STS Circle Seminar: Democracy by the Numbers: The Twentieth-Century Fight over US Congressional Reapportionment


Monday, January 29, 2018, 12:15pm to 2:00pm


CGIS South, S050, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA


Alma SteingartLecturer, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University.

Co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University.


Shana Ashar



Sheila JasanoffFaculty Associate. Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

Lunch is provided if you RSVP via our online form here by Thursday, January 25th


From the decimal census to congressional reapportionment, redistricting, election forecasting, and predictive modeling,electoral politics in the US is a thoroughly numerical endeavor. Yet the mathematical theories underpinning these democratic processes are often black-boxed and removed from public discussions. The putative “objectivity” and“fairness” of numbers is rarely questioned. In this talk, I focus on the early twentieth century fight over congressional reapportionment in the US as a pivotal moment when mathematical expertise collided with political doctrines.American mathematicians first stepped into the fray at the end of the nineteenth century, arguing that they could offer a complete mathematical solution to the problem of reapportionment. Following these debates, I demonstrate how mathematical ideas about the nature of bias, truth, and justice insinuated themselves into the core of American politics.


Alma Steingart is a lecturer in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her research focuses on twentieth-century mathematical thought. Steingart is interested in the ways in which mathematical ways of thinking impact a wide range of disciplines, including the natural and social sciences, and even the humanities. Steingart is currently completing her first manuscript, Pure Abstraction: Mathematical Thought and High Modernism, which tracks the proliferation of mid-century mathematical thought dedicated to abstract and axiomatic ways of reasoning. She earned her PhD from MIT in the Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), and served as a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows.

See also: Science, Technology, and Society Seminar: STS Circle at Harvard2017-2018