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Surely there’s no ethics in mathematics?

Mathematical work can sometimes seem detached from the real world. The abstractness of statistics and datasets often mask the ways in which they can eventually be used – and misused. But for many of us, the maths that we do is not just for fun; we are producing real results, that will be used by real people, to change real things. As the creators and communicators of analysis, how much responsibility do we have to ensure our work does not cause harm through unintended consequences or misuse? Can we sit back and argue “We just do the numbers; it’s not our problem”?

It was these questions that led to us sitting in a basement on a rainy Friday afternoon with a dozen other statistics Fast Streamers and one academic, discussing ways of identifying and avoiding the potential harms arising from the mathematics we do. We organised this seminar as part of the Fast Stream’s “corporate objective”, a chance to collaborate and engage with each other outside of our day jobs on wider issues related to our work. With us was Maurice Chiodo of the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Project, here to deliver a talk and guide our discussion.

Mathematics is everywhere in our lives, and increasingly so. As the statistics Fast Stream aims to develop future leaders in the Government Statistical Service, its members are likely to eventually become what Maurice called “the last line of defence” – the most senior person around with enough of a mathematical background to fully understand the ethical issues at play.

Maurice likes to use a five-point scale to describe a mathematician’s attitude to ethics. Many are stuck at level zero – “there is no ethics in mathematics”. Above this, there is awareness of ethical issues in your field, speaking out to other more senior mathematicians about the ethical problems you face, and “taking a seat at the table of power”: using your mathematical expertise and seniority to influence the debate and the decision-making process in a more ethical direction. The final level involves speaking out against the unintentional or deliberate misuse of mathematics by others, which parallels how the UK Statistics Authority deals with breaches in the Code of Practice for Statistics.

All in all, it was an interesting and thoughtful afternoon. For those who want to know more about what we got up to, the first part of the seminar will soon be available online at the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Project website, along with other talks Maurice has given on the subject.


Kim Ward and Aimee North
Kim and Aimee are members of the statistics Fast Stream. Kim currently works at the Office for National Statistics on the design of the 2021 Census, and Aimee currently works for the Department for Work and Pensions on transformation of the Family Resources Survey using administrative data linking.