THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PUBLIC OPINION

JORDAN ELLENBERG

MATHEMATICS, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, MADISON

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 23, 2013

LECTURE 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.

JORDAN'S BIO (from Wikipedia!)

Jordan Stuart Ellenberg (born 1971) is an American mathematician working as a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research covers a wide variety of topics within arithmetic geometry. He received both the A.B. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he was a two-time Putnam Fellow.

In addition to his research articles, he has authored a novel, The Grasshopper King, which was a finalist for the 2004 Young Lions Fiction Award, and which is published by Coffee House Press; the Do the Math column in the online journal Slate; and various articles on mathematical topics in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Wired, Seed, and The Believer.

He can be heard on NPR's All Tech Considered segment "The Path from Syphilis to Faster MRIs" discussing the benefits of mathematically filling in the blanks.

In 2012 he became a fellow of the American Mathematical Society.

JORDAN'S FORTHCOMING BOOK

Jordan's new book, HOW NOT TO BE WRONG will be published by Penguin Press in early 2014.