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The Existential Risk of Math Errors - Gwern.net
How big is this upper bound? Mathematicians have often made errors in proofs. But it’s rarer for ideas to be accepted for a long time and then rejected. But we can divide errors into 2 basic cases corresponding to type I and type II errors:

1. Mistakes where the theorem is still true, but the proof was incorrect (type I)
2. Mistakes where the theorem was false, and the proof was also necessarily incorrect (type II)

Before someone comes up with a final answer, a mathematician may have many levels of intuition in formulating & working on the problem, but we’ll consider the final end-product where the mathematician feels satisfied that he has solved it. Case 1 is perhaps the most common case, with innumerable examples; this is sometimes due to mistakes in the proof that anyone would accept is a mistake, but many of these cases are due to changing standards of proof. For example, when David Hilbert discovered errors in Euclid’s proofs which no one noticed before, the theorems were still true, and the gaps more due to Hilbert being a modern mathematician thinking in terms of formal systems (which of course Euclid did not think in). (David Hilbert himself turns out to be a useful example of the other kind of error: his famous list of 23 problems was accompanied by definite opinions on the outcome of each problem and sometimes timings, several of which were wrong or questionable5.) Similarly, early calculus used ‘infinitesimals’ which were sometimes treated as being 0 and sometimes treated as an indefinitely small non-zero number; this was incoherent and strictly speaking, practically all of the calculus results were wrong because they relied on an incoherent concept - but of course the results were some of the greatest mathematical work ever conducted6 and when later mathematicians put calculus on a more rigorous footing, they immediately re-derived those results (sometimes with important qualifications), and doubtless as modern math evolves other fields have sometimes needed to go back and clean up the foundations and will in the future.7


Isaac Newton, incidentally, gave two proofs of the same solution to a problem in probability, one via enumeration and the other more abstract; the enumeration was correct, but the other proof totally wrong and this was not noticed for a long time, leading Stigler to remark:


“Lefschetz was a purely intuitive mathematician. It was said of him that he had never given a completely correct proof, but had never made a wrong guess either.”
- Gian-Carlo Rota13

Case 2 is disturbing, since it is a case in which we wind up with false beliefs and also false beliefs about our beliefs (we no longer know that we don’t know). Case 2 could lead to extinction.


Except, errors do not seem to be evenly & randomly distributed between case 1 and case 2. There seem to be far more case 1s than case 2s, as already mentioned in the early calculus example: far more than 50% of the early calculus results were correct when checked more rigorously. Richard Hamming attributes to Ralph Boas a comment that while editing Mathematical Reviews that “of the new results in the papers reviewed most are true but the corresponding proofs are perhaps half the time plain wrong”.


Gian-Carlo Rota gives us an example with Hilbert:


Olga labored for three years; it turned out that all mistakes could be corrected without any major changes in the statement of the theorems. There was one exception, a paper Hilbert wrote in his old age, which could not be fixed; it was a purported proof of the continuum hypothesis, you will find it in a volume of the Mathematische Annalen of the early thirties.


Leslie Lamport advocates for machine-checked proofs and a more rigorous style of proofs similar to natural deduction, noting a mathematician acquaintance guesses at a broad error rate of 1/329 and that he routinely found mistakes in his own proofs and, worse, believed false conjectures30.

[more on these "structured proofs":

We can probably add software to that list: early software engineering work found that, dismayingly, bug rates seem to be simply a function of lines of code, and one would expect diseconomies of scale. So one would expect that in going from the ~4,000 lines of code of the Microsoft DOS operating system kernel to the ~50,000,000 lines of code in Windows Server 2003 (with full systems of applications and libraries being even larger: the comprehensive Debian repository in 2007 contained ~323,551,126 lines of code) that the number of active bugs at any time would be… fairly large. Mathematical software is hopefully better, but practitioners still run into issues (eg Durán et al 2014, Fonseca et al 2017) and I don’t know of any research pinning down how buggy key mathematical systems like Mathematica are or how much published mathematics may be erroneous due to bugs. This general problem led to predictions of doom and spurred much research into automated proof-checking, static analysis, and functional languages31.

I don't know any interesting bugs in symbolic algebra packages but I know a true, enlightening and entertaining story about something that looked like a bug but wasn't.

Define sinc𝑥=(sin𝑥)/𝑥.

Someone found the following result in an algebra package: ∫∞0𝑑𝑥sinc𝑥=𝜋/2
They then found the following results:


So of course when they got:


Which means that nobody knows Fourier analysis nowdays. Very sad and discouraging story... – fedja Jan 29 '10 at 18:47


Because the most popular systems are all commercial, they tend to guard their bug database rather closely -- making them public would seriously cut their sales. For example, for the open source project Sage (which is quite young), you can get a list of all the known bugs from this page. 1582 known issues on Feb.16th 2010 (which includes feature requests, problems with documentation, etc).

That is an order of magnitude less than the commercial systems. And it's not because it is better, it is because it is younger and smaller. It might be better, but until SAGE does a lot of analysis (about 40% of CAS bugs are there) and a fancy user interface (another 40%), it is too hard to compare.

I once ran a graduate course whose core topic was studying the fundamental disconnect between the algebraic nature of CAS and the analytic nature of the what it is mostly used for. There are issues of logic -- CASes work more or less in an intensional logic, while most of analysis is stated in a purely extensional fashion. There is no well-defined 'denotational semantics' for expressions-as-functions, which strongly contributes to the deeper bugs in CASes.]


Should such widely-believed conjectures as P≠NP or the Riemann hypothesis turn out be false, then because they are assumed by so many existing proofs, a far larger math holocaust would ensue38 - and our previous estimates of error rates will turn out to have been substantial underestimates. But it may be a cloud with a silver lining, if it doesn’t come at a time of danger.


more on formal methods in programming:

Update: measured effort
In the October 2018 issue of Communications of the ACM there is an interesting article about Formally verified software in the real world with some estimates of the effort.

Interestingly (based on OS development for military equipment), it seems that producing formally proved software requires 3.3 times more effort than with traditional engineering techniques. So it's really costly.

On the other hand, it requires 2.3 times less effort to get high security software this way than with traditionally engineered software if you add the effort to make such software certified at a high security level (EAL 7). So if you have high reliability or security requirements there is definitively a business case for going formal.

WHY DON'T PEOPLE USE FORMAL METHODS?: https://www.hillelwayne.com/post/why-dont-people-use-formal-methods/
You can see examples of how all of these look at Let’s Prove Leftpad. HOL4 and Isabelle are good examples of “independent theorem” specs, SPARK and Dafny have “embedded assertion” specs, and Coq and Agda have “dependent type” specs.6

If you squint a bit it looks like these three forms of code spec map to the three main domains of automated correctness checking: tests, contracts, and types. This is not a coincidence. Correctness is a spectrum, and formal verification is one extreme of that spectrum. As we reduce the rigour (and effort) of our verification we get simpler and narrower checks, whether that means limiting the explored state space, using weaker types, or pushing verification to the runtime. Any means of total specification then becomes a means of partial specification, and vice versa: many consider Cleanroom a formal verification technique, which primarily works by pushing code review far beyond what’s humanly possible.


The question, then: “is 90/95/99% correct significantly cheaper than 100% correct?” The answer is very yes. We all are comfortable saying that a codebase we’ve well-tested and well-typed is mostly correct modulo a few fixes in prod, and we’re even writing more than four lines of code a day. In fact, the vast… [more]
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july 2019 by nhaliday
In Computers We Trust? | Quanta Magazine
As math grows ever more complex, will computers reign?

Shalosh B. Ekhad is a computer. Or, rather, it is any of a rotating cast of computers used by the mathematician Doron Zeilberger, from the Dell in his New Jersey office to a supercomputer whose services he occasionally enlists in Austria. The name — Hebrew for “three B one” — refers to the AT&T 3B1, Ekhad’s earliest incarnation.

“The soul is the software,” said Zeilberger, who writes his own code using a popular math programming tool called Maple.
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january 2017 by nhaliday
The Mathematician Ken Ono’s Life Inspired By Ramanujan | Quanta Magazine
This intellectual crucible produced the desired results — Ono studied mathematics and launched a promising academic career — but at great emotional cost. As a teenager, Ono became so desperate to escape his parents’ expectations that he dropped out of high school. He later earned admission to the University of Chicago but had an apathetic attitude toward his studies, preferring to party with his fraternity brothers. He eventually discovered a genuine enthusiasm for mathematics, became a professor, and started a family, but fear of failure still weighed so heavily on Ono that he attempted suicide while attending an academic conference. Only after he joined the Institute for Advanced Study himself did Ono begin to make peace with his upbringing.
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may 2016 by nhaliday

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