Expanding Horizons Issue 29, June 2004

Response to Last Issue's "Chatting with the Chair" Column

By Brian Hearsey, Lebanon Valley College, February 2004


Tom Edwalds has done a great job organizing the E&R Section's 2004 Annual Meeting Sessions.

The Chair's chat about "The Discipline of Actuarial Science" in the December 2003 issue of Expanding Horizons raises some interesting questions. What is an academic discipline? At what schools would Oxford's position seem amusing? What water is most nourishing?

The answer to the local version of the first question is local. Actuarial science is a discipline in Waterloo, but in most schools it is an interdisciplinary study involving mathematics, probability, statistics, insurance and risk, economics, finance, etc. The answer to the global question is left as homework.

The numerical answer to question two could be estimated on one hand, maybe two. The problem arises in part because the "discipline" finds that many of the desired students are in math (and engineering and science) departments and much of the curriculum is in the business school.

My serious answers to question three are too long to pursue here, maybe anywhere. However, I remark that the quality of water from a flowing stream depends upon what is going on upstream.

Last fall, I was invited to discuss actuarial science in the undergraduate math curriculum at an MER (Mathematics and Education Reform) workshop. During a breakout session, a highly respected mathematics researcher and teacher challenged me with the question: "When is actuarial science going to become respectable?"

I temporarily dodged the query, trying to figure out what was meant. After the session, I found the person and after some discussion concluded that she meant roughly: "When will actuarial faculty do actuarially–related mathematics that will impress mathematicians?" I had to conclude that the answer to her question was "rarely" or "never."

From having attended many ARCs, I know that actuarial mathematicians are just as adept as other mathematicians at pushing symbols around beyond comprehension to other than specialists. But the problems are generally in finance, economics or statistics and, as mathematics problems, seldom at the frontier of mathematics research.

Overwhelmingly, the mathematics that mathematicians see from actuarial faculty is undergraduate mathematics (material through the current Course 4). They might concede that it involves nice applications, but most think it belongs in the business school.

I have no idea what the appropriate action for Oxford or the British Institute was. I do know that those of us working in actuarial education have a wide variety of mission and background and the view from our porches is quite varied.