E.O Wilson’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math’ seemed to cause lots of debate amongst established scientists (see here and here, amongst others) as to whether Wilson’s opinion and arguments were valid or whether they were a dangerous misrepresentation of what it is to be a scientist. However, in all this discussion no-one seems to have bothered to garner the opinion of the people who Wilson was trying to target. By that I mean the aspiring young scientist perhaps currently studying their A Levels or in the very early stages of their Undergraduate degree.

As it happens, I am part of that demographic. Just coming to the end of the first year of a Zoology degree I feel somewhat justified in having an opinion on the Science vs/via Maths debate. You see, I chose Zoology largely because of my lack of ability in Maths. Until the end of GCSE’s I had dreamed of studying Veterinary Medicine and becoming a Vet. My total lack of confidence in my mathematical ability (although I got an A) coupled with a lack of ability to relate to the subject meant that my Vet dreams were over. I avoided Maths at A Level and chose Zoology instead of Vet Med because there was no Maths pre-requisite.

As it happens, my decision to choose Zoology over Veterinary Medicine couldn’t have worked out better. I absolutely love my course and couldn’t imagine studying anything else. If I hadn’t chosen Zoology I wouldn’t now be sat surrounded by books on Evolution and dreaming of a career in academic research, but that’s another story.

Back to Maths. Somewhat naively, I have swept Maths under the carpet, hoping never to see it rearing its ugly head at me again. However, as my career aspirations have changed I’ve begun to realise that it might not be that easy. For example, at the most basic level, it is obvious that if I want to do valid research in the future I will need to understand something of statistics. As part of my new found interest in Sexual Selection etc I’ve discovered Game Theory and a host of models that aim to predict what should happen under certain conditions. I suppose that in future some understanding of how these work will also be necessary. Many of the scientists commenting on Wilson’s article went further, arguing that a fairly comprehensive understand of Maths is vital to all scientific endeavour. I personally think the real level lies somewhere in between these two. There will always be people in Biology that are more interested in Empirical research and those more interested in Maths and by working together both sides can somewhat make up for their lack of skill in the other discipline. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to continually improve our abilities in the weaker side, its simply saying that it shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

At school (at least up until GCSE level), Maths is taught in an isolated and trivial way. You never get taught how different parts of Maths might join together, or how the maths you’re doing in the classroom might relate to the outside world. In fact, it was always a great source of frustration to me that this was never explained. I found myself sat at the back of the classroom bored and seething because I couldn’t see the point. On many occasions I asked my teachers (not in a sarcastic trouble-making way) what’s the point of studying how to find the circumference of a circle? When will I ever use that Maths again? And guess what….they never provided me with an answer. In fact, most of them agreed that it all seemed a bit pointless. This lack of ability to teach Maths in a way that makes it relevant is one of the biggest obstacles to students like myself. If I don’t think something is relevant, why would I focus my efforts on understanding it?

So here I am now after 4 years of denial and joyous freedom, discovering that learning more Maths might actually have been quite important after all. And that’s SCARY. Where can I go now to learn the Maths I need? Will I be able to learn it along the way, either through my degree or through my supervisors and collaborators as I slowly (and hopefully) progress up the academic ladder? Will I have to seek out opportunities and courses? The trouble for me is, ‘Maths’ is a massive umbrella term. How am I supposed to find out which parts of Maths are the basic set of principles that I should be attempting to understand? And once I’ve found them out, how can I go about learning them? Having not studied Maths since GCSE I don’t even know what the word ‘Calculus’ means, let alone what it is!

This is where E.O Wilson’s article has been reassuring. His belief that Maths is not the be-all and end-all of science and the example he sets of being someone who successfully started an academic career without being a maths whizz is refreshing. Okay, he started his career a long time ago and he is clearly an exceptionally clever man and an excellent empirical scientist, and perhaps someone like me will need to work harder to understand the Maths than he did. Despite this, I agree with what I believe to be Wilson’s overriding message – that if you’re truly interested and focussed on a subject and you work hard enough, a lack of confidence or ability in Maths should not be an insurmountable stumbling block.

Whatever your opinion on Wilson’s article and the level of Maths that’s needed to do good science, the fact that a perceived lack of ability in the subject is putting talented young people off the idea of studying science further is a tragedy. These people could be the new E.O Wilson, who if given enough support and if helped to conquer their Maths fears could make a substantial contribution to our understanding of the world around us. I for one hope that I’ll be amongst those who do find a way to conquer maths and who can succeed in studying science at the highest levels.

Jeremy FoxHi Alice,

Nice post. You’re right that actual undergraduates haven’t been as big a part of this conversation as they should be. And I think your experience is common–students get turned off to math because it’s taught in a way that seems pointless, only to later discover (long after their math skills have gone rusty) that’s it’s actually not pointless at all.

Having said that, undergraduates haven’t been entirely absent from this conversation. You might be interested in Chris Buddle’s post on the Wilson kerfuffle. He had his undergraduate ecology students read Wilson’s op-ed and discuss it:

http://arthropodecology.com/2013/04/16/ecology-and-mathematics-perspectives-from-undergraduate-students/

And Terry McGlynn talked to some high school science teachers about Wilson’s piece:

http://smallpondscience.com/2013/04/12/science-math-skills-and-high-school-students/

I’ll shortly be putting something up at Dynamic Ecology on the reaction of my own undergraduate population ecology students to Wilson’s piece.

aliceking1993Post authorThanks for your comment Jeremy. I hadn’t seen those blogs you’ve linked to, but it will be interesting to see if they share my view/experiences. I look forward to your upcoming post on the subject too! Best wishes, Alice.

michaelbodeGreat post, Alice.

Students always want to understand the practical relevance of techniques and theories, (i) because until they see an application, they’re not interested in the abstract, and (ii) because once they can see how it might be used – what ‘x’ stands for – they find it easier to remember and understand the steps. Maths teaching, particularly at high school, does a very poor job offering context.

The problem is, however, that lots of the techniques needed for ecological modelling are pretty rudimentary. They’re the fore-runners of more complex techniques that themselves are only the foundations of methods needed for doing ecological theory. They’re relevant, but they’re not going to have an obvious application, or a clear relevance. If your high school teacher had answered your circumference question with: “So you can do game theory at uni”, that would hardly have solved your boredom problem, despite it being the partial truth. I don’t know how we get around this!

aliceking1993Post authorThanks for your comment Michael. You’re right, its not always easy to explain how we can use these things practically. Its tricky and I don’t know how we’d solve it either, but until we find a way of getting round the problem, maths will continue to be boring and irrelevant to the majority of school-age children, which doesn’t bode well for the future!