Scholarship and education

A theorem, a crank, and a duel to the death

Li Ming PK Fang Zhouzi.
A debate over mathematics took a sinister turn earlier this month when philosopher Li Ming, working out of his field, challenged science activist Fang Zhouzi to a deadly wager over the results of his purported proof of the four color problem. The loser, should Fang accept the terms, would be bound to commit suicide.

In April, "philosophy gadfly" Li Ming announced on his Sina blog that he had solved the four color theorem (see the link below for a description) using traditional Chinese philosophy and his own innovative ternary logic system (excerpts in translation):

In June, 1976, University of Illinois mathematicians Haken and Appel collaborated, using three different computers, more than 1200 hours, and over 10 billion decisions to finally prove the four color theorem and stun the world. However, I believe that this can't be called a "proof"; since it cannot be confirmed by anyone else, it's difficult to believe. And even if it is a proof, it's really too stupid, so stupid that it forgets the innate wisdom of humans and relies completely on a computer.

Now I announce to the world - of course I first announce it to my dear compatriots - under the shared guidance of Laozi and Kant, I have discovered an exquisite proof that requires no other tools, including a computer; with only a pen and a few sheets of paper, I can quickly and simply work out a beautiful, perfect proof to the four color theorem. Moreover, following this "proof," a completely new system of human logical thought will be born. It needs to be said that proving the four color problem is only a byproduct of my years of inquiry (in truth, I had results several years ago, but I always felt I needed to continue to rethink it, so I delayed up until today. In my mind, I am already extremely confident in my conclusions, so I have decided to announce them); my more important work is what is after it, establishing an entirely new system of logical thought for humanity. I think that my wish may come to fruition today.

I look forward to announcing a report of my research openly at the China Hall of Science, at which time I will accept questions from the mathematicians present. When all questions have received satisfactory answers, I will publish my paper in an academic journal of mathematics belonging to the Chinese people.

Fang Zhouzi, China's most visible crusader against fraud in academia and the public sector, wrote a critique in June titled "Has China's philosophy crank become a mathematics crank?" (excerpts translated below):

China has a large group of "mathematics cranks" who believe they have solved hard problems in mathematics like the Goldbach Conjecture, Fermat's Last Theorem, or the four color problem, and fervently promote their proofs. After the arrival of the Internet, promotion has become much easier; it's no longer necessary to pester a university or a research institute like in the past when one can simply hold one's ground on an online forum. Out of a desire for novelty, domestic media fall over themselves to report on their accomplishments. These people are usually unknowns living on the edges of society, so when a relatively famous philosopher like Li Ming suddenly appears in their midst, proclaiming that he has an exceedingly simple written solution to the four color problem based on Laozi's concept that "the three gives birth to the myriad creatures", it is a bit unexpected.

Of course, if a simpler proof method can be found after the four color theorem has been proven, then it still has value. But this should be written up as a paper and submitted to a mathematics journal, published after undergoing peer review, and once again undergoing further review by other people. Li Ming, however, uses his fear of being plagiarized as an excuse for not publicizing his proof - I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Only unpublished results are at risk of being stolen; who's afraid of having something stolen from a paper that's already published?

Although I have no interest or professional ability to discover the errors in Li Ming's proof (should he finally reveal his proof), after reading his related articles, I do not believe that he has the strict logical ability necessary to prove a hard mathematical problem. For example, he says that his proof for the four color theorem comes from Laozi's "the three gives birth to the myriad creatures" conjecture, and that his conjecture is "a truth among truths, the highest truth." How does he know this? "Up until today, whether in the natural sciences like physics, chemistry, biology, genetics, DNA coding, or in the social sciences like politics, economics, law, history, or sociology, or maybe psychology, and so forth, there are myriad cases that prove the truth of Laozi's "the three gives birth to the myriad creatures" conjecture. For example, the matter in the universe has three particles: electrons, protons, and neutrons, or three leptons: the electron, the and the up and down quark; biological matter is composed of three pairs of DNA coded proteins...."

From his "examples" we can demonstrate that his so-called proof is nothing more than hot air. Humans have discovered not three but more than thirty elementary particles; is this called "more than thirty gives birth to the myriad creatures?" There are not three but six leptons (and quarks are not among them); is this called "the six gives birth to the myriad creatures?" As for "biological matter is composed of three pairs of DNA coded proteins," this is completely wrong. What he wants to express is probably that the coding amino acids are made up of three nucleotides, thus called "the three gives birth to the myriad creatures." But there are four nucleotides, so is this called "the four gives birth to the myriad creatures?" There are 20 amino acids making up proteins; should this be called "the twenty gives birth to the myriad creatures?"

In nature you can find and even make up a few examples of 'the three gives birth to the myriad creatures," but other people can similarly find even more examples of "the N gives birth to the myriad creatures." Truth is not proven in this way, and in particular, scientific truth and mathematical truth does not rely on examples for proof. However, the "philosophy crank" apparently does not give any heed to the logic and proofs of ordinary people. He has already declared that following his "proof" of the four color theorem, "a completely new system of human logical thought will be born." How can those of us who continue to use the old system of logic ever understand his earth-shattering "proof" - it's best to respect it from a distance.

The ensuing argument played out both online and in the print media - both Fang and Li have blogs on Sina, and Fang at the time was a columnist for Beijing Science and Technology Weekly (he has since left that magazine for The Economic Observer, saying that BS&T had been taken over by anti-science types). Li's daughter wrote in to BS&T to protest the portrayal of her father as a crank, and online, the armies of fellow cranks and crank-sympathizers condemned Fang's dismissive attitude toward amateur science. And a blogger named Han Han (no, not the author involved in a different Sina blog feud) claiming to be Li's student posted an essay titled "How to get Fang Zhouzi to shut up?"

Then the other shoe dropped. In early August, Li Ming posted the following challenge on his blog (in translation):

Mr. Fang Zhouzi, let us have a duel!

Though this is an era lacking in civility, I nonetheless have decided to carry out a civilized duel to the death. Mr. Fang Zhouzi can wantonly smear and mock me in the authoritative media outlet Beijing Science and Technology Weekly, but that paper will not permit me to refute him; rather, it unreasonably deletes or refuses to run my rebuttal articles. Online polls are laughable - can netizens decide the success or failure of scientific research by clicking on a "vote" button? Even if today 100% of netizens vote in support of Mr. Fang Zhouzi, what does it mean? Does this prove that my solution to the four color theorem is a failure? What's more, through this poll, do you ultimately wish to prove that China's folk science and technology is useless, or do you want to prove that Chinese people are failures through and through? By doing this, are you ultimately advancing the development of China's science and technology, or snuffing it out?

Sina's lead story on Fang Zhouzi vs. Li Ming allowed me to see the idiotically redundant barking of Fang Zhouzi's fans, and had me both sick with anger and unable to stifle a laugh. My scientific conference has not yet opened, and my idiot compatriots are jeering along with Fang Zhouzi, shouting that "cracking the four color theorem" is impossible, fake, fraudulent, or even a hoax. This once again confirms my serious worries about "why Chinese people are so stupid," and my life's work is how to make my dear young compatriots truly more intelligent.

To rid these netizens of their senseless fighting, Mr. Fang Zhouzi and I should really carry out a civilized duel to the death. To demonstrate my unshakeable confidence, and to demonstrate the "brilliance" of Fang Zhouzi, the great and all-knowing scientific genius, I am willing to sign on to the following terms of a duel to the death:

If "cracking the four color theorem" fails, Mr. Li Ming agrees to civilly commit suicide;
If "cracking the four color theorem" succeeds, Mr. Fang Zhouzi agrees to civilly commit suicide.

Aside from this "extreme" method, I truly do not know what else to do to get rid of today's extremely pointless, extremely ugly, and extremely idiotic wars of words. In China, people are tired just from living. What energy to Chinese people have to make meaningful discoveries, inventions, or innovative work?

This will go down in history as a strange event, a warning forever to China's descendants, that Chinese people only see "justice" in the face of death, while equality and justice for people during their lives is hard to obtain!

A person's reputation is higher than life; in this foul era, basic truth and righteousness are promoted, and scientific success is determined by the votes of disinterested people, while on the other hand the affairs of state can be controlled by a minority of people. Can their be any meaning to life for Chinese people? As a Chinese person, oftentimes I truly feel an enormous sadness for this fact. This affair could only occur in a country that lacks free though, free speech, and free press. But in a country with free though, free speech, and free press, this would be a joke. A common Chinese person (an amateur) who wishes to make a contribution to his people, instead must first face the insults and vituperation of so many of his countrymen, until finally between pain and death, he becomes a sacrifice on the altar of the Ah-Q spirit of the Chinese people. The Chinese will forever have only "Long Live Ah-Q!"

A duel to the death - this is a matter between Mr. Fang Zhouzi and me only. I invite Mr. Fang Zhouzi to answer quickly in the affirmative. If you cannot or will not reply, then I ask you to watch that wantonly-slandering, good-for-nothing mouth of yours, to avoid being fined by the courts, publicly apologizing, and forced to turn to a duel to the death to demonstrate your great "brilliance."

In regard to my "cracking the four color theorem", I notify the online public of the following four recommendations:

1. In view of the serious corruption in contemporary Chinese science and technology, and academic sectors, and in view of the serious unfair, unfree situation in contemporary Chinese print media, I choose not to submit to any domestic media directly. To put it bluntly, I have a hard time believing that the sanctimonious people in this bureaucratic society could recognize truth if they saw it;
2. I propose that the authorities of the Chinese Academy of Sciences host a symposium for me and invite foreign and domestic media;
3. I propose that CCTV science and technology channel (CCTV10) host a small-scale symposium where I can crack the four color theorem to a national audience. I guarantee that all people with a high-school education or higher will be able to understand;
4. If the above two conditions are not feasible, then private enterprise may pay to rent the CAS hall, and at an appointed time, invite foreign and domestic media as well as an audience that is interested in the cracking of the four-color theorem.

On the four color theorem, netizens need not press me, whether out of good intentions or bad. This is a natural result of my lengthy research into logical thinking methods; it is my daughter. I will not let it fail to become an open member of society, so ultimately I will let you meet it directly.

Needless to say, Li's offer failed to stop the mud-slinging in the comments sections of his and Fang's blogs. The online storm has quieted somewhat, although the print media is still keeping it alive. Fang Zhouzi issued a statement yesterday clarifying his position (excerpts in translation):

1. Judging from the articles and conversations Li Ming has made on this issue, he lacks scientific knowledge, his thinking is extremely confused, and he does not have the critical thinking skills necessary to prove hard math problems. For this reason, I do not believe that he has truly proven any math problem.

2. If Li Ming has the conviction that his unique method has proven the four color theorem, then he should respect academic conventions and publish his proof for experts to review rather than engaging in wanton hype without publishing.

3. Scientific results are built on evidence and logic, not on a duel between two people. To have a duel to the death not only betrays the scientific spirit but is inhumane as well. If I sign on to his agreement, I have blood on my hands.

4. Even if I go crazy and sign on to Li Ming's agreement, I do not think that Li Ming is someone who will admit to losing a bet. Recently he has published a series of arguments that show a lack of general scientific knowledge. Many people have pointed out errors, but Li Ming to this day has not acknowledged any mistakes. If Li Ming's four color proof is called forth, and it is discovered to be full of elementary errors, I can predict that he'll die before admitting he's wrong, just like those countless deluded people who say that they've proven the Goldbach conjecture.

In closing, I believe that this is a farce played by the "philosophy crank" for self-promotion, and not worthy of serious treatment.

According to a report in The Beijing News on 9 August (done with the credulous condescension that typifies Chinese media reports on amateur scientists), Li claims that his new logic system will be of use in finding the solution to the Goldbach conjecture. And the Poincaré conjecture, the final stages of which were proven by a team of Chinese mathematicians earlier this year, is an elementary result in Li's system.

So is this the most significant scientific result derived from Chinese philosophy since Phuntsok Wanggyal proved dialectically that liquid water exists on all celestial bodies in the universe in his seminal treatise Liquid Water Does Exist on the Moon (Foreign Languages Press, 2000)? Rent the CAS lecture hall and we can all find out.

Fang Zhouzi is an author, newspaper columnist, frequent media contact on academic dishonesty, and webmaster of the New Threads (XYS) website. Philosopher Li Ming is the author of many books, including Western Philosophy is Dead and Returning Philosophy to Respectability.

UPDATE: For Li Ming's purported proof, see Pseudoscience in four glorious colors!.

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There are currently 5 Comments for A theorem, a crank, and a duel to the death.

Comments on A theorem, a crank, and a duel to the death

This is a great story. Somehow I can't envision an "academic death match" being called in the US these days.

(Incidentally, the reporting makes me sympathize with Fang Zhouzi, but the picture of Fang Zhouzi me want to whack him in the nose. He looks like a pinhead!)

“Fang's daughter wrote in to BS&T to protest the portrayal of her father as a crank, and online⋯”

it should be Li's daughter.

Right you are.

Great story.

Of course, the debunking comes straight from the title of Li Ming's very first post on the subject: "Thanks to Laozi, I have discovered [a solution to a maths problem]."

Yeah. Not a crank. Right.

One may as well say "Thanks to Hobbes I have discovered a way to unblock my drains."

Which could be true, if my "way of unblocking drains" were "have a super-authoritarian state do it for me".

I suspect much of Li's "proof" relies on similar non-sequiturs.

Just have a look to my web site at

Then I hope nothing remain for a duel!

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