FOM: secrecy

Harvey Friedman friedman at
Mon Sep 14 07:10:02 EDT 1998

Shipman 7:51PM 9/13/98 wrote:

>No, I wasn't condemning them!  I said
>   IF the Fields medalists and the committees that selected them knew that the
>*important* results of the medalists had incomplete proofs
>  THEN either
>1) You are correct about the dispensability of foundations
>2) The committees are to be condemned.

I am not entirely convinced by this reasoning. You seem to be implicitly
assuming that the Fields committee is awarded the medal in SOLE recognition
of the mathematical results for which the candidate is credited as having

Other factors that may be properly taken into account are: the influence on
others, the importance of certain definitions, the importance of incomplete
proofs, etcetera. I don't know what their full criteria are, which as far
as I know, may even change from committee to committee. This is a problem
with secret committees.

My minor point has reminded me of a more interesting point I have about

I would like to know how people feel about the awarding of honors by secret
committees. These honors definitely are taken seriously by professionals,
and by administrators. The profession, consisting overwhelmingly of people
who are not going to get such honors, have tacitly supported this kind of

On the negative side, we have long since gotten away from secret trials in
the legal system, both on the civil side and on the criminal side (although
some aspects are still secret to varying degrees, for good reasons - e.g.,
grand jury testimony).

But a lot of the arguments against secret trials apply equally well for
positive things like prizes, academy elections, jobs, etcetera. And the
conventional wisdom is that these are positive things, and so what's the

However, it is difficult to overestimate just how much the development of
subjects is determined by the relevant prizes, academy elections, and jobs.
So this matter of secrecy is much more serious in this context than it
customarily is considered to be.

***I am using the term "secrecy" here in a very braod sense. This includes
the lack of open and carefully considered debate about crucial issues that
surround decisions. In contrast, the FOM is shining in a beacon of

Look at, say, the marginalization of mathematical logic and foundations of
mathematics within mathematics departments. Or even the marginalization of
foundations of mathematics within mathematical logic. Or that philosophers
can't make any sense of logicians' papers, and logicians can't make any
sense of philosophers' papers. Or that mathematicians can't make any sense
of mathematics talks. [Of course, these generalities are only almost true.]

Secrecy - in this broad sense of the word - promotes this. There has been
so much secrecy for so long - in the broad sense of the word - that
academia has broken up into subcommunities with no meaningful interaction
between them for a very long time. And this is considered normal and

We are so early in the e-mail revolution that open discussion with
meaningful give and take about what people are trying to accomplish and
what the strengths and weaknesses are and how efforts may be extended or
improved or replaced or abandoned, is still unusual.

But things are definitely changing because of the electronic revolution,
and I have no doubt that as this change takes hold, the FOM will be at the
cutting edge.

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