引き続きフィールズ賞関連ネタ。5日エントリでリンクしたPeter Woitブログの最新記事では、授賞組織である国際数学者会議のマスコミ対応の拙さを指摘している。

While I was away the big mathematics news was from the ICM. As everyone expected, one of the Fields medalists was Peter Scholze. I was surprised to find a blog post of mine quoted about this in the NY Times, since normally the way this works is that journalists are told who the winners are in advance, and then contact experts in the field (which I’m definitely not one of) for quotes. Some tweets from Davide Castelvecchi at Nature about the unusual embargo rules may provide some explanation:

The whole situation was surreal from the beginning: the organizers gave reporters advance notice of the winners, but on condition that we would not contact them — even though the winners had already been told long in advance.
They also made no other sources available. In other words, we were supposed to write about these difficult concepts without talking to any experts.

Oh and I forgot to say: The email with the names of the winners had no information whatsoever on why they won – in other words, no prize citations.

I suspect one reason for the unusual rules is that the ICM people had decided to concentrate on getting stories out through Quanta magazine, which ran the results here. The stories are very well done, and Quanta magazine is great, but a more usual process involving the rest of the science journalism press would have been a good idea.
Update: I hadn’t realized that the problems with the IMU embargo this year were not new, they were much the same as the problems four years ago with the announcement of the 2014 prizes. See here for discussion of the 2014 story (which, when reading it, I first mistook for a discussion of 2018), and here for a discussion of 2018.





I cannot comment on whether the ICM indeed decided to focus on the Quanta coverage, because I don’t know. My multiple emails to the organizers requesting explanations got either evasive responses or no response at all.
But I don’t think there is anything for anyone to be gained by, for instance, making biographical information about the winners available to reporters only after the embargo has expired, as the ICM did. Also, I believe there is nothing to be gained by giving reporters an embargo that expires hours after the announcements have been made via webcast.
But I suspect that this whole issue is symptomatic of an attitude occasionally seen within the math community. In my professional life as a reporter, I mostly interact with physicists and astronomers, but I also do cover math, and sometimes I do see a difference between the two worlds.
I feel that some mathematicians see dealing with the press as being subjected to an indignity or an embarrassment; therefore, one should just pretend that the press does not exist (for instance not responding to requests), or perhaps only make exceptions for publications seen as allies. Fifty years ago, that mainly meant Scientific American; now it’s Quanta. Note: this is no criticism of either of those publications, for which I have utmost admiration; I have worked at the former and have several friends who work at the latter.
So, some mathematicians seem to be under the impression that they get to choose who will cover them and their field. But one of the basic facts about a free press in a free world is that the press gets to choose what to cover, not the other way around. This misconception sometimes backfires in a spectacular way: think of Perelman, who thought that somehow you can make a major breakthrough such as solving the Poincaré conjecture and have only experts notice it and discuss it. But the more Perelman sought obscurity, the more morbidly curious people got about him, and the more attention he attracted toward himself — culminating in a New Yorker profile and two biographies.
Fortunately, such extreme cases are rare, and in general, attitudes have been slowly changing. Many mathematicians are very open and helpfully reach out to journalists. And you see more and more mathematicians who are also excellent communicators, and even YouTube sensations (Kelsey Houston-Edwards and Grant Sanderson come to mind, among many others).


The problem is that even the mathematicians who *want* coverage by the press have a poor understanding how the game works and, when things turn out badly, act like it’s the press who did something wrong, when in fact the press was just doing its job the way it always does.
And the professional mathematical societies, such as the AMS and IMU, do not seem to have any capable press relations staff who know how the game works. So they passively put out press releases that they think look interesting and then wonder why nobody pays attention to them.

*1:cf. Quanta Magazine - Wikipedia