Melanie Phillips loses the plot over maths teaching

As they say in those internet lists of useful ideas for student reports, "this individual has reached rock bottom, and kept on digging". I was reminded of this when reading Melanie Phillips' latest uninformed rant on linking the teaching of mathematics with homosexuality. I would normally not pay any attention to her, but her intrusion into my field in an article in the Daily Mail cannot go unchallenged. 

It is not so long ago that Gordon Brown issued a posthumous apology to gay mathematician, codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing in an article to the Telegraph entitled "I'm proud to say sorry to a real war hero". As Brown put it, Turing was tried for being gay, and then chemically castrated, and eventually killed himself. Turing's immense contribution to the war effort and the development of the theory of computation is elegantly described by Andrew Hodges, himself an innovative and gay mathematical physicist, in his wonderful book, "Alan Turing: the enigma" , and Brown himself pays tribute to Turing's contribution to saving many Atlantic convoys as part of the effort to decode Nazi transmissions to its U-boats. This is precisely the sort of book that our school students should read, both to keep Turing's contribution alive and to remind everyone of the dark history of our laws. 

Phillips' rant is really quite extraordinary. She objects to the notion that "In maths, they will be taught ­statistics through census ­findings about the number of homosexuals in the population." Seems like a perfectly sensible use of mathematics and statistics to me, but to Philips it is "abuse of childhood". Doh! The only abuse of childhood that really comes to mind here is the problem with schools who are happy to base part of their pupils' education on a book that reaches the intellectual heights of combining the suggestion that pi=3 with the directive that gays should be killed. 

Gay issues aside, there is also the issue of communicating to children the universality of mathematics. They should indeed be taught that maths and statistics can be used to pose all kinds of questions, including ones that parents or journalists may be uncomfortable with, and to analyse the answers properly to reach sound conclusions. Teachers should be free to draw on all kinds of examples. They might consider a project analysing the correlation between various sociological data and number of copies of the Daily Mail bought. What is the scale and sign of this correlation? (Careful children - not so obvious as it seems given the possible uses for loo-paper, firelighting, wrapping chips and hamster bedding in shredded form.*) As for Mel's other complaint: "In geography, for example, they will be told to consider why homosexuals move from the countryside to cities." Probably that won't take long. My hypothesis is that there are proportionally fewer Daily Mail readers in the cities. Now children, how would we test this? Please would the Daily Mail send me their circulation data** indexed by postcode so we can put the resources for this project on the internet?

2012 is the centenary of Alan Turing's birth and many of us hope there will be several events remembering him. I will be trying to organise something myself as part of a conference I hope to hold at UCL. I hope maths teachers across the country will do a lesson celebrating his achievements, highlighting his persecution by the same country he helped save from Nazi tyranny, and exploring the motivations for the laws that lead to the persecution. Do make sure Mel is sent all your course materials. 

William Shaw

* - I am grateful to Professor Adelaide Rosella for pointing out that parrot cage-lining should be added to the list of explanatory variables for purchase of this particular paper. The contribution to explanatory power may well be significant in view of the paper's reported exceptional efficacy at camouflaging droppings.

** Anecdotal reports suggest that further statistical correction may be needed here as the Freegan community harvests unsold copies for donation to primary schools for papier mache projects. Having been assigned Reading Tree stage 2 status, the paper is especially popular with younger children, who are reported to argue over who gets Mel's page. It seems children these days cannot even be bothered to paint their dinosaur projects.