Thoughts on E. O. Wilson’s article about math and science

25 Apr

From xkcd: Correlation

The Wall Street Journal recently published an excerpt from the book Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson, an established biologist and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This article, titled “Great Scientists Don’t Need Math” (or, Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math),  caused a whole lot of stir among scientists. Many people have made good points about the shortcomings of the article (the references are included throughout my post). Since I already got myself into two online discussions about the article, I figured I might as well put down some reflections here.

While the title for Wilson’s article is controversial (horrible, horrible title!!!), the actual name of the chapter that the excerpt is from is simply “Mathematics.” And, reading the article itself, in no way did Wilson mention that “you don’t need math.” In fact, it sounds like he values having a good foundation in math greatly:

If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have. Think twice, though, about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include most of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties in molecular biology.

And, if he actually didn’t think math is important, then he wouldn’t have sat in a Calculus class himself:

 I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.

I believe Wilson meant to say that you will need to know math, but not necessarily advanced level math unless you are going into more specialized fields – this, I generally agree with. What Wilson didn’t explain though, was what he meant by “advanced level math.” For me, I consider algebra, statistics (covered well by Jeff Leek’s blog post), and the understanding of how mathematical equations describe relationships, all essential mathematical knowledge that young scientists in health sciences should have (the basis, not the ceiling, by the way; these are the topics in math that I used most heavily). I disagree with David H. Bailey and Jonathan M. Borwein, who think that those who don’t possess advanced mathematical skills “will be outside the mainstream of modern science, if they can gain employment in the field at all”.

Wilson’s article is passionately debated by many people. Some discussions went down the road of comparing the importance of different fields of science, which I think is comparing apples with oranges in most cases (some are more fundamental, and some are more applied; no one is more important than the other). Even worse, National Post covered the story with an article titled “‘Disgraceful’ professor ignites firestorm over his secret: modern scientists do not need advanced math,” whose url is “science-vs-math,” as if a UFC fight is waiting to happen between scientists and mathematicians. That is simply ridiculous 😦

So far, the most balanced discussion I have seen is Brian McGill’s blog post, “A calm and balanced case for math in biology (UPDATED),” which I highly recommend. My favourite part:

What I conclude is that if you are innately more mathematical, then if you want to do great science, you will spend your whole career finding collaborations, graduate students/postdocs, inspiring papers and self-educating to add-in the real world component so as to move to the center. If you are on the innately more empirical side, then, if you want to do great science, you will spend your whole career finding collaborations, graduate students/postdocs, inspiring papers, and self-educating to add-in math so as to move to the center. To say that you have to be great at math to be a great scientist is wrong just as it is wrong to say you have to be great at field work to be a great scientist.

I tend to be careful when I share personal anecdotes, because personal anecdotes are simply personal anecdotes. With each personal experience, you can probably find ten other different ones. So Wilson’s personal story is helpful and perhaps inspirational for some, but it probably doesn’t ring true for everyone and in every situation. For example, Jon Wilins’ take on collaboration is one that I agree with, more so than Wilson’s interpretation of the nature of collaborations. But at the same time, when I was working on my thesis, I was able to consult an in-house statistician, so there is some truth to what Wilson said about acquiring collaboration (or really “help”) from a statistician.

Last but not the least, I think it is okay to dislike math. But it is another thing to think it is okay to ignore math, which I worry is the message that some might take away erroneously from Wilson’s article. We actually already have lots of difficulty in trying to get high school students to know the basic math they need for doing university level science. For example, I still see students who cannot calculate molar concentrations, or hear about those who don’t understand why you need to use cm3 when you are working with volumes (huge, huge problem). And, when I went to the statistician for help on my thesis, I didn’t just follow her instructions and wrap it up. Instead, I spent the whole week digging into statistics textbooks and online resources to make sure I understand the difference between the two methods I was using to analyze my results. I did not like statistics, but that didn’t stop me from getting to the bottom of it to make sure I did it right. Then, perhaps the discussion should be about how we can encourage students to value math and to try to understand math, even if they are not good with it (on this specific point I do agree with Edward Frenkel, but that’s about the only thing I agree with him on).

How do we make math more relevant to students? How do we encourage them to think and/or communicate mathematically? And, at the graduate school level, how do we make sure students have the mathematical knowledge they need for their specific fields? I would love to see more discussions about them!

Postscript: Seriously? Wilson got tenureship by 32? I don’t think that still happens these days…


5 Responses to “Thoughts on E. O. Wilson’s article about math and science”

  1. Artem Kaznatcheev April 26, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    Awesome collection of links! I haven’t read some of those commentaries on Wilson. I really like Wilins’ critique, but I also think I like Fox’s more direct attack over McGill’s later post on the same blog. When somebody says something silly and seemingly polarized, responding with a central commentary is often not enough :(.

    • Terrific T April 26, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      I actually read Fox’s response, but personally do not agree with him and don’t like how he conveys his points. While I think there are many flaws to what Wilson said, I do generally agree with him. I think that the need of math varies greatly from field to field – I can honestly say that I rarely used anything beyond what I stated in the post (not to say that they are enough for all fields, but that was my experience). So overall I think McGill’s response is rather calm, balanced, and reasonable, and I prefer it much better than Fox’s.

      Neither over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing the need for math will serve us good. What we need to do is to deal with the various needs by different fields, while fulfilling the basic needs across all fields. And the last thing I want to see if people “dueling it out” in the name of science 😦

      • Artem Kaznatcheev April 27, 2013 at 4:45 am #

        Something about:

        [A]s if a UFC fight is waiting to happen between scientists and mathematicians.

        appeals to me. But seriously, I find that blogs are perfect for more polarizing discussion, and I am fine to see them used as such. I wouldn’t use language that harsh in a formal review of Wilson’s book (that being said, he is more gentle in the book) but I think it makes for good blogs.

        If you liked the balanced nature of Brian McGill’s commentary then you should take a look at the one based on class discussion by McGill ecology students. They echo some of your concerns about early math education.

        • Terrific T April 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

          Haha. I actually quite enjoy reading posts with completely different opinions. In fact, sometimes I discover things I never thought about by reading opinion pieces, and that’s quite awesome 😀 But from time to time people are so “passionate” about their own stance that they start to belittle others’ experiences and opinions (which happens to some of the discussions about Wilson’s article) This makes it so hard to tell whether one actually has an opinion, or simply tries to be louder than the other person. I enjoy a good debate, not so much a shouting match. And, for me personally, arrogance really turns me off…

          Thanks for recommending another link! I will take a look when I get a chance 😀

          • Artem Kaznatcheev May 3, 2013 at 8:24 am #

            Recommending links is just too fun!

            Jeremy Fox did the same experiment as Chris Bunddle but with his upper-year ecology undergrads at UCalgary. Some of their answers are very revealing, math-phobia is not inherent but indoctrinated by a lack of focus on math after 1st year or explanation of relevance to non-math students.

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