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Lander Professor Discusses ‘The Mathematics of Communication’

Lander University Professor of Mathematics Dr. Josie Ryan responds to a question following her talk on “The Mathematics of Communication.” Photo by Laura B. Wood

“Human beings are not as good at communicating as we think we are,” according to Lander University Professor of Mathematics Dr. Josie Ryan.

Ryan spoke at the Greenwood Arts Center on Tuesday, March 14, as part of Lander’s community lecture series. She said that people would communicate better if they defined their terms, as mathematicians do.

For example, “we talk a lot in society about what it means to be patriotic, but we all have a very different vision of that. It’s not well-defined,” she said.

Ryan cited “The Meno of Plato,” in which the Greek philosopher Socrates and his student discuss virtue, as an example of better communication. Meno asks Socrates if virtue is taught, if it is acquired by practice, or if it comes by nature, but Socrates won’t answer, until they have agreed upon a definition of what virtue is.

“They are pursuing a common understanding,” she said. “They are trying to find a place where their conversation can go forward. They keep talking, and they part as friends.”

The exchange between Socrates and Meno is a perfect example of “how the mathematical concept of ‘well-defined’ can lead us to better communication,” said Ryan, who received Lander’s Moore Award for Excellence in General Education Teaching in 2020.

“If you can’t define your terms, you can’t communicate,” she said.