The Madness Comes for the Mathematicians

Jonathan Marks:

Andrea Bertozzi is a distinguished mathematician. A professor of mathematics at UCLA and the author or co-author of over 250 publications, Bertozzi has been elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

She is also now something of a lightning rod, not because of her work on higher-order partial differential equations but because of her work on predictive policing. Bertozzi’s research seeks to “determine where crime is likely to occur in the near future.” Whether predictive policing helps to allocate scarce policing resources better, and whether the data about crime on which any mathematical model must rely reflects racial bias, is a matter of controversy. Like other controversies among academics, this one has been joined in peer-reviewed journals. But even this controversy does not explain the trouble with Bertozzi. The trouble with Bertozzi, her critics allege, is that she is a collaborator. With the cops.

Bertozzi was to deliver the 2021 Noether lecture, jointly sponsored by the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) and the American Mathematical Society (AMS) to honor “women who have made fundamental and sustained contributions to the mathematical sciences.” Last June, Bertozzi, AWM and AMS agreed to cancel her lecture in light of protests surrounding George Floyd’s death the previous month. AWM apologized for its insensitivity in announcing Bertozzi’s selection during the protests and recognized that it had “ongoing work to do in order to be an organization that fights for social justice.” AWM’s inbox, it seems, had filled up “with well-crafted commentary on the pain that has been caused by algorithmic policing, the insensitivity of the AWM’s timing, and questioning the choice of speaker.”

A few days after AWM’s apology, mathematicians who objected to Bertozzi wrote a public letter that explainedtheir objections and called for a “boycott” on “collaboration with the police.” Even if predictive policing were free of controversy, even if peer-reviewed research were to demonstrate its effectiveness and freedom from bias, “the structural racism and brutality in US policing” compelled these academics to profess that they “do not believe that mathematicians should be collaborating with police departments in this manner.