage in research stimulants can definitely give that average mathematician a competitive edge. In this sense they may be unfair (esp. if taken without a prescription). For instance, say two people are taking a math test and wait until the last minute to study. The person taking stimulants is at a clear advantage since the drug will keep this person more focused and awake longer.

As with any drug the appeal may be the high and the change of perspective. Amphetamines may lead to new insights on a problem, thrm., proof etc. In this respect I think using drugs is fair since there is no competitive purpose. Erdos probably used amphetamines for this reason. He often collaborated with other mathematicians and was not out to compete for prizes and awards. He was simply concerned with discovering new math and pushing the field's boundaries.

Of course, there is always a risk of dependency. Erdos once tried to stop taking amphetamines for a month and said, "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper." Obviously he needed the drug to produce mathematics. For most people, I think abusing amphetamines will lead to dependency and eventually be detrimental to one’s productivity.