I was exactly one sentence in to this Wall Street Journal article about how you don’t need math to do science when I thought “huh, I bet this guy’s a biologist”. I was right.
EO Wilson is a Harvard biologist/naturalist who leads the world in the study of ants, and he wants people to know that you don’t need math to be a scientist. Now this is a good point. From the acronym STEM to the more colloquial ways of referring to geeks, we tend to conflate being good at math with being good at science and vice versa. For some sciences, there really is not a good reason to do this.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I loved the execution in this article. A few things about this:
- What seems to annoy Wilson most is calculus requirements. I won’t quibble with him on that. However, I think a basic understanding of statistics is critical for any scientist…otherwise how will you read/interpret nearly any paper in your field? Statistics is often lumped in with math, so I would have liked to hear his thoughts on this.
- As so often happens, Wilson left the entire field of medicine out of his discussion about science. Walk in to any group of freshmen bio majors, and you’ll find a huge percentage of them are pre-med. Many med schools require math/stats classes for admission. That’s a big reason why these kids are taking math classes to begin with.
- It’s not until paragraph 11 that Wilson mentions that if you’re bad at math, you should pretty much stay away from chemistry and physics. So while the headline says “scientists don’t need math” what he means is “some types of biologist don’t need math”.
- He estimates that only 10% of mathematical models of biological phenomena hold any water. Given my blog posts last week, I thought that was really interesting.