Monday, March 28, 2005

Getting an Edge

Using performance-enhancing drugs has become a major issue in national and international sports, most recently in Major League Baseball in America where many major players have admitted (or refused to deny) using steroids to increase their power.

What about in academics? Supposedly some mathematicians have used amphetamines to get an edge or keep up with younger mathematicians. If we discover that a mathematician used such a performance-enhancing drug to prove a theorem would we take away his credit for that result? No, we wouldn't.

I don't have any direct evidence that any mathematicians or computer scientists actually use any performance-enhancing drugs, other than caffeine of course. Even so I doubt many of us would agree to random drug testing of academics. But then why should professional athletes be held to a different standard than professional academics?


  1. Not everyone is making the claim that professional athletes should be tested. If we allowed for steriods to be used legally, however, I'm sure that they would be administered more safely and drugs companies could specialize them for athletic use and work around the side effects.

    Personally, I'm not so concerned about performancing enhancing drugs (of any nature) today; but I worry about the limit as technology improves. If you could spend $100,000 (in 2005 dollars) in 2050 and get a super brain and a super body, you could get any job you want. What would this mean for the people who haven't made $100,000 yet? It would become less of a class warfare than it would be a species warfare.

    Prohibition is an option, but it's not the only thing we should consider. (For example, perhaps an enhancement tax would be in order; or we could reward more the athletes who don't use steriods.)

  2. Macneil has the right idea; mathematics has not been commodified, we yet have no way of realizing proofs of theorems automatically, much less doing the rest of mathematics. In a sense, mathematics creates available information.

    Organized sports, on the other hand, don't; in fact, we rely on rules to maintain an appealing homogeneity and level playing field, as the adversary is not nature or ignorance, but other humans. The drug restriction is analogous to engineering restrictions in auto-racing, whereby certain designs of car are forbidden for being too efficient. The central issue isn't drugs per se (although we do have long-term player health to keep in mind), but rather the implicit change in the structure of competition.

    N.b. that there won't be a drugs crackdown in "sports" such as mountain climbing and whitewater kayaking, partly because in these cases the absolute performance of the participants is more important. It is the (hopefully) same in academia. In fact, if there ever is a drugs crackdown in academia, I will take it as evidence that we are done discovering new things & are happy to go through the motions of research as a means of edifying a twilight society. (Here would be a good place for a tirade against patents, but I don't have it in me.)

  3. I read somewhere that Erdos was addicted to
    amphetamines, and that he said that "without
    them, he could see only a blank paper where
    otherwise would be lots of theorems." Sincerely,
    this decreased my admiration for him: I would
    prefer to be a bad mathematician than paying
    this price. Specially because I don't care too much
    for the theorems themselves, I care for the feeling of
    being able to learn and prove them -- without
    any external help.

    Moreover, if anyone is allowed to use drugs,
    it is the same as requiring *everyone* to use them
    to achieve the same performance, which is what is
    happening in the professional sports nowadays.
    Clearly this is a bigger problem in sports than in
    academia, where there are thousands of other
    factors determining the performance of a
    professional. But if in the future you can buy an
    "Einstein" brain, then why bother with education

  4. This comparison of sports and academics misses the point. We might be in some competition for conference acceptance and academic jobs but that is not the main point of research.

    The question is whether this produces something of lasting value. Sports is ephemeral. A better comparison would be great poetry/literature produced under the influence of alcohol or drugs. An important theorem proved under the influence is still a theorem that can have beauty and value without connection to its origin.

  5. The original question was: But then why should professional athletes be held to a different standard than professional academics?

    The reason is that athletes play games, and those games have implicit (or, of necessity, increasingly explicit) guidelines about fair play. Use of performance enhancing drugs violates fair play.

    The analog of "fair play" in academic work is that one be academically honest (e.g., no plagiarism, no faking data). Being drunk, stoned, tweaking or enjoying too many espressos in one morning are not violations of academic honesty.

    The recent, excellent biography "Alfred Tarski : Life and Logic" (Anita Burdman Feferman, Solomon Feferman) made it clear that he used amphetamine-like stimulants his whole career. Of course, anyone who smokes tobacco or drinks caffeine, which Tarski also did almost constantly, also uses stimulants. Tarski was also a tireless womanizer, jealous of the success of others and a shameless self promoter. But none of these faults or vices (assuming we agree that they are such) have anything to do with the fact that Tarski was scrupulous about academic honesty. And that honesty coupled with his genius made him the second greatest logician of the last century (and as he put it, the greatest sane one).

  6. An anonymous comment made the observation that academics is more comparable to poetry then to sports. I would like to go the other way - if anything, sports is more comparable to chess tournaments than to academics. Indeed, if in the future there will be "alpha-beta search" brain-enhancing modules, I would surely expect them to be banned in chess tournamets, though not expect them to be banned in the academia.

  7. I am a theoretical computer scientist who has used various illegal mind altering drugs and simulants and in my opinion they will hinder you more than they will help you in the long run. To me this is one of the great things about mathematical disciplines, talent, hard work and interest are the only things that really matter. Alghough you ability to consistently get a good nights sleep probably has an effect too, much more than any drug I would think.

  8. Don't know if this proves anything, but Erdos accepted and won a wager with Ron Graham that he (Erdos) could go cold turkey for 30 days without amphetamines. Erdos: "You've showed me I'm not an addict. But I didn't get any work done. I'd get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I'd have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You've set mathematics back a month."

    Context changes everything. My admiration remains undiminished.

  9. First of all, it is of little interest to me what someone does privately. Science is not about competition, it is about working together, and swallowing your pride. One should not be driven by the cheap, superficial prospects of fame or medals, but motivated by a genuine interest in some subject, whatever it may be. I tend to think eliminating medals, rewards and all that elitist nonsense would serve to eliminate a large portion of the wannabes, thus making science more effective.
    In addition, there is a lot of "hype" (for better lack of a word) surrounding certain individuals to the sickening point of forming a cult of the personality. Clearly, some show signs of mental disorders all the way to shameless arrogance. In the case of, but not limited to, Erdos, both seem to be be more or less true. Anyone taking drugs to "enhance" performance is clearly buying into the elitist nonsense, and probably taking it because some other "great" he's read of took it. Why would someone model their behavior after someone's character flaws? It smacks of low self-worth.

  10. It's very possible that Erdos had a mental disorder himself and the ampehtamines were treating his disorder without him (or then science) knowing... If so, he wouldn't have been "enhancing" he would have been "treating". ADD and Autism come to mind..

    Also, just because amphetamines may help some people, doesn't mean they'll help everyone.. They may "give" some people ideas, but at the same time, they may take away ideas from others and leave them "staring at a blank piece of paper" on them..

  11. Hey.
    I stumbled across this as I was doing research for a paper I am writing entitiled:
    Psychadellic Numbers
    A Study of How Drugs have Influenced the Evolution of Mathematicians.

    My paper deals with mathematicians using performance enhancers, as well as other types of narcotics. I would be interested in finding out about other said "mathematicians using performance enhancers". Where did you get this information from? Was it accurate? I have qualms about the validity. If anyone who know would email me at it would be of great assistance and interest to me. Weblinks would be especially great.
    Keep this kind of stuff up, you guys! It's great!

  12. In the context of Erdos, it's worth remembering that in his time, amphetamines were relatively commonly used legitimate drugs, not street drugs. In WWII, both sides were known to use them to allow soldiers to carry out long missions. Even today the US administers similar drugs to pilots going on very long flight missions (to keep them alert).