Edward Frenkel’s “love” reaches Holland


  • In October 2014 I explained that Edward Frenkel abused “love” with his book “Math & Love“. As a mathematician he has no training in the empirical science of mathematics education, and what he states about mathematics education is often delusional. The situation is rather typical of the arrogance that is so common among mathematicians. The attitude is “the best way to teach and learn mathematics is to do mathematics”, but this confuses the context of mathematics research with the context of education. See here for a recent comment on the USA Common Core for mathematics.
  • In November 2015, Dutch NRC Handelsblad science journalist Margriet van der Heijden discussed the book, labeled him a “glamour-nerd” and expressed doubts about his book as a “cocktail of superficial superlatives, incomprehensible math and touching memories of his youth”. Unfortunately, Van der Heijden did not explicitly mention the gap between mathematics research and education in mathematics.
  • In April 2016, Dutch NRC Handelsblad USA correspondent Diederik van Hoogstraten recycled the story, flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco and drank wine with Frenkel, resulting in this interview. The catchy title of the interview is “Math anxiety ? Don’t be afraid anymore !Apparently professor Frenkel has found the medicine that we have all been waiting for. The label “rockstar-mathematician” is used (in quotes), and while there is proper reference to the criticism by Margriet van der Heijden, Frenkel gets the last word to state the good intentions of his book.

“It has to go wrong only once. You must solve a problem in arithmetic in front of the class. You can’t do it. You are scolded, because we are focused on the result and the result was wrong. You feel dumb. A nightmare. (…) Then you are afraid for the rest of your life. Afraid to make an error and be “dumb”. This is a shame, for it is a wonderful subject. In this way we deny millions of people this knowledge, wisdom and beauty. (…) I want to find a way to the heart of all those people with youth trauma’s. It is okay, I say, you don’t have to be afraid.” (Edward Frenkel, NRC 2016-04-23, my translation)

It may well be that there are still many math teachers who abuse their students, but we must wonder whether Frenkel bases his view upon statistics or folklore. Normal teachers tend to ask up front only those students who are likely to get the result (e.g. have shown this already on paper). The normal discussion is on method and not merely on result. Thus Frenkel’s view on “math anxiety” is rather folklore than a result of research in current mathematics education. Subsequently, people with math anxiety will not read and be cured by a book that has so much mathematics, however much “love” you will put in the title. Both diagnosis and treatment are delusional.

Dutch is a language sink. Why was it considered useful to translate this delusional book from English into Dutch ? Would there really be readers who would grasp Frenkel’s math but not be able to read English ? Translators from English into Dutch have an easy job, and publishers can piggy-back upon international bestsellers. It is more difficult to translate from Dutch into English, and market this in the English reading world, but it would be more relevant to open up Holland to the world. Why did Van Hoogstraten want to interview Frenkel ? Perhaps the Dutch publisher of the Dutch translation sent him a copy of the book with Frenkel’s telephone number ? Alongside money laundering there is also delusional book laundering (that sells for cash too).

This is not without cost.

  • NRC Handelsblad has misinformed its readership twice now. Readers who have the idea that mathematics is inaccessible actually have seen this idea confirmed.
  • There is nothing in their reports on Frenkel that explicitly shows that mathematics is accessible to more people than commonly thought, albeit that this can be found elsewhere and not with Frenkel.
  • NRC Handelsblad has never reported on my books since 2009 on mathematics education. The newspaper likely finds mathematics sexy and mathematics education both boring and no science.

Holland is not an open minded country. Holland is a country where books are sold that have been translated into Dutch.

Edward Frenkel in 2010 (Source: wikimedia commons)

Edward Frenkel in 2010 (wikimedia commons)


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