Math courses should come with a mandatory ethics section

I believe that math and computer sciences courses should come with a mandatory ethics section. Math and computers have an enormous influence over life and that influence cannot be all good.

An ethics section of such a course would discuss the possible influences that math can have over the real world and to remind students to be responsible for their knowledge.

If a course curriculum doesn’t formally have such a section, then instructors should at least give a fifteen minute speech at the end of the course with a balanced discussion of the ethics of mathematics.

Topics of an ethics section would include: AI, machine learning, cryptography, modeling and statistics, and other topics that have immediate influence on the real world. Far from being all good, many of these developments have had a negative impact as well as a positive one.

Now that I think back to my teaching days, I am flabbergasted that such a section was not mandatory or that no one gave it any thought. I think that is partially because math is like a little delightful puzzle and everyone just gets caught up in it without thinking of the greater consequences.

The world is at some kind of breaking point, with environmental disasters occurring regularly, the climate going haywire, and very greedy people producing as much as they can for insane profit without regard to the consequences. Unfortunately, math plays a big part in that, and while math and computer science researchers happily solve little puzzles, the are also contributing to serious problems as well.

Thus, we need serious ethics training in technical fields such as math as one of many mechanisms to become more aware as a society of what we are doing to our planet.

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  • Varesio says:

    Jason, I agree. When I tried to explain to my son that it is dangerous to separate scientific teaching from learning critical thinking and ethics, he replied that this is the business of philosophers, not scientists. This is where the problem arises: it is the great separation, the Cartesian bifurcation between rex cogitans and rex extensa: that is a nature external to the man that must be known and exploited to the extreme..

    • Jason Polak says:

      Good point, Varesio. It is a mistake to think that professions define the domain of responsibility. All changes to the world should be examined for their effects, including scientific inquiry.

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