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The Times finally notes the passing of Lang, the greatest gadfly

Belated but well phrased salute to distinguished Yale mathematician’s idealism, insistence on attention, meticulous documentation

Letters round out the picture of uniquely passionate seeker of accuracy in math and public discourse

We too found him alarming in his reformist rage but always salutary

Serge Lang finally (after more than two weeks) receives some of the respect he deserves from the New York Times with a delayed obituary today (Sept 25, 2005), which is surprisingly positive.

OBITUARY

Serge Lang, 78, a Gadfly and Mathematical Theorist, Dies

By Kenneth Change and Warren Leary

Serge Lang, a leading mathematical theorist who became better known for his academic jousts with nonmathematicians on social and political issues than for his work in geometry and the properties of numbers, died Sept. 12 in Berkeley, Calif. He was 78.

The Yale University mathematics department, where Dr. Lang taught for more than 30 years before retiring this year, announced the death but gave no cause.

Throughout his life, Dr. Lang railed against inaccuracy and imprecision and felt that the scientific establishment unfairly suppressed dissident ideas.

Beginning around 1977, he adopted a more activist approach, writing letters and articles – sometimes even buying newspaper advertisements – to challenge research that he considered unscrupulous or sloppy. He would pull together his writings and add news articles, Congressional testimony and other documents into what he called files and mail the compiled documents to scientists, journalists and government officials.

“He just thought by presenting everyone all of the primary documents, everyone else would be able to see what he saw,” said Kenneth A. Ribet, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. “It was a very effective tool.”

Edward G. Dunne of the American Mathematical Society said: “Lang was always meticulous in his documentation. These things multiplied. People would be receiving 25-, 35-, 100-page documents from Lang.”

One focus of Dr. Lang’s ire was the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. Dr. Lang mounted a one-man campaign against Dr. Huntington’s nomination to the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, dismissing Dr. Huntington’s use of mathematical equations to relate factors like economic development and political instability as “pseudoscience” and “nonsense” – “a type of language which gives the illusion of science without any of its substance.”

Dr. Lang also challenged Dr. Huntington’s description of apartheid in South Africa in the 1960’s as a “satisfied society.”

Dr. Huntington, who said the math was not meant to be rigorous but rather a “shorthand” of his arguments, twice failed to win election to the academy.

Controversially, beginning in the mid-1990’s, Dr. Lang sided with skeptics who doubted that AIDS was caused by human immunodeficiency virus, arguing that the scientific evidence connecting them was weak and faulty. He criticized the denial of research money to Peter Duesberg, a skeptic on the H.I.V.-AIDS link.

He was never convinced otherwise. A week before his death, he mailed out his latest file, a dozen pages of letters and e-mail messages about two papers he had written about the AIDS debate that had been rejected by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Lang also threw in a whimsical document, “The Three Laws of Sociodynamics,” which states, among other things, that “the power structure does what they want, when they want; then they try to find reasons to justify it.”

Dr. Lang started his career as one of the nation’s leading thinkers in fundamental mathematics, using aspects of geometry to study the properties of numbers, and evolved into a gifted but challenging teacher.

Decades of students discovered that if they did not pay attention in class, Dr. Lang would throw chalk. “He would rant and rave in front of his students,” Dr. Ribet said. “He would say, ‘Our two aims are truth and clarity, and to achieve these I will shout in class.’ ”

He was a prolific author, having written more than 40 mathematics textbooks and research monographs and well over 100 research articles.

Born in Paris in 1927, Serge Lang moved to California with his family when he was a teenager.

He graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1946 and received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton in 1951. He taught at the University of Chicago before becoming a professor at Columbia in 1955.

Dr. Lang resigned his Columbia professorship in 1971 because of the university’s handling of antiwar protesters.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1985 and was a member of the American Mathematical Society, but forcefully challenged both bodies at times over the election of new members and other issues.

He resigned from the mathematical society in 1996, because the society’s journal had refused to publish an article he wrote about AIDS.

“He described himself as a congenital troublemaker,” said Paul Vojta of the University of California, Berkeley, who had been a postdoctoral student at Yale under Dr. Lang.

Dr. Lang’s research focused on number theory and algebraic geometry. He won the Frank Nelson Cole Prize in 1960 from the American Mathematical Society for his insights on algebra.

Well worded but too brief

Certainly, this biography shortchanges him on many points, and perhaps suggests the usual reflexive disrespect for his anti-HIV stance from the Times, whose record is abysmal in this respect. And while it makes his alarming behavior in the cause of his ideals fairly plain, it omits the fact that he was popular with students despite it (he was chosen to speak on Parent’s Day at Yale last year). There are bigger flaws, including the omission of his seminal book, “Challenges” (Springer Verlag, 1998). Indignant Lang supporters are promising to write in and set the record straight, if they can.

But on the whole Kenneth Chang and Warren Leary (two reporters!) are quite respectful, and their account is strangely pregnant in its truncation. Lang fairly leaps from the physical page as a man bursting with life, about whom far more could be said, and that only space constraints (we presume not editorial prejudice and lingering irritation at Lang’s challenges to decisions at the Times) force this too sketchy account which tries to pour his life force into two below-the-fold columns.

Biggest omission: “Challenges”, a very great book

Liveliness and clarity were two brilliant attributes of Lang which shine through and we can imagine many readers would think of buying his magnum opus, “Challenges” (Springer Verlag, 1998), that is, if they had bothered to mention it. Was the mention of this masterpiece of singlehanded political research, now an unmatched reference for science sociologists, edited out? We can imagine it might have been, simply because it is the most embarrassing record of the mistakes and irresponsibility of top academics and editors in the US that exists.

So let us say now that any public affairs intellectual, science student or media iconoclast who doesn’t take the chance of buying a copy of the admittedly high priced “Challenges” before it disappears from the market will remain forever underresearched and undereducated in how things are done behind the scenes in the corridors of academic and editorial power. Currently $47.95 at Amazon new and still $36 used, it’s worth every cent, especially because Lang always had this unique habit of reproducing primary documents, as a colleague notes.

What isn’t said is that these included the letters his hapless victims wrote back in reply to his challenges, letters which became the best evidence against them. These often funny (to the reader) missives were self indictments because they showed how much the correspondents preferred that their errors and misleading public statements be forgotten or whitewashed than any corrections made. They formed many classic examples of the problem of correction of error and irresponsibility in the intellectual arena that Lang sought to root out.

Maybe one reason we feel the obituary is suitably vivid is the picture of a younger Lang from 1962 that smiles from the page with bright eyed intensity, all perky, fox terrier alertness and michievous, though modest, humor. Are we wrong to sense that the writers have had their own personal dealings with Lang, and knew his worth, as well as how alarming he could be? Maybe one or both of them were his students.

Forceful clarity

The slightly crackpot aspect of Lang’s over-the-top behavior in pursuing truth in the political arena is not just hinted at, it is plainly mentioned. Fair enough. Together with his idealism, this was certainly the aspect of Lang’s personality that distinguished him from his peers. He was disturbingly reactive, where they were polite and agreeable, and complacent about their own mistakes, which were properly only sins when they showed how little it mattered to them to correct them. But the point was that Lang cared, and they didn’t, and from their point of view he was bound to be a troublemaker, as he freely admitted he was.

Fully involved as a teacher, moreover, he would throw chalk at the inattentive and “rant and rave” in class, as the Times notes:


Decades of students discovered that if they did not pay attention in class, Dr. Lang would throw chalk. “He would rant and rave in front of his students,” Dr. Ribet said. “He would say, ‘Our two aims are truth and clarity, and to achieve these I will shout in class.’ “


A former pupil now at Harvard complains this makes him “sound like a madman”, and another, Sean Westmoreland, has written this letter to the Times:

To the Editor

Re: Re: Serge Lang, 78, a Gadfly and Mathematical
Theorist, Dies

A fact. An opinion. A hole in the ground.

To hold the distinction between these three types in
whatever arena they might appear, and demand that his
students do so as well, was Serge Lang’s constant
business. He may have hurled chalk by way of
punctuation, but that was merely a bonus.

I am tempted, in reviewing his obituary, to object to
the manner in which serial details align toward the
impression that he was a screaming madman,
incidentally blessed with a mathematical brilliance
that withered when exported to the realms of politics,
journalism, or other, softer fields. Rather a large
charge, so let me share one opinion that changes
nothing: from first meeting him as a Yale
undergraduate to the days before he died, I regarded
Serge Lang as the warmest and most intellectually
generous teacher I have ever known.

Those with a more fluent command of mathematics can
speak to his specific greatness, but it is hilarious
to read that Serge came to be “better known for his
academic jousts with nonmathematicians on social and
political issues than for his work in geometry and the
properties of numbers.” Better known by whom?
Mathematicians? Editors at the New York Times? The lay
public clamoring for the hot new thing in algebraic
geometry?

You write that political scientist Samuel P.
Huntington was the “focus of Dr. Lang’s ire,”
contributing to the impression that Lang’s political
engagements were byproducts of eccentricity, zealotry,
borderline derangement. Why, the story almost writes
itself.

In his book “Political Order in Changing Societies,”
Huntington classified apartheid-era South Africa as a
“satisfied society.” Following Lang’s scrupulously
documented challenges to this claim, among others,
Huntington said the following in a 1987 interview
published in the New Republic magazine:

“The term “satisfied” has to do with whether or not
there are measurable signs that people are satisfied
or not with their lot. That lot may be good, fair, or
awful; what this particular term is describing is the
fact that the people for some reason are not
protesting it. When this study was done in the early
1960’s, there had been no major riots, or disturbances
[in South Africa].”

Times readers may evaluate to what extent Huntington
can distinguish, as Lang would say, “a fact from a
hole in the ground.”

One of his former students has reminded me that Serge
would often flag an important theorem by saying you
should absorb it so comprehensively as to remember it
three days after you died. Sometimes it was seven.
Members of his cc list were, as it happened, receiving
his latest mailing several days after his end.

Who knows what may be coming next?
Suspense.

-Sean Westmoreland
New York, New York

One might grant that Lang was a little mad to ride roughshod over the normal niceties of social behavior, since it tended to lead to superficial dismissal. On the other hand, he was an activist fighting a creeping conformist complacency about standards which he had a right to be indignant about, since he was an educator who was protecting the minds of all students.

Disturbing the complacent

Certainly no one else in the establishment was as responsive to the quality of what his fellow intellectuals said and wrote in public discourse. At least, that is, from Lang’s particular point of view, which was whether it was factually accurate or misleading. Lang cared, passionately, about accuracy and truth, and showed it without hesitation. As the Times hints, by the standards of his victims he seemed to dispense with the collegial niceties that ordinary tact and diplomacy requires. Time and again, however, Lang would expose this politesse as a cover for the laziness and irresponsibility of teachers, editors and reporters who polluted the stream of public discourse with specious claims and nonsense, falsehoods which might become universally believed.

Even so, the fact remains that Lang could be alarming. In his defense we would say that Lang’s intensity was probably the single irresistible force that could move the immovable object of mediocrity in position and power. Friends and students found that together with his strength of character and moral purpose his redeeming feature was his essential good humor, underlying but always there. Typically it burst out at the end of every excited tutorial rant, in the form of a punctuating giggle after his points were made.

In our experience this wasn’t just to relieve the social tension or the seriousness of his points. It seemed that Lang had to giggle at himself and at his predicament, as he found himself almost alone having to stand up for values which in the earlier part of his life he had thought would never be in question. But it was also he mightily enjoyed his work, and his role in serving true knowledge and his students.

To laugh if not to weep

When the idealistic mathematician and educator (he wrote many current textbooks) met the fraying standards of modern professorial and editorial politics the result was an explosive bewilderment which had to end in laughter. After all, the moral failure of human beings formally dressed up in power, pomp and influence to behave according to the standards they represent is always a little ridiculous.

The peculiar genius of Lang was precisely not to allow any such perspective to interfere with what had to be done. He particularly refused to be distracted by any of the social emotions which so often compromise truth. He simply asked people who purveyed error in misleading public statements to clean up their act, and to correct their position in accord with the facts.

Above all he would not allow the natural reluctance most of us have to confront and oppose other members of the club or society to which we belong to divert him from this higher public good, which was to ensure that the public and especially young minds are not misled by higher-ups.

The reaction of most of us is to go easy on fellow members, just as the Times does in this obituary. Harvard’s great oversimplifier Samuel Huntington is let off the hook even though his humiliation at the hands of Lang is mentioned (he was twice blackballed from getting into the National Academy of Sciences at Lang’s public instigation, and finally never admitted, even though adorning the Harvard faculty), by allowing him to plead that his plainly silly and specious comments and formulae in his writings on comparing national societies were simply “shorthand”. What is not mentioned is that Huntington rated South Africa a “satisfied” society at the height of apartheid. (For a scathing obituary of Huntington as scholarly apologist for the elite, see The Oxonian Review)

Lang’s demolition of HIV/AIDS pretense

Like any good mathematician, and Lang was a brilliant and productive one, he sought to exclude false premises from his own reasoning and false reasoning from his conclusions. And he sought the same for the informing of students and the public which, in a democracy, is supposedly the ultimate arbiter of public goals and the means by which they are achieved.

This is why Lang took up his battle against the paradigm hijackers of HIV/AIDS with such determination, since there is probably no greater example of false conclusions derived from false premises extant, according to the peer validated scientific review literature by Peter Duesberg and others which Lang read and respected, and even added to in his challenges to the CDC to correct its specious formulations and definitions in preparing AIDS statistics.


Controversially, beginning in the mid-1990’s, Dr. Lang sided with skeptics who doubted that AIDS was caused by human immunodeficiency virus, arguing that the scientific evidence connecting them was weak and faulty. He criticized the denial of research money to Peter Duesberg, a skeptic on the H.I.V.-AIDS link.

He was never convinced otherwise. A week before his death, he mailed out his latest file, a dozen pages of letters and e-mail messages about two papers he had written about the AIDS debate that had been rejected by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One can’t blame the writers for this perfectly correct yet shallow and subtly disparaging formulation (how about “pointed to serious flaws in the theory”?) of Lang’s efforts to correct the facts of the gospel of AIDS, because we realize that they have perforce to write something that fits with the assumptions of the people that surround them at the Times, a paper that has barely covered the review dispute in AIDS and which has shown little curiosity as to why the issue remains alive year after year despite their continuing editorial assumption (guided we assume by Larry Altman, their chief medical correspondent on this matter, who is a child of the CDC in that he is a graduate of their training program) that it is dead.

Pussycat under the tiger

But the slight implication that Lang was barking up the wrong tree is inappropriate, since they have no a priori reason to believe that he did not know what he was talking about in this regard. If they had actually read what he wrote, they would certainly know that he did know what he was talking about. Lang’s File on AIDS is a masterpiece of clarity and a revelation on the topic, and anyone who reads the relevant pages of Challenges can see that for him or herself.

The Times obituary unfortunately shows the great extent to which Lang’s behavior could easily be misunderstood. Lang threw chalk in the classroom, it reveals. “Makes him look like a madman,” our correspondent from Harvard complains. Actually we don’t think so. But the obit should have made it clear that Lang was not an unreasonable man, just indignant. His fierceness was passion for truth and scholarship, and the accuracy that embodied it. Aside from that, Lang was a pussycat who wouldn’t have harmed a fly, and probably never did.

Lang criticised misbehavior in dealing with information and knowledge as an abstract failure, not a personal one. He didn’t have a knife out for those guilty of it, but a pen for them to make corrections. He wanted simply to correct any deviations from high standards of accuracy and to clean the public record. He would never, in fact, criticize personal or political motivation or even speculate about it, not even in private conversation. He had a marvelous disinterest in the myriad emotional reasons why factual statements in thought and speech go awry, but a very great interest in keeping them on the rails when they were liable to serve as a guide for young minds.

The roots of public unreason

The resistance to his cause seemed to baffle him. Why would anyone not want to serve the truth if they were in a position of public responsibility, either editorial or especially educational? And the truth seemed to be that very often he was simply facing a certain stupidity. The kind of obtuseness he faced was the dimmed vision that comes even to good minds when the simple goal of truth is obscured by the need to go along to get along, where what Joe says is more important than to read for yourself.

As Mark Twain often observed, when it comes to politics very few people think with reason. They think with their feelings, and those feelings are based on their adherence to a group and its ideology. They may simply be blind to anything that disagrees with that ideology, unable to read it or listen to it or credit it.

To quote the classic analysis of humanity’s ruling intellectual flaw from “Corn Pone Opinions”:

The black philospher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views that interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions, at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people: he must reason out none for himself: he must have no first-hand views.

… Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity. Sometimes conformity has a sordid business interest–the bread-and-butter interest–but not in most cases. I think. I think that in the majority of cases it is unconscious and not calculated; that it is born of the human being’s natural yearnings to stand well with his fellows and have their inspiring approval and praise – a yearning which is commonly so strong and so insistent that it cannot be effectively resisted, and must have its way.

A political emergency brings out the corn-pone opinion in fine force in its two chief varieties”-the pocketbook variety, which has its origin in self-interest, and the bigger variety, the sentimental variety”the one which can’t bear to be outside the pale; can’t bear to be in disfavor; can’t endure the averted face and the cold shoulder; wants to stand well with his friends, wants to be smiled upon, wants to be welcome, wants to hear the precious words, “He’s on the right track!” uttered, perhaps, by an ass, but still an ass of high degree, an ass whose approval is gold and diamonds to a smaller ass, and confer glory and honor and happiness, and membership in the herd. for these gauds many a man will dump his life-long principles into the street, and his conscience along with them. We have seen it happen. In some millions of instances.”

Needed: a salute to character

Seen it happen, indeed, especially in the case of HIV/AIDS, in science and out a vast parade ground for sheep. Not, however, in Lang’s case. He was one of the few men inside the modern establishment who never lost one iota of his youthful principles to comfortable conformity or to hear the precious words of a fellow ass, “He’s one of us!”

The sad thing is that the Times obituary is evidently written as best they can by men who either personally or institutionally cannot seem to recognize or celebrate that strength of character and purpose. Instead they represent Lang as a mild crackpot who never recognized the error of his ways in AIDS, threw chalk in class and generally created personal trouble where he was outside his field of expertise.

The truth was the opposite. Lang was a highly disciplined, independent mind who cherished accuracy in education and public life. He was without the slightest interest in advancing his interests through conformity or collegiality. His very qualification and merit was signalled by the perception that he was “difficult”. He was an expert in the issues he took up, not only because he applied his rigor and precision to each one and challenged his correspondent to meet the same standards, but because kept his focus on the ideas and not personal relations.

What Lang’s real distinction says about society

The great failure of his colleagues was not to pay him more attention and respect. Recently, Lang was first given and then disrespectfully refused permission to distribute his File, or packet of documents, on the questions he and others raised about the claims and statistics of HIV/AIDS paradigm, to the audience inside the hall at Yale where a visiting mainstream lecturer on the topic was to speak. In his late seventies, undaunted, Lang stood outside the door to hand out the information which he felt Yale students should possess, but which was being withheld from them.

It is precisely this kind of uncompromised and uncompromising, thinking and principled man that should be listened to, and listened to carefully, when the important public issue is, for instance, whether a generally accepted paradigm, such as HIV/AIDS, which they so strongly object to, is justified or not.

It is because such men and women are a rare species, that his death is a great loss. Lang, in his way, was utterly unique on the US intellectual landscape.

3 Responses to “The Times finally notes the passing of Lang, the greatest gadfly”

  1. Marcel Says:

    Thanks for this fine analysis of the Times’ 13-day delay on even acknowledging Lang’s death, and then the subtle way they tried to diminish him. Truthseeker, do I know you? I noticed a lot of the articles on this site are by you.

  2. Zassenhaus Says:

    I live in Paris and personally know some of the last members of the second circle of Bourbaki Mathematicians, but only recently did I became aware of the astonishing pre-wikileaks like battles mounted by Serge Lang through his file gathering of primary evidence which exposed the scientific incorrectness of statements and affirmations found in the articles and books produced by some well known and “stellar” academics largely outside the field of mathematics ( indeed it is almost impossible for mathematical charlatans to thrive amongst their peers ). After many, many hours of scouring Google articles to find the cause of Serge Lang’s death, I have come up with none excepting a denial of one possible cause and an explanation from Stephen Smale that the internet is no place to discuss the cause of Serge Lang’s death. There must be some reason for the blackout and even avoidance of such bland explanations like the usual “passed away” etc. Some people within the math community here in Paris claim he committed suicide. Don’t you think it might be useful to put an end to speculations? Lang himself would have hated all the “corn-pone” around the circumstances of his “passing away”. His thinking and his writing were and are so acutely enlightening, they don’t need to be bolstered or preserved by well intentioned “discretion”. Stefen Zweig remains one of the 2oth century’s most brilliant chronicler of human stupidity and European barbarism in particular despite ending his own and his companion’s life!

  3. Truthseeker Says:

    The facts of Lang’s death are well concealed from public discussion, and there is indeed a rumor that he committed suicide, for which there are of course any number of possible motivations in every case, and in this case, many too, unless and until one has better information than we have on Lang. The rumor is connected with a report we have never confirmed that he left a note for his sister. From our own experience we would never have supposed such a thing, because the Lang we knew was ebulliently cheerful whenever he called, and full of humor and energy as he detailed the various intellectual crimes and misdemeanors he had detected or suffered in accumulating his Files and in getting the corrections he demanded, or trying to bring to the attention of the public through his mailing list to people who might write about the issues or directly, as in even being prepared to wait outside a lecture hall to distribute literature to provide perspective to Yale students in the audience.

    But nothing in what he said to us ever betrayed any depression at his difficulties in getting people to listen, and he was quite frank about people labeling him a pest even when they acknowledged he was right. All we can surmise is that suicide might in the end be the act of a mathematician whose always valued his professional work most highly and felt he could no longer contribute in that realm, which is one story we heard, which seems conceivable, since his standards for others and for himself were so high.

    So we believe that Lang simply died unexpectedly of natural causes, until we are given better reason to think otherwise. But people who might know better are not talking, if there is any such reason.

    NB: This post has suffered from software updates so we have gone over it and corrected it and added subheads and a few words here and there, since Lang deserves no less, as a great man who compiled one of the most important books, “Challenges”, ever published on the nature of modern society. We’ll also add some of our own pics of Lang when they turn up, showing among other things his remarkable nose!

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