Against the “Research vs. Olympiads” Mantra

There’s a Mantra that you often hear in math contest discussions: “math olympiads are very different from math research”. (For known instances, see O’Neil, Tao, and more. More neutral stances: Monks, Xu.)

It’s true. And I wish people would stop saying it.

Every time I’ve heard the Mantra, it set off a little red siren in my head: something felt wrong. And I could never figure out quite why until last July. There was some (silly) forum discussion about how Allen Liu had done extraordinarily on math contests over the past year. Then someone says:

A: Darn, what math problem can he not do?!

B: I’ll go out on a limb and say that the answer to this is “most of the problems worth asking.” We’ll see where this stands in two years, at which point the answer will almost certainly change, but research \neq Olympiads.

Then it hit me.

Ping-pong vs. Tennis

Let’s try the following thought experiment. Consider a world-class ping-pong player, call her Sarah. She has a fan-base talking about her pr0 ping-pong skills. Then someone comes along as says:

Well, table tennis isn’t the same as tennis.

To which I and everyone else reasonable would say, “uh, so what?”. It’s true, but totally irrelevant; ping-pong and tennis are just not related. Maybe Sarah will be better than average at tennis, but there’s no reason to expect her to be world-class in that too.

And yet we say exactly the same thing for olympiads versus research. Someone wins the IMO, out pops the Mantra. Even if the Mantra is true when taken literally, it’s implicitly sending the message there’s something wrong with being good at contests and not good at research.

So now I ask: just what is wrong with that? To answer this question, I first need to answer: “what is math?”.

There’s been a trick played with this debate, and you can’t see it unless you taboo the word “math”. The word “math” can refer to a bunch of things, like:

  • Training for contest problems like USAMO/IMO, or
  • Learning undergraduate/graduate materials like algebra and analysis, or
  • Working on open problems and conjectures (“research”).

So here’s the trick. The research community managed to claim the name “math”, leaving only “math contests” for the olympiad community. Now the sentence

“Math contests should be relevant to math”

seems totally innocuous. But taboo the world “math”, and you get

“Olympiads should be relevant to research”

and then you notice something’s wrong. In other words, since “math” is a substring of “math contests”, it suddenly seems like the olympiads are subordinate to research. All because of an accident in naming.

Since when? Everyone agrees that olympiads and research are different things, but it does not then follow that “olympiads are useless”. Even if ping-pong is called “table tennis”, that doesn’t mean the top ping-pong players are somehow inferior to top tennis players. (And the scary thing is that in a world without the name “ping-pong”, I can imagine some people actually thinking so.)

I think for many students, olympiads do a lot of good, independent of any value to future math research. Math olympiads give high school students something interesting to work on, and even the training process for a contest such that the IMO carries valuable life lessons: it teaches you how to work hard even in the face of possible failure, and what it’s like to be competitive at an international level (i.e. what it’s like to become really good at something after years of hard work). The peer group that math contests give is also wonderful, and quite similar to the kind of people you’d meet at a top-tier university (and in some cases, they’re more or less the same people). And the problem solving ability you gain from math contests is indisputably helpful elsewhere in life. Consequently, I’m well on record as saying the biggest benefits of math contests have nothing to do with math.

There are also more mundane (but valid) reasons (they help get students out of the classroom, and other standard blurbs about STEM and so on). And as a matter of taste I also think contest problems are interesting and beautiful in their own right. You could even try to make more direct comparisons (for example, I’d guess the average arXiv paper in algebraic geometry gets less attention than the average IMO geometry problem), but that’s a point for another blog post entirely.

The Right and Virtuous Path

Which now leads me to what I think is a culture issue.

MOP alumni prior to maybe 2010 or so were classified into two groups. They would either go on to math research, which was somehow seen as the “right and virtuous path“, or they would defect to software/finance/applied math/etc. Somehow there is always this implicit, unspoken message that the smart MOPpers do math research and the dumb MOPpers drop out.

I’ll tell you how I realized why I didn’t like the Mantra: it’s because the only time I hear the Mantra is when someone is belittling olympiad medalists.

The Mantra says that the USA winning the IMO is no big deal. The Mantra says Allen Liu isn’t part of the “smart club” until he succeeds in research too. The Mantra says that the countless time and energy put into running each year’s MOP are a waste of time. The Mantra says that the students who eventually drop out of math research are “not actually good at math” and “just good at taking tests”. The Mantra even tells outsiders that they, too, can be great researchers, because olympiads are useless anyways.

The Mantra is math research’s recruiting slogan.

And I think this is harmful. The purpose of olympiads was never to produce more math researchers. If it’s really the case that olympiads and research are totally different, then we should expect relatively few olympiad students to go into research; yet in practice, a lot of them do. I think one could make a case that a lot of the past olympiad students are going into math research without realizing that they’re getting into something totally unrelated, just because the sign at the door said “math”. One could also make a case that it’s very harmful for those that don’t do research, or try research and then decide they don’t like it: suddenly these students don’t think they’re “good at math” any more, they’re not smart enough be a mathematician, etc.

But we need this kind of problem-solving skill and talent too much for it to all be spent on computing R(6,6). Richard Rusczyk’s take from Math Prize for Girls 2014 is:

When people ask me, am I disappointed when my students don’t go off and be mathematicians, my answer is I’d be very disappointed if they all did. We need people who can think about these complex problems and solve really hard problems they haven’t seen before everywhere. It’s not just in math, it’s not just in the sciences, it’s not just in medicine — I mean, what we’d give to get some of them in Congress!

Academia is a fine career, but there’s tons of other options out there: the research community may denounce those who switch out as failures, but I’m sure society will take them with open arms.

To close, I really like this (sarcastic) comment from Steven Karp (near bottom):

Contest math is inaccessible to over 90% of people as it is, and then we’re supposed to tell those that get it that even that isn’t real math? While we’re at it, let’s tell Vi Hart to stop making videos because they don’t accurately represent math research.

Addendums (response to comments)

Thanks first of all for the many long and thoughtful comments from everyone (both here, on Facebook, in private, and so on). It’s given me a lot to think about.

Here’s my responses to some of the points that were raised, which is necessarily incomplete because of the volume of discussion.

  1. To start off, it was suggested I should explicitly clarify: I do not mean to imply that people who didn’t do well on contests cannot do well in math research. So let me say that now.

  2. My favorite comment that I got was that in fact this whole post pattern matches with bravery debates.

    On one hand you have lots of olympiad students who actually FEEL BAD about winning medals because they “weren’t doing real math”. But on the other hand there are students whose parents tell them to not pursue math as a major or career because of low contest scores. These students (and their parents) would benefit a lot from the Mantra; so I concede that there are indeed good use cases of the Mantra (such as those that Anonymous Chicken, betaveros describe below) and in particular the Mantra is not intrinsically bad.

    Which of these use is the “common use” probably depends on which tribes you are part of (guess which one I see more?). It’s interesting in that in this case, the two sides actually agree on the basic fact (that contests and research are not so correlated).

  3. Some people point out that research is a career while contests aren’t. I am not convinced by this; I don’t think “is a career” is a good metric for measuring value to society, and can think of several examples of actual jobs that I think really should not exist (not saying any names). In addition, I think that if the general public understood what mathematicians actually do for a career, they just might be a little less willing to pay us.

    I think there’s an interesting discussion about whether contests / research are “valuable” or not, but I don’t think the answer is one-sided; this would warrant a whole different debate (and would derail the entire post if I tried to address it).

  4. Some people point out that training for olympiads yields diminishing returns (e.g. learning Muirhead and Schur is probably not useful for anything else). I guess this is true, but isn’t it true of almost anything? Maybe the point is supposed to be “olympiads aren’t everything”, which is agreeable (see below).

  5. The other favorite comment I got was from Another Chicken, who points out below that the olympiad tribe itself is elitist: they tend to wall themselves off from outsiders (I certainly do this), and undervalue anything that isn’t hard technical problems.

    I concede these are real problems with the olympiad community. Again, this could be a whole different blog post.

    But I think this comment missed the point of this post. It is probably fine (albeit patronizing) to encourage olympiad students to expand; but I have a big problem with framing it as “spend time on not-contests because research“. That’s the real issue with the Mantra: it is often used as a recruitment slogan, telling students that research is the next true test after the IMO has been conquered.

    Changing the Golden Metric from olympiads to research seems to just make the world more egotistic than it already is.