Tuesday, July 18, 2017

On the Entropy of Stupidity

This morning ZDNet published an informative article by Steve Ranger entitled "Encryption: In the battle between maths and politics there is only one winner." This is a piece that offers an impressive amount of information concerned with the technology of encryption; but, sadly, it is one of those pieces that embodies Anna Russell's description of having been written by a "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts." The problem is that, where politicians are concerned, expertise is rarely, if ever, the deciding factor.

The result is that Ranger got his headline wrong, simply because he does not appreciate what politics can do. Perhaps because he is based in the United Kingdom, he may not have heard of the powers of our country's state legislators. Ultimately, they have turned out to be even less enlightened than those Papal Inquisitors who defied Galileo. Having gone to high school in a suburb of Philadelphia, I could easily see the absurdity of the Scopes Monkey Trial; but long after that trial had become distant history, there was at least one state legislature that passed a law declaring pi to be equal to 22/7; and I seem to recall another that declared it equal to 3!

Because those who have devoted themselves to the value of mathematics and science as tools see truth as an objective concept, they tend to disregard the relevance of social factors. Thus, while social theorists have no trouble seeing reality as a social construct, mathematicians find such a proposition to be thoroughly absurd. Ironically, those of us who look beyond the objective can persist in believing that reality can be a social construct with the same certainty that Galileo persisted in believing that the earth moved!

None of this should trouble mathematicians to any great degree, because, so the most part, the social world does not care what they do. As long as calculations that deal with mortgages and taxes (for example) work out reliably, there is no reason to worry about what a theorem of abstract algebra does or does not tell us. Encryption, on the other hand, is very much a product of the objective truths of abstract algebra; and it is very unlikely that the sorts of politicians who like to monkey around with the value of pi are likely to get very far in a book like Cryptography for Dummies. (One wonders how far they would get with the Hacking for Dummies volume!)

So, yes, in Ranger's "battle," there is, indeed, only one winner. However, that winner is "political reality," rather than "objective reality." The more serious question is not who the winner is but how we, as a society, can live with the power of politics to trump objectivity, even when serious issues, such as the many uses of digital technology, are involved.

No comments: