Why France's Best Mathematician Is Optimistic About Critical Thinking

As a teacher, Villani has found math to have similar effects on students. The topic gives young people a way to think more effectively.

Math is a laboratory for better thinking. That is the argument of Cedric Villani, one of the world’s most famous mathematicians.

In 2010, at the age of 37, Villani won the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in math. He went on to write a best-selling memoir, travel the world as a math-and-science ambassador and, in 2017, he was elected to France’s National Assembly.

Villani is sometimes called the “Lady Gaga” of math. Bearded and long-haired, he typically wears a three-piece suit, a lavallière (a cross between a cravat and a bow tie) and a spider brooch on his lapel. But most importantly, Villani is an educator. Aside from being a longtime professor, he served for years as the director of the Henri Poincaré Institute, the math-research arm of the Sorbonne. 

I sat down with Villani recently to talk about critical thinking. (The full interview is here.) He  explained that he was drawn to math at an early age.

Mathematics is a school for thinking,” Villani explained. “It teaches you rigor, for sure. Everybody knows that. But maybe most importantly, it forces you to be imaginative because you have to find somewhere tools and strategies to solve problems. And it also teaches you tenacity. From an early age, I was spending these long hours and sometimes days in search for the proof or solution to a problem.”

As a teacher, Villani has found math to have similar effects on students. The topic gives young people a way to think more effectively. “I’ve taught and discussed research problems at all levels, from childhood to people with PhDs, on all continents,” he said. While he doesn’t adhere to one theory of teaching, he always encourages students to “be actively engaged in the thinking and in the problem.”  

For Villani, math is not just for thinking, though. It’s also about action. Villani never planned to make the leap into the change-making business of politics, to be sure. But “the political chaos” inspired him, and he now represents a district on the outskirts of Paris.

“I believe that we scientists have our say in politics,” Villani said, “in particular to help the deciders to have the right information to make the right decisions when it comes to subjects such as innovation, such as pursuing the research strategies at national and international levels, but also in terms of how to handle complex problems with many parameters.”

In recent years, Villani has been deeply concerned about the proliferation of fake news. “A few years ago, when there was the dissemination of the Internet and rapid connection from anyplace to anyplace, we thought that information would progress and that truth would be more easy to establish,” he said. “In fact, it was quite the opposite: We saw that fake news, distorted news, manipulation was extremely efficient, more efficient than the truth in many cases, and we underestimated the distortion that would be caused by the human interaction with the news.”

Fighting fake news is difficult, Villani admitted. “There is no objective definition of what is fake news and what is not. Sometimes fake news is real news that is viewed from a distorted angle and which is marketed through this distorted angle,” he said. “We have to find the active mechanisms to counter this.”

Still, Villani is optimistic. “We live in an era of amazing possibilities, through the connections and multipartite projects, through the possibility to do subtle programming and to have enormous computing power,” he said.

In other words, Villani views the future as ripe for better forms of thinking. “There have never been so many opportunities for projects and searching for solutions,” he said. “Taking this into account, using this as an advantage, to train our kids, our students, to solve many different problems is an enormous opportunity for critical thinking.”

“This article first appeared on the website of Forbes.“

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.

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