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MAA Distinguished Lecture: There Is No Such Thing as Public Opinion

By Jordan Ellenberg

Tuesday, December 10, 2013
6:30-7:30 pm
MAA Carriage House


Abstract: Public opinion polls routinely show that large majorities of Americans support cutting spending and oppose raising taxes. But when lists of government programs are presented one by one, cuts in each program face majority opposition. What's going on here? A typical account is that Americans are irrational thinkers who want a free lunch, with low taxes and big government programs for all. The truth is more complicated. In fact, trying to put together the opinions of a heterogeneous population can lead to paradoxical results, even when the individuals involved are perfectly rational. The math that explains the puzzling polling on the budget—first discovered by Condorcet in the midst of the French Revolution, and culminating in the Nobel-winning work of Kenneth Arrow—also explains the vexingness of the Bush-Gore-Nader clash in Florida in 2000, and the apparently irrational decisions made by slime molds, primitive brainless creatures who biologists believe to be similar in certain respects to electorates.

Biography: Jordan Ellenberg earned his Ph.D. in math from Harvard in 1998 and is now Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of How Not To Be Wrong, a book about the ubiquity of mathematical thinking in everyday life, forthcoming from the Penguin Press in June 2014. His research specialties are number theory and algebraic geometry; he has held an NSF-CAREER award and was one of the plenary speakers at the 2013 AMS/MAA Joint Meetings. His writing on mathematical topics appears regularly in Slate, and he has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Wired. He blogs at Quomodocumque and tweets at @JSEllenberg(Photo credit Mats Rudels.)

News Date: 
Monday, November 18, 2013