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Terrible Advice From a Great Scientist

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the it-sounds-nice-to-me-though dept.

Math 276

Shipud writes "E.O. Wilson is the renowned father of sociobiology, a professor (emeritus) at Harvard, two time pulitzer prize winner, and a popularizer of science. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Wilson provides controversial advice to aspiring young scientists. Wilson claims that math literacy is not essential, and that scientific models in biology, intuitively generated, can later be formalized by a specialized statistician. One blogger calls out Wilson on his article, arguing that knowing mathematics is essential to generating models, and that lacking what Darwin called the "extra sense" is essentially limiting to any scientist."

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He's right (5, Insightful)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 2 years ago | (#43509537)

Math, intuition, and insight are all important. But they don't all have to come from the same person. I have worked on plenty of teams where the creative work and number crunching tasks were delegated to different people. I am currently working on a 3D educational game, using OpenGL. It involves lots of gnarly trig and vector math, which I am good at. It also involves lots of creative scene design and character development, which I am not good at. So I work with an artsy chick, and we make a good team. I don't see why splitting creativity and implementation shouldn't work for biology as well.

Re:He's right (4, Insightful)

Alex Belits (437) | about 2 years ago | (#43509569)

Science doesn't work like that.

Re:He's right (5, Informative)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 2 years ago | (#43509665)

Increasingly it does (minus the artsy chick, some fantasies never die). Very few current articles in biology have been written by one or two people. Even those articles have a long list of people that the researchers relied on for technical and intellectual support. It's not Charles Darwin walking down the road any more.

While there may be great insights developed by single 'intuitive' biologists, the intellectual foundations of those insights are going to come from thousands of disparate people. DNA chemistry and sequencing is an example here - how many biologists understand the chemistry of the analyzers? How many chemists understand the software?

I don't think H.O. is really correct though. At the complexity level that biologists are working at 'intuitive' thinking isn't going to help much. Working the numbers will.

I'd rather train a mathematician to be a biologist than the other way around.

Re:He's right (3, Insightful)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 2 years ago | (#43509989)

I'd rather train a mathematician to be a biologist than the other way around.

With sarcastic apologies to Alex Belits, it doesn't work like that. I mean, it might, but there's issues of both interest and aptitude. Personally, I think you're both right. The best situation is to have both mathematics ability and some other kind of ability concentrated in a single human. Barring that, you can still get things done, perhaps just not as quickly. Thus, it is still preferable but not essential for everyone to have strong mathematics stills.

Re:He's not right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509707)

The person who collects the data is not usually the same person who draws the statistical models from the data, despite what you may believe. Like engineering scientific endeavors are nuanced and multifaceted. Many roles that are critical to discovery, do not require math literacy. The fact that people get up in arms about the defense of math (like yourself) indicate a problem with education.

"literacy" is not "skill". (4, Insightful)

mbkennel (97636) | about 2 years ago | (#43509729)

Sure, the roles do require "math literacy" which is a lower standard than "sufficient mathematical and comptuational capability to independently produce results for a research journal."

Just like natural language literacy is a lower standard than powerful, skilled writing.

Re:"literacy" is not "skill". (2)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 years ago | (#43509985)

Sure, the roles do require "math literacy" which is a lower standard than "sufficient mathematical and comptuational capability to independently produce results for a research journal."

I'd argue that if "sufficient mathematical and comptuational capability to independently produce results for a research journal" includes such things as botching an Excel spreadsheet of a dataset that was lousy to begin with [slashdot.org] , and in spite of this you still get published and win various awards and gold medals [princeton.edu] , then the "not-so-low" standard isn't something to be proud of either.

Re:"literacy" is not "skill". (4, Insightful)

davester666 (731373) | about 2 years ago | (#43510175)

But the math proved what they wanted to show, therefore it was "good enough"

Re:He's not right (5, Insightful)

femtobyte (710429) | about 2 years ago | (#43509769)

Collecting data without having a darn good grasp of how the data analysis works is a great way to waste a huge amount of time and money collecting mostly useless data. It may not be the same person doing both, but the data-collector definitely needs to be intimately "in the loop" about how their experimental work impacts uncertainties in the final analysis.

Re:He's not right (3, Interesting)

Trepidity (597) | about 2 years ago | (#43509837)

Teams these days are really large, so much so that the data-collector is often not even the person designing the experiment. And that person is not the person doing the analysis of the data, who is not the person designing the mathematical model, who is in turn not the person implementing the simulation software. They all have to communicate in various ways, but they cannot each have all of those skills.

On smaller projects it may be the case that there's a more unified role of "experimental scientist", who does need to do all of understanding the model, designing the experiments, and carrying out the experiments. But on large teams the people actually collecting data need more technical skills, focused on operating various kinds of equipment properly. Someone else has drawn up exactly which experiments need to be run, but getting them run properly is not easy. Hence there are various scientific roles, like laboratory technician, that don't even require advanced degrees.

Re:He's not right (1)

PPH (736903) | about 2 years ago | (#43509895)

Before gathering data, you've got to design an experiment. Without understanding the measurements and statistics involved, the experiment design might turn out to be crap.

Re:He's not right (2, Insightful)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 years ago | (#43510003)

Without understanding the measurements and statistics involved, the experiment design will most certainly turn out to be crap.

Here, fixed that for ya.

Re:He's right (4, Insightful)

SJester (1676058) | about 2 years ago | (#43509825)

I'm a scientist (well, almost) and it does work like that with a few caveats. As a biologist I'm not called upon to build intricate mathematical models entirely by myself - but I sure as hell need to understand them before I set to work so I can gather data intelligently, and I need to understand math well during and after so I can communicate with collaborators and contribute to the final papers. I need enough math (and programming, in my branch of the family tree) to at least converse intelligently with team members. A grant application went out recently from our facility. It had a biochemist, a neuroscientist, a mathematician, and a computer scientist on it and the goal is to build a giant computational model of some neural signal cascade. Sounds like the setup for a joke but you can see the spectrum we typically span. Those colors need to blend at the edges.

Re:He's right (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 2 years ago | (#43509891)

I can see it now. At a conference:

"And then we discovered our data fit this unusual mound-shaped pattern, which I thought was pretty neat..."

"Isn't that a Gaussian distribution?"

"Oh, so you've read our paper!"

...the day when biology becomes lessintimately connected to stats is the day when there are no more problems to explore. Perhaps when you're studying insect behaviour like E. O. Wilson you care more about intuitively-recognizable patterns, but the team's statistician should be a supplement moreso than a replacement for developing your own understanding of statistical models.

Re:He's right (3, Insightful)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about 2 years ago | (#43510037)

This would be funny if it were not true... Beware the biologists who tells you they found a number N of categories of each suspiciously smaller than the previous one by the same ratio. And never checked for fear that their result might not be publishable after all.

As in : "This a ground-breaking, paradigm shifting result: these identical individuals are not: some are short-lived, some long-lived, and we found an intermediate category, too" -- "oh, so your mortality curve follows an exponential law".

Re:He's right (2)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 2 years ago | (#43510083)

The thing is, it could be worse than that. It could be much, much worse [wordpress.com] . Consider it a blessing that biologists are forced to take as much math as they are.

Re:He's right (2)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about 2 years ago | (#43510153)

don't get me started on MDs, they should never be allowed near a lab until they get a real university degree in a hard science. Which they should get _after_ their MD.

MD is a trade, like Carpenter or Mason or Lawyer. A hard one, which requires all sorts of qualities. But it does not qualify you to do science. Not remotely.

Re:He's right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509875)

Science doesn't work like that.

Yes, yes it does. Especially Biology. Read their papers. There is not a hint of math in most of them.

Ask a biology PhDs to do differential calculus. Or even to do basic calculus. They do not have to. And why would they? If they need mathematical modeling, they can always ask a mathematician. That's why there is an entire segment of math devoted to biology.

That's why there is also a bunch of physicists always doing some measurements in other disciplines, be that biology or chemistry or even sometimes geology. Then again there is mathematicians helping physicists.

Yes, science works exactly this way. It is NOT jack of all trades here. If it were, we'd be still at 1900s level science.

PS. Even Einstein benefited from a mathematician to formulate his theories of relativity. He wasn't particularly bright where it came to tensor calculus.

Re:He's right (3, Insightful)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about 2 years ago | (#43510075)

Bullshit. Any scientist needs to understand basic maths, notably statistics. Not advanced calculus or complex algebra. But statistics and understanding what a model is is paramount. If you cannot recognised the patterns produced by common types of random processes, you may well start to believe you have found something.

And in fact just measured experimental noise.

Re:He's right (1)

Sesostris III (730910) | about 2 years ago | (#43509885)

Science doesn't work like that.

Presumably you have evidence to back this up, or is it something you know intuitively?

Re:He's right (1)

fredprado (2569351) | about 2 years ago | (#43509585)

Ah, many things can be accomplished by splinting the expertise between two or more people, but many things do require that the expertise be concentrated in a single individual. Especially things that require complex and frequent interactions between them to generate understanding.

Re:He's right (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509691)

On the other hand there is also the matter of "Jack of all trades, master of none."
Pursuing math is something that takes time from something else. In some fields it might be necessary to have someone that know both, in others you need a specialist.
What we don't need is a monoculture where everyone have the same education and the same interests. Luckily people tend to ignore advices like those given in the article and focuses on things they think is interesting. Thanks to this trait science actually works.

Re:He's right (1)

fredprado (2569351) | about 2 years ago | (#43510007)

And that is the main limiting factor of science nowadays. Potential advancements in many fields require knowledge in many others from a single person, and the amount of knowledge a single person can have is limited. At some point in the future artificial improvements of brain capacity and knowledge transfer will be required to accomplish any advancement in science.

That said, I disagree with you in one thing. Although giving everyone the exact same knowledge is indeed a bad idea, requiring from every scientist at least a reasonable mathematical knowledge is not. Mathematics is logic and logic is the foundation of science. Nobody that is ignorant about mathematics can call himself a scientist.

Re:He's right (4, Insightful)

femtobyte (710429) | about 2 years ago | (#43509631)

Intuition and the part of math that involves being good at grinding through lengthy, dense calculations without making sign errors don't have to be the same person. However, a strong and intuitive sense of what math is capable of (which requires advanced mathematical education) do need to go together for scientific productivity. Otherwise, it's just like the techno-incompetent manager asking engineers to implement his "brilliant" physically impossible designs.

Re:He's right (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509645)

Yeah, a team is important, even if it's only two people. James Watson described his working relationship with Francis Crick in "The Double Helix" - Crick was a polymath and was clearly the senior member of the pair, while Watson was brilliant but lazy (he described himself as "another uneducated Ph.D" whose mind was characterized by "an almost complete lack of chemical facts"). But they both apparently spoke a mile a minute and bounced ideas against each other, until Watson, with the benefit of seeing Rosalind Franklin's famous x-ray crystallography photo, one day hit on a workable molecular model in the lab.

So Wilson's advice isn't necessarily terrible, although I would take it with a grain of salt. He probably expects everyone in the lab to have mastered vector calculus and linear algebra, since they're so elementary by his standards, so perhaps he's referring to more advanced coursework such as differential geometry.

Re:He's right (4, Insightful)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about 2 years ago | (#43509683)

I know of certain articles in highly recognised journals which passed the review process, pushed by the editors who liked the message so much.

I also know that their data was largely noise, because the main authors clearly are math illiterate. Of course not everyone needs to be a mathematician, but every scientist should know the basics of statistics and be able to recognise a binomial or Poisson process after a cursory glance at the data.

Likewise not everyone should be some über-coder, but every scientist should be able to write small programmes in MATLAB, R, numpy, or whatever is appropriate for their field. These are basic qualifications which prevent you from churning out bullshit.

Re:He's right (-1, Troll)

BorisSkratchunkov (642046) | about 2 years ago | (#43509731)

MATLAB is inappropriate for any field.

Re:He's right (1)

khallow (566160) | about 2 years ago | (#43509783)

MATLAB is inappropriate for any field.

It has niche applications to some small fields like science and engineering, but I wouldn't use it to balance the checkbook.

Re:He's right (1)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about 2 years ago | (#43509795)

Better MATLAB than wishful thinking... I'm not a fan personally, but I would rather people used that than nothing at all.

Re:He's right (2)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 years ago | (#43510087)

Better MATLAB than wishful thinking... I'm not a fan personally, but I would rather people used that than nothing at all.

I'd like to introduce you to Julia [julialang.org] . The sooner it gets widespread, the better for mankind. Or at least for engineerkind...

Re:He's right (1)

heypete (60671) | about 2 years ago | (#43509803)

MATLAB is inappropriate for any field.


For calculations that involve lots of matrices, it's quite good.

Re:He's right (0)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 years ago | (#43510059)

Why? For calculations that involve lots of matrices, it's quite good.

Since when? If your calculation does indeed involve lots of matrices, does it fuse the matrix operations, generate optimal code and run in on your GPU, of if that is not available, at least on your multicore CPU in parallel? Without any changes? The last time I looked, you had to do some code rewrites and sacrifice a few chicken to achieve that.

The good thing about large packages like Matlab is that a lot of people know how to use them, there are many books, and many extensions. The bad thing is that the whole thing has about as much inertia as R.M.S. Titanic

Re:He's right (1)

SJester (1676058) | about 2 years ago | (#43509843)

MATLAB is inappropriate for any field.

Ok, I'll bit. Why?

Re:He's right (2)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about 2 years ago | (#43510117)

it's a shitty language. Still, in my opinion, much better that than nothing.

Why is is shitty, you ask? No objects, the syntax is not orthogonal (octave is a clone but seems to have done indices right, at least). Horrible, inconsistent libraries. Incredibly inefficient -- People going from naïve matlab to naïve c++ can get x1000 speed-ups.

And so on.

And yet, not coding at all is infinitely worse, so I don't give a hard time to my colleagues who at least try :)

Re:He's right (2)

Molt (116343) | about 2 years ago | (#43509699)

In your example the coding and art are loosely coupled, it's easy to split them between different people. I suspect that if you knew programming but had no knowledge of 3d maths and there was a third person who knew 3d maths but not programming then you would have a lot more difficulty. Every minor piece of coding would result in a confused conversation where you don't have enough common domain knowledge to communicate effectively, misunderstandings will come in as assumptions are made on both sides, and problems will arise.

Re:He's right (4, Insightful)

JustinOpinion (1246824) | about 2 years ago | (#43509705)

In your analogy, you're talking about a very high-level split that can be done cleanly. One person does the creative work of coming up with a game design (storyline, play control, etc.) without worrying about the underlying implementation details. Then another person can certainly do the engineering and coding work to implement that.

But it should be obvious that for some other problems this won't work. For example, it doesn't make sense to try and split the coding into a "creative coder" (who knows nothing about programming) and an "implementation coder" who turns the creative's ideas into actual code. The creative would toss out nonsensical ideas (like "instead of using vectors, why not use genetic algorithms?"), and then the implementer would have to explain why all those ideas are silly... or else they would just have to ignore the creative type and simply code something that makes sense.

In other words, generating good source code requires someone who knows enough about programming that they can see creative solutions. Their intuition is not separate from their programming talent: their intuition is based upon years of training and experience with source code, math, engineering, and so forth. That's where the good ideas come from.

Coming up with good scientific ideas is similar. Analysing scientific data even moreso. It's only once you have a deep, subliminal understanding of the important concepts that you're going to make substantive progress. Whether a deep understanding of math counts as an "important concept" depends on the field, of course... but I would argue that for science generally, the more mathematical know-how you have, the more informed and powerful your ideas will be.

So... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509743)

They should NOT be like Climate Scientists who don't really know the math, yet attempt to so it anyway.

Re:He's right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509755)

because the idea comes from e.o. wilson, hated by group selection proponents. they'll stop at nothing to keep their obviously wrong model front and center.

Research != Programming (1)

Roger W Moore (538166) | about 2 years ago | (#43509775)

No he is not right. Research is not like programming. When coding a program the basic framework already exists: someone comes up with an idea and then someone else can write all or part of the code. Now imagine doing the same with research: someone does an experiment and then another person analyses the data. Chances are that this analysis will be worthless because they have not accounted for all the systematic errors and corrections due to nuances of the experiment itself. To analyse the data you need to have an incredibly detailed knowledge of the experiment and understand it well enough to figure out all the corrections needed during the analysis. In reverse you also need to design the experiment to minimise any biases and effects on the analysis.

Worse his singling out of a "few disciplines" clearly shows how ignorant he is of fields outside his own. ALL of physics, not just particle and astro, needs what he would call "advanced" maths: calculus was invented to describe newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics requires that you solve partial differential equations to understand what is going on: indeed using intuition with QM is not likely to end well. Chemists need some level of understanding of QM since this is what governs reactions. Earth scientists need "advanced" maths for seismology and climate modelling and lets not even mention all of computer science (although perhaps he regards this as information theory).

Re:He's right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509801)

But he's wrong since math literacy, in someone, is essential. What Wilson makes a case for being even more essential is believing what you do is the most important part.

Re:He's right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509821)

OP actually makes this point too, when he refers to his so-called partner an artsy chick.

Re:He's right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509923)

I'm all for working in a team. I do that all the time in the scientific work I do. I'm good at some things, my colleagues are better at other things. Our skills complement each other.

But if your job was engineering, would you contract out the math? If your job was journalism, would you contract out the writing if you didn't know the language? There are some skills that you should have if you want to do that job at all. In science, among other skills, math is a necessity. At the very least you need to be good enough at it to understand other people's application of math to the scientific questions in your field. If you understand little of it, or aren't capable of bringing yourself up to speed on it as necessary, you may as well be illiterate.

Can you do science if you're not adept/fluent at math? In some fields, yes. Wilson is right about that. But can you do science if you're not math literate? Doubtful. If you could, then I'd question whether what you're doing really is science. Furthermore, I think the implication that you shouldn't have to push to improve your math skills if you want to be a scientist is unhelpful. You're going to need it. Few students are going to have the luxury of taking the path that Wilson took (catching up on his math years later) unless they are truly exceptional in other areas. It's going to be a lot harder, that's for sure. Not a recommended approach.

Re:He's right (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 years ago | (#43509953)

"It involves lots of gnarly trig and vector math, which I am good at."

I'd argue that when someone says "math is important", more often than not is it not about trig functions, vectors, and integrals, but rather about logic, reasoning, and modern statistical inference.

Do what he did (1)

Stirling Newberry (848268) | about 2 years ago | (#43509593)

Say something wrong that people want to believe, then block the box for 30 years.

Re:Do what he did (2)

Trepidity (597) | about 2 years ago | (#43509791)

See also: Noam Chomsky on language

WSJ article title is somewhat misleading. (5, Informative)

void* (20133) | about 2 years ago | (#43509599)

From that WSJ article: "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."

I don't really see anything wrong with telling people to still keep thinking about things, find out what they like to study, and get more math. More 'don't let current lack of math get you down' than 'you don't need math at all'.

Re:WSJ article title is somewhat misleading. (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509689)

Ssh, we're busy crafting a strawman here, and you're just trying to blow it down!

Re:WSJ article title is somewhat misleading. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509781)

Ssh, we're busy crafting a strawman here, and you're just trying to blow it down!

But then ... what's the point of comment sections?!

Strawmen are quite entertaining and make me feel smart!

Re:WSJ article title is somewhat misleading. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509969)

That's fair, but it's kind of like telling an aspiring journalism student not to be discouraged about the poor quality of their writing.

You have to put in the effort to improve something that you are not good at (i.e. possible, but very challenging). There shouldn't be the illusion that you can get by without doing so, or that you can give up on it because it doesn't really matter in the end. It does. And very few people are going to be exceptional enough in other areas that they can take the path that Wilson did and succeed.

from the father of handwaving (4, Informative)

stenvar (2789879) | about 2 years ago | (#43509639)

Sociobiology is theories about how observed human behavior and social structures have arise from evolution. Where does cooperation come from? Where does homosexuality come from? How are these traits beneficial for animals and humans, and why haven't they been selected against? Sociobiologists come up with plausible and reasonable sounding theories for many of these, but most of them remain just guesswork if there isn't hard data and hard mathematical modeling (many remain just guesswork even with data and models). Wilson is right that you don't need to be proficient at math to succeed at science. But that's perhaps more a testament to the poor criteria by which some areas of science measure success than to what a scientist actually needs.

Re:from the father of handwaving (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509829)

I don't think math is necessary to accept the "fact" that cooperation is a moral imperative for life, much like homosexuality is a road to extinction. Maybe if it was practiced enough we'd see the first true hermaphroditic human......

Re:from the father of handwaving (-1, Flamebait)

Austerity Empowers (669817) | about 2 years ago | (#43510015)

If it has "socio" in it, it's bullshit. It doesn't matter who says it. It's "science" for people who don't know what real science is about.

Re:from the father of handwaving (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 2 years ago | (#43510027)

If it has "socio" in it, it's bullshit. It doesn't matter who says it. It's "science" for people who don't know what real science is about.

The people learning to understand the physics of the brain don't have time to also learn about the esoteria of dead civilizations, at least not in detail. It takes both kinds of people to understand both what happened and why it happened.

Re:from the father of handwaving (1)

overshoot (39700) | about 2 years ago | (#43510139)

If it has "socio" in it, it's bullshit. It doesn't matter who says it. It's "science" for people who don't know what real science is about.

Maybe that's why the CDC hires so many sociologists to study disease transmission.

(Yup. Got one in the family.)

Yes and no (2)

overshoot (39700) | about 2 years ago | (#43509659)

Math is not necessary -- in fact it can be a serious liability -- in formulating hypotheses. For instance, much of sociobiology. On the other hand, it's indispensable for testing those hypotheses and sorting the valuable ideas from the attractive bullshit.

Which category holds much of sociobiology is a question beyond my own skills.

Re:Yes and no (1)

interval1066 (668936) | about 2 years ago | (#43509807)

Sociobiology- sounds like a psuedo-scienctific discipline, not a hard science. I think he has something of a point, but not much of one. Einstein said he wasn't much of a mathematician himself, but that's not saying much. He certainly spoke the lingo and although STR [wikipedia.org] came to him as a thought experiment he needed mathematics to describe it to the scientific community at large.

Science without math (2)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about 2 years ago | (#43509663)

That's like literature without words...

Re:Science without math (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509849)

There is little science devoid of math - but plenty that doesn't involve advanced math like 'statistics'. Statistics is nice to when things are unclear - it helps you get that 95% confidence level.

But go and discover a simple linear connection like Newtons second law. Here, the math is easy.

Or in biology - describe a 'new' species of flower in great detail. You need a tiny bit of math for counting petals and mesuring stem lengths. Knowledge of MATLAB or poisson processes necessary? Hardly!

I can't say for sure but for me... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509679)

Math is how I weed out my bad ideas from my good ideas. When I find something that seems like an insurmountable road block it's because the math points towards what a poor choice it is, more than anything else.

generalized advice from long-ago outliers is dumb (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509697)

The article effective asserts that it is OK for a scientist to be unable to "rapidly alternate between experiment and quantitative analysis..." This is ridiculous. That the author was lucky enough to stumble on a fertile phenomenon, and be able to communicate well with a mathematically literate person who was not too bogged down in his own work to help (this is less likely today), and do it all before someone who did not need interpersonal communication ate his lunch and published first, is a freak event. Today if some phenomenon is getting funded for study, the quickest to iterate experiments to publishable results will be the doubly-literate.

Re:generalized advice from long-ago outliers is du (1)

Trepidity (597) | about 2 years ago | (#43509853)

I would say it's actually less likely today that you will be able to "rapidly alternate between experiment and quantitative analysis" even if you want to. Roles are much more specialized, and labs much larger, than they used to be.

Re:generalized advice from long-ago outliers is du (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43510023)

Quantitative analysis is easier and faster than ever, if you buckle down and learn a semester of statistics and something like R, Octave, or Matlab. If you are unable to learn these two things, while that does not make you a bad person or hopeless scientist, it makes you a relatively bad investment of research resources. Requiring such work to funnel through some other person on a team injects delay and possible confusion into the system.

Re:generalized advice from long-ago outliers is du (1)

Trepidity (597) | about 2 years ago | (#43510151)

Sure, you can learn it, and probably should. But most large-lab workflows aren't set up for the same person doing the wetlab work to also be doing the data analysis, even if they want to. Their job is to stay in the lab and get more data.

Title and summary (5, Informative)

O('_')O_Bush (1162487) | about 2 years ago | (#43509711)

Are sensationalized bullshit. The original article did not make that claim, only that you shouldn't let a fear of maths or advanced maths prevent you from a career in the sciences. Obviously, don't plan a career in Physics, but there are plenty of interesting areas of study that don't require Calculus+ areas of math proficiency (sociobiology being one).

As an ECE, most of my studies were centered around differential equations. However, my sister, who did biology/chemistry(two hard sciences) with an intent to move on to dental school, hardly had to touch maths at all.

Re:Title and summary (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509839)

That makes perfect sense, although I would not characterize a Dr. of Dental Science as a "scientist". Generally a scientist performs tests, generates theories, tests theories, etc. whereas a Dentist is more like an engineer - skilled at applying the science that others discover.

Re:Title and summary (1)

O('_')O_Bush (1162487) | about 2 years ago | (#43510057)

Yes, but as I've already pointed out, the endpoint of her career is besides the point. She had just as many options of pursuing a scientific career, which is further than others get if they are discouraged from doing sciences by maths in the undergraduate level.

Re:Title and summary (1)

yndrd1984 (730475) | about 2 years ago | (#43509909)

The original article did not make that claim


biology/chemistry(two hard sciences) with an intent to move on to dental school

Doing original scientific research and merely learning about some of its results aren't quite the same thing. If they were, Scientific American would have already made me an astrophysicist, an economist and a neurologist.

Re:Title and summary (1)

O('_')O_Bush (1162487) | about 2 years ago | (#43510045)

I don't disagree. Maybe I should have left out the dental school part because it distracts from the point. The point is, one can survive, at least in the undergraduate level (the starting point of a scientific career, where most students are too discouraged to try) without being heavily involved in maths at all.

I realize that going into medicine doesn't make her a scientist, but the starting point for both paths is the same.

Re:Title and summary (2)

minstrelmike (1602771) | about 2 years ago | (#43510077)

I'll go with ooBush's analysis over EO Wilson's. I have a degree in math. I have never understood why Calculus is mandatory (4 semesters) for most everyone but statistics is not. Calculus is overkill for most degrees. It should only be mandatory for engineers and math geeks. Statistics is what should be mandatory for everyone with a college degree.

There is far more to a useful general mathematics education than The Calculus

Re:Title and summary (1)

overshoot (39700) | about 2 years ago | (#43510189)

there are plenty of interesting areas of study that don't require Calculus+ areas of math proficiency (sociobiology being one).

Good luck passing the quals in sociology without a boatload of statistics that engineers never see, including formal design of experiments. Biology, at least according to the biologists I know, is much the same.

Re:Title and summary (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43510243)

I don't think the title and summary are actually sensationalized. Wilson isn't saying you don't need any math ever in science, but he's also not just saying that you "shouldn't let a fear of maths or advanced maths prevent you from a career in the sciences."

E.g., from the article: "exceptional mathematical fluency is required in only a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory. Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition."

Wilson is smoothing over his message by equivocating. Of course he's not going to say "you don't need math"--that would be too easy a target.

However, what he is saying is grossly misleading, at least today, and I think reflects many of the problems in academics.

I would say that by a lot of standard metrics, I'm a fairly successful academic, a professor at a major research university with tenure in a discipline that's in the broad domain Wilson is referring to. I train lots of grad students, and lack of math just doesn't cut it anymore. You just can't get by. The grad students who are proficient in math and stats succeed, and those who don't struggle. True, you don't need a degree in math, but the big advancements forward are basically based on math.

It's also true that you can work with people who have more math skills, but then what I would say is that the intellectual "heavy lifting" is not being done with you, it's being done by someone else. Today, with all the people in science, it's almost guaranteed that if you have an idea, someone else already had it before you, or at the same time. What gets you notoriety isn't the fact you thought of something someone else didn't, but you fleshed out the details, or put the work into implementing it, or had the money or resources to do so. If someone else is doing the math for you, they're doing the bulk of the work. In the very least, the devil is in the details, so to speak.

Of course, the stereotype of someone who can derive an equation or proof but not understand the real-world implications of anything to tie their shoes is certainly correct, and I'm not saying that just because someone is skilled in math makes them a good scientist. But the message that "you'll do fine if you're behind in math" is poor advice today. It might have been true in biology when Wilson was coming about, but things have changed. I've seen this firsthand in biology in particular, where you have an older generation that basically thought of math and statistics as irrelevant, trying to teach a younger generation living in the age of "big data" and computational biology. It's true that you can do the classic bio stuff without math, but the advances in the field need math. You don't need a degree in math, but you sure as hell need to be proficient in math and statistics. Doing what Wilson did, taking calculus as a tenured professor, won't fly anymore--and if it does, someone else almost certainly deserves credit for what they're claiming they did, regardless of the collaborative intellectual climate that is now the norm.

luckly we got the blogger to tell us the truth (1)

tbj61898 (643014) | about 2 years ago | (#43509719)

... and that infamous father of sociobiology lie to us. Why should people believe what the blogger says? I'm very curious.

Re:luckly we got the blogger to tell us the truth (1)

djmurdoch (306849) | about 2 years ago | (#43509751)

Why would you believe what E.O. Wilson says? Sociobiology is crap like this: "People do X. That's because evolution makes people who do X more likely to reproduce."

Essentially it gives the same explanation for every observation, without ever making any testable predictions. People like it, because it means that they don't need to take responsibility for how they act: after all, the great scientist says that evolution has selected for people who do that.

Re:luckly we got the blogger to tell us the truth (1)

tbj61898 (643014) | about 2 years ago | (#43509863)

essentially because I agree with the comment "He's right"

I hate to think... (1)

J Mack Daddy (774273) | about 2 years ago | (#43509727)

What would Feynman say!?

Re:I hate to think... (1)

schn (1795404) | about 2 years ago | (#43509747)

just look at the equations and see

Fascinating insight (4, Insightful)

rickb928 (945187) | about 2 years ago | (#43509739)

My 'aunt', who still works for a pharmaceutical firm analyzing statistical analyses by researchers, would snort tea out her nose reading this. Doing the research, finding a useful drug, doing minimal testing, and then concocting the analysis to fit the very limited empirical model is not uncommon in the drug industry. Her job was and is to study that 'analysis', identify any problems, send it back for improvement, and repeat until either the researchers give up and move on to something they can demonstrate is effective AND safe enough for the market, or succeed and are able to show provable, reliable results.

Wilson would not like herm, and for good reason - she would call his methods little more than guessing. She has proven repeatedly that well-meaning researchers can find some statistician to lend unwarranted credence to imaginary results.

Kinda sad that this passes as science at all. Wilson seems, to me, to be stating that research need not be proven, merely justified.

math comes second (1, Insightful)

kipsate (314423) | about 2 years ago | (#43509757)

The math behind quantum physics and relativity is of secondary importance compared to the phenomena they predict and define. Einstein had the insight that everything must be relative, and the math followed from that. Mathematicians merely model nature based on existing insights. But it are these insights that create new science and discoveries, and not the math that models them.

Re:math comes second (2)

femtobyte (710429) | about 2 years ago | (#43509897)

Math may come second, but it does need to come. If Einstein had just been the guy who went around saying "dude, everything is like totally relative! Cosmic space-time bendy-warp, all-one time-cube, dude!," and expecting someone else to fill in the mathematical formalism, I doubt he'd be all that famous now. Einstein was able to write down his insights as tensor calculus equations --- that's why he's remembered as a famous scientist, not an incoherent ranting quack.

Re:math comes second (3, Interesting)

khallow (566160) | about 2 years ago | (#43509937)

Except when the math generates the insights.

For example, Dirac predicted the existence of anti-matter from a model of the electron with interactions with photons. For the model to work mathematically, he had to have a second particle, the positron which had opposite properties of the electron.

Then there's the search for missing planets. Neptune was found by noticing that Uranus didn't follow the orbit as predicted by the mathematical model of the then known Solar System.

Radioactive dating wouldn't be possible without a model of how decay works. That in turn has generated new insights.

Not only that, but there are two mathematical (1)

aussersterne (212916) | about 2 years ago | (#43509993)

issues here. One is mathematical thinking—this is intuitive, and very difficult to teach; some people display aptitude for this (logical relationships, congruences, dependencies, correlations across qualitative cases, a "sense" for probability that is remarkably in tune with formal outcomes) and others struggle with it even if they become very proficient with Two, which is notation.

Too often, we conflate the former with the latter and call the whole package "math." But in fact, it is a deep, intuitive understanding of mathematical principles rather than incredible fluency with notation and notation manipulation which is needed for innovation in science and research. I know people that have one in spades (incredible "math sense" but poor formal notation skills or vice-versa).

It isn't necessary to have the formal notation skills to the nines to be a good scientist (a good co-author/co-PI can help to fill the gaps that you have), it is absolutely necessary to have habits and patterns of thought that are "mathematically" sensible, and the best scientists that I know are the ones that can look at a dataset and—after an "eyeball test"—have the strong sense that something important is in evidence in this series, or in this column, or in that set of experimental results, etc.—even if they struggle to prove it. Colleagues often come along and, if they are able to listen and grok, can come up with the formalities.

Understanding statistics ... (4, Funny)

PPH (736903) | about 2 years ago | (#43509845)

... is necessary for good experiment design. Trying to fix a poorly conceived experiment or bad data after the fact is like trying to cure diarrhea by messing with the bathroom plumbing.

Of all the things to skip, not this one (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509861)

Many problems are so big that no one person can fully grasp them. There's nothing wrong with not being one person who can take on the Whole thing. If some aspects need specialists, that's ok.

But of all the things to not be able to handle, math?! This is like a writer not being able to spell.

Where Wilson is coming from (1)

doug141 (863552) | about 2 years ago | (#43509905)

Is his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson takes droves of biologists to task for espousing the theory of kin selection to explain altriusm, accusing them of both torturing their "relatedness" math and also essentially back-solving from a desired result. Wilson makes the case that the theory of group selection (one social group besting a neighboring social group) explains altruism more simply, and occam's razor applies.

Re:Where Wilson is coming from (1)

phantomfive (622387) | about 2 years ago | (#43510043)

In the article, he suggests that of all the mathematical models in sociobiology, only 10% of them hold up to deeper inspection. Which is a surprisingly bad rate.

Awful headline. (1)

doug141 (863552) | about 2 years ago | (#43509927)

We have a a professor emeritus at Harvard, two time pulitzer prize winner saying one thing, a blogger saying another, and the headline looks like the blogger wrote it. Bad slashdot.

Re:Awful headline. (1)

phantomfive (622387) | about 2 years ago | (#43510073)

Isn't it great that we have bloggers who can tell us what is right and wrong? What would we ever do without bloggers?

The funny thing is the mere fact of calling him a 'great scientist' proves the blogger's point wrong, and the bulk of his post is dedicated to trying to explain away that contradiction.

How much math? (1)

D1G1T (1136467) | about 2 years ago | (#43509951)

Even the least math-y science of biology involves rates of change of growth. That means calculus to me. And, of course, you've got piles of data so that means statistics. And you've got structures so that means geometry. A first year course in each will let you understand what you are looking at and give you the ability to look up what you don't understand. Without that training, you may miss a phenomenon entirely, misperceiving it as randomness.

Re:How much math? (1)

iggymanz (596061) | about 2 years ago | (#43509983)

so important scientific principles cannot be taught in grade school? nonsense, the scientific method ( not the only one science uses) itself can be expressed non-mathematically.

Maybe what Tesla said is true: (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43509965)

"Today's scientist have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wonder off though equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality" Nikola Tesla

I've worked with guys like that (1)

overshoot (39700) | about 2 years ago | (#43510235)

They go into the lab and discover circuits.

I have to admit, though, that I've never run into one who discovered a good delta-sigma analog-to-digital converter. Or anything else more than trivially complex.

Difference in worth of a degree IS math (1)

minstrelmike (1602771) | about 2 years ago | (#43510021)

Any 4-year degree from the same college costs you the same amount of time and money whether it is a degree in Art History, English or Electrical Engineering.
The value of the degree in the marketplace tho is totally skewed towards mathematics. The more math you have to take to get your degree, the more money it is worth in the marketplace. Compare Computer Tech degree to Computer Science degree to Computer Engineering degree.

E.O. Wilson is perhaps technically correct about -needing- math early, but he is socially incorrect as far as how the populace in capitalistic countries values knowledge of mathematics. (And frankly, I think the capitalists are correct ;-)

Great, Angry blogger (1)

phantomfive (622387) | about 2 years ago | (#43510033)

The 'great scientist' article is telling people, "don't be afraid of studying science just because you aren't good at math." He points out there are plenty of fields that don't require much math (as opposed to physics). He doesn't say math isn't useful, good or important, he merely says that you can still be great even if you're not good at it.

The blogger is irate, angry, and irked. He lashes out with his words. Thank goodness we have bloggers in the world to be angry at great scientists.

There's no reason to be afraid of science just because you are bad at math.

I tend to agree with him (1)

foreverdisillusioned (763799) | about 2 years ago | (#43510049)

Of course, all scientists need to conceptually understand basic concepts like the different measures of central tendency, deviation, why normal distribution arises, correlation vs. causation and the difference between predictive and explanatory statistics, robustness, and (this is a biggie) conditional probability. But there's no particular reason why they need to know about the Chi squared distribution or the precise mathematical formulas used to calculate these things.

I think the problem is grade inflation and ever more laughable academic standards have caused the sciences to protect themselves by treating math classes as a trial by fire. They want to make you do tough shit to prove you're smart enough to be a scientist, so they always make you go through the details of the calculation instead of making sure you intuitively understand how the concepts all fit together. Which is a goddamn shame, because I've met several medical doctors who've taken three or four semesters of calculus and several of applied statistics, yet they still can't grasp the simplest conditional probability problem. (Which should come up *all the time* re: error rates on medical tests.)

It seems to me... (1)

Dcnjoe60 (682885) | about 2 years ago | (#43510123)

It seems to me that if one were to take this proposition seriously, it should appear as an article in a scientific journal, not the Wall Street Journal.

While I have no qualms with the Wall Street Journal, it does concern me when an article is published for a bunch of MBAs and CFOs that basically equates scientific research as nothing more than a bunch of individualized technicians. Research is not like web design where you have a design architect and a bunch of coders. But the article, phrased as it is, makes it seem that research can be handled in the same way.

The logical conclusion of such thinking in the WWJ is pay for a researchers who have all of these skills when we can just split them up (and save money). While that may be true in the short run, it is not how science advances in the long term. The simple fact is that if you want to be a reasearcher, you need to know the science and the math.

Teams are great and necessary, but the best teams are the ones where the members understand the major parts of the research and that means the math, too.

"OK to stop after Calculus" != "no math" (2)

Dr. Spork (142693) | about 2 years ago | (#43510131)

In the article, Wilson talked about how making it through Calculus ended up giving him all the math he needed to do his own work, and would suffice for much other important scientific work. I frankly thought that his target was not simply the population of smart but "merely OK at math" students who are being deterred from scientific fields, but the gatekeepers of the fields themselves, who would probably reject someone like Crick for his C grade in Calculus. He's not arguing for lower standards, but for more diversity in how we see scientific talent. If the litmus test for the "promising future scientist" were based almost entirely on the verbal SAT score, I can imagine that Crick would be railing against that. But as it stands, he simply thinks the pendulum is too far in the math direction, and this is doing a disservice to science. I find that quite reasonable!

Not a new concept; (1)

Guinness Beaumont (2901413) | about 2 years ago | (#43510137)

The idea that specialization works isn't new, even to academia. It's a trend that we can observe in many fields; It's glaringly obvious, if you want an example, in industry. With that said, you need a basic understanding to interface. Saying you can be totally 'math illiterate' is saying that pointy-haired bosses are functional.

Extremely crap 'scientist' dribbles rubbish (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43510179)

America is the land of pseudo-science, and pseudo-scientists who push the 'right' agendas can easily rise to the top of their profession, and be lavished with all kinds of prizes and recognition.

-The depraved monsters who created and executed the 'scientific' studies to inject healthy black Americans with syphilis, and watch them suffer untreated, were highly regarded doctors.
-The depraved monster who photographed generations of young men and women naked at ivy-league universities all across America in order to push his ideas on race and eugenics was a highly regarded scientist in the same vein as E.O.Wilson
-The depraved doctor who introduced female genital mutilation to the USA (a practice that was widespread up till the 1960s) was thrown out of the UK, but was given a tremendous reception by the medical community in the USA.
-The depraved monster that attempted (and almost succeeded) in having lobotomy as common as vaccination won the highest scientific awards in the USA.
-The racist filth that created the concept of eugenics, and pushed for programs that eventually led to forced sterilisation in countries all across the globe, were given the highest praise by the scientific community in the USA.
-Even today, male genital mutilation is universal across the USA, originally made popular by madmen like Dr Kellogg in the 19th century as a 'cure' for masturbation. Every 20 years or so the US medical community reaffirms the desirability of MGM by claiming it is a defence against whatever illness is currently significant in the minds of the public. It is notable that all the early studies in Africa discovered circumcised males suffered massively INCREASED rates of AIDS infection. When Jewish and Muslim and evangelical American propagandists took control of WHO research bodies a number of years later, magically the results of the studies reversed.

"Government scientist" is an oxymoron. You are either loyal to the fundamental principles of science, or loyal to a current political agenda. The 'scientists' that the general public hears from are not scientists at all, but propagandists. Sadly, many fields of science are very expensive to pursue, and the people that pay the bills frequently have strong ideas about the 'news' they expect to hear.

'Sociobiology' is just today's eugenics- another branch of pseudo-science strongly linked to religious concepts that are worked in order to create the circumstances for new wars on a global scale. 'Sociobiology' is designed to argue that 'war' is just an extension of evolution, just as eugenics and the theory of 'race' was originally created to give a scientific justification of slavery in the USA during the first half of the 19th century. Eugenics flourished in the USA after slavery was ended, in order to counter the concept of "all men are created equal", and ensure the spread of the 'Jim Crow' laws that existed until the 1960s.

Everyone is talking past each other, again (1)

raque (457836) | about 2 years ago | (#43510199)

Wilson states that to do good science and to be a good scientist you don't need to be a math wiz. Iddo states to be employable in the tech and science field the more math the better. Am I the only one who has noticed these aren't the same point? Iddo is worrying that if your C.V. doesn't show enough math you won't get the position to do the science at all. Wilson says you can find a place for yourself that uses the math you already know. Wilson is optimistic, Iddo is realistic/pessimistic. Wilson succeeded and is a giant. Iddo has watched his students struggle and have to wait tables to get by.

In the end Wilson is following closer to J. Bronowski in Science and Human values [amazon.com] and Iddo is closer to my grandmother. Bronowski cared about humanity, grandma cares about me.

Tend to agree (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#43510207)

Math is just a description and before that can function, there must be something to describe. Ideas comes first, formal descriptions come later.

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