### Archive

Posts Tagged ‘proof’

## Mathematical proofs contain faults, just like software

The idea of proving programs correct, like mathematical proofs, is appealing, but is based on an incorrect assumption often made by non-mathematicians, e.g., mathematical proofs are fault free. In practice, mathematicians make mistakes and create proofs that contain serious errors; those of us who are taught mathematical techniques, but are not mathematicians, only get to see the good stuff that has been checked over many years.

An appreciation that published proofs contain mistakes is starting to grow, but Magnificent mistakes in mathematics is an odd choice for a book title on the topic. Quotes from De Millo’s article on “Social Processes and Proofs of Theorems and Programs” now appear regularly; On proof and progress in mathematics is worth a read.

Are there patterns to the faults that appear in claimed mathematical proofs?

A surprisingly common approach, used by mathematicians to avoid faults in their proofs, is to state theorems without giving a formal proof (giving an informal one is given instead). There are plenty of mathematicians who don’t think proofs are a big part of mathematics (various papers from the linked-to book are available as pdfs).

Next time you encounter an advocate of proving programs correct using mathematics, ask them what they think about the uncertainty about claimed mathematical proofs and all the mistakes that have been found in published proofs.

Tags:

## Coq used to prove that false is true

Coq, a proof system much beloved by formal methods researchers, has been used to prove that false is true. The ‘proof’ makes use of a bug in Coq, which I’m sure is being hurriedly fixed as I type.

This bug stands out from the other 4,000+ on Coq’s bug list because of what it has been used to prove; this will be a standing joke that the Coq community will have to endure for years to come. I have some sympathy for their plight, but if it results in formal methods researchers taking themselves a little less seriously and being a little more intellectually honest, then some good has come out of it.

I have had some surprising feedback about posts pointing out serious faults in claims made in papers by formal methods researchers. The feedback could be paraphrased as “They are doing important work and so the these problems do not matter”. Do medical researchers get to claim whatever they like, it seems like some do like to try.

It is always worth remembering that all computer aided mathematics programs contain bugs.

Tags:

## What is the error rate for published mathematical proofs?

Mathematical proofs are sometimes cited as the gold standard against which software quality should be compared. At school we rarely get to hear about proofs that turn out to be wrong and are inculcated with the prevailing wisdom that all mathematical proofs are correct.

There are many technical and social issues involved in believing a published proof and well known established mathematicians have no trouble pointing out that “… it is impossible to write out a very long and complicated argument without error, …

Examples of incorrect published proofs include Wiles’ first proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem and an serious error found in a proof of a message signing scheme.

A question on mathoverflow contains a list of rather interesting false proofs.

Then, of course, there are always those papers that appear in journals that get written about more frequently on Retraction Watch than others.

What is the error rate for published mathematical proofs? I have not been able to find any collection of mathematical proof error data.

Several authors have expressed the view that because there so many diverse mathematical topics being studied these days there are very few domain experts available to check proofs. A complicated proof of a not particularly interesting result is unlikely to attract the attention needed to check it thoroughly. It should come as no surprise that the number of known errors in such proofs is equal to the number of known errors in programs that have never been executed.

Proofs are different from programs in that one error can be enough to ‘kill-off’ a proof, while a program can contain many errors and still be useful. Do errors in programs get talked about more than errors in proofs? I rarely get to socialize with working mathematicians and so cannot make any judgment call on this question.

Every non-trivial program is likely to contain many errors; can the same be said for long mathematical proofs? Are many of these errors as trivial (in the sense that they are easily fixed) as errors in programs?

One commonly used error rate for programs is errors per line of code; how should the rate be expressed for proofs? Errors per page, per line, per definition?

Lots of questions and I’m hoping one of my well informed readers will be able to provide some answers or at least cite a reference that does.

Tags: