Monday, August 15, 2016

Is the examiner being pedantic? Whats really going on here?

The following are two real conversations.  For each one: (1) Is the examiner correct?, and
(2) Where and when do you think this conversation took place?

I give the answers below so you may want to read, stop and think, and then read on.


EXAMINER: What is the definition of a circle?

STUDENT: The set of points equidistant from a given point.

EXAMINER:  Wrong! It is the set of ALL points equidistant from to a given point.


EXAMINER: What is the definition of a circle?

STUDENT:  It is the set of all points equidistant from a given point.

EXAMINER: WRONG! You did not specify that the distance is nonzero.

AN ANSWER I HAVE HEARD FROM SOME NON-MATHEMATICIANS: Since math people are  pedantic and formal to an absurd level the examiner is correct.

REAL ANSWER: Nobody in math would be that pedantic.  In the old USSR, entrance exams for
Moscow State University were rigged so that Jewish students could not pass.  The following is a quote from

Bella Abramovna Subbbotovskaya and the Jewish People's university, By G. Szpiro. Notices of the AMS Vol 54,  . 1326--1330. Article is here

The first story in it happened to Edward Frenkel when he was a 16-year-old taking the oral entrance exam to Moscow State University in 1984, recounted in his book Love and Mathematics, which I reviewed here.

Jews -- or applicants with Jewish-sounding names -- were singled out for special treatment.  On one occasion a candidate was failed for answering the question what is the definition of a circle with
 the set of points equidistant to a give point. The correct answer, the examiner said, was the set of all points equidistant to a given point.  On another occasion an answer to the same question was deemed incorrect because the candidate had failed to stipulate that the distance had to be nonzero.

A different technique used on the entrance exams was to give Jewish students problems that had simple solutions which were extremely difficult to find.  The simplicity of the solution made appeals and complaints difficult.  Some of these problems and their history is in this article:

Killer Problems by Tanya Khovanova and Alexey Radul, The American Mathematical Monthly ,Vol 119, pp. 815--829.Article is here (link is to arxiv version where title is Jewish Problems.)

This is of course apalling; however, I have another issue to raise. Not allowing some part of your population to contribute  is just... idiotic. What I really want to know is why did they do this when it so clearly worked against their interests. How would an intelligent defender of this system defend it? By intelligent I mean someone who knows that Jews are not FILL IN ANY FALSE NEGATIVE BELIEF ABOUT JEWS.  By intelligent I also  mean someone who actually sees the downside. In other words, how would they fill in the following sentence:

The downside is that people who are talented in math and other fields do not get to contribute to our society, but the upside is FILL IN THE BLANK.

For more information on this, but not really an answer to my question, see the Wikipedia entry on anti-semitism in Russia here.


  1. The present post seems unusually rhetorical; in particular, you propose a definition of "intelligent" at least as strenuous as the combined definitions of "circle". I propose that it is unpragmatic to expect people good at mathematics-proper to necessarily be also good at ethics and Soviet socialist accademe.

    Yes, the results are apalling, but hardly surprising.

  2. I'm surprised that for the definition of the circle nobody mentioned that it's in the plane. As for the antisemitism, I don't understand how any intelligent person can fail to come up with hundreds of reasons why it was in their interest to prevent jews from entering universities.

    1. Why don't you give one, for us, less intelligent ones.

    2. After all, why not enrich this blog's decline with a little defense for some antisemites...
      1, Many people envy/hate jews, do whatever harm to jews, and you gain popularity.
      2, The utility function of people in power is not optimizing the welfare of society. (Btw, the difference is a good measurement of how good the system is.)
      3, If you give education/power to your political opponents, there is quite a good chance that they'll use it against you. Here's a very entertaining story, if you have time:

  3. immediate response from my dad, a brilliant Russian Jewish mathematician who beat their stupid system and graduated from MGU (Moscow State University):

    1. Both answers are wrong, because it didn't specify that the points are on a plane - it could be a sphere.

    2. The discussion on how this is appalling and idiotic? The same system is in place in the USA now. The students do not get into the university based on talent. Just a different interpretation of diversity.

  4. What you have to realize is that these people are being rational (or at least maybe they are). They like "real" Russians and they don't like Jews. So they create a system that helps one group versus another. It is a trade off. Does the gain from having the group they like do well balance the cost to society overall?

    For example, let's say I own a company and I make my son the president although I know many other people who would do a better job. I feel good that my family is successful; my son is happy that he is important and fulfilled; my company does not do quite as well as it would have with better leadership. Is it worth it?

    -Clyde Kruskal

  5. How likely is a CS department to hire a conservative as a faculty putting aside the star candidates. I am of the opinion that it is much less likely that a conservative would be hired than a liberal as a faculty and I think many other colleagues share that opinion. They like to hire like-minded people. Do you agree with that opinion? If so, do you find it problematic?

    1. My opinion has both good news and bad news in it.
      The good news- I've never ever heard rumors about this sort of things in Math/CS/Physics hiring. There are so many other factors- publications, grants, teaching, does the research fit into what the dept needs, that I can't imagine this ever even comes up.

      Bad news- Poly Sci and HIstory and perhaps other fields where ones politics and ones work are more intertwined I've heard of cases where it comes up. But see next note.

      Really bad news- I wonder if Academia's liberal inclination makes people who are conservative not even try to get jobs there in the first place. So even if there is no explicit or even implicity bias, it may be that the problem is earlier in the process.

      Hiring like-minded people in CS may be much more an issue for what fields we hire in than ones politics.