10 April 2013

E. O. Wilson has two cents on math

In the Wall Street Journal, E. O. Wilson suggests that math, while useful, is not essential for good science. He writes:

Over the years, I have co-written many papers with mathematicians and statisticians, so I can offer the following principle with confidence. Call it Wilson's Principle No. 1: It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.

This imbalance is especially the case in biology, where factors in a real-life phenomenon are often misunderstood or never noticed in the first place. The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.

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. 
I confess that I'm glad someone has said this - I loath that dreaded acronym STEM! But I do wish Wilson had followed up with something equally obvious. While math may matter less than meets the eye for scientists, being a good writer matters more than practically anyone wishes to see for everyone. In short, I'd be all for talking about STEW (Science, Technology, Engineering & Writing), especially because STEW gets at the underlying flaw in throwing STEM into the same pot. Hah!

Putting it differently, I cannot think of any famous scientist who was not also in the first instance a competent writer. Then why do we permit generations of undergraduates studying STEM subjects to undervalue the importance of writing and reading?

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