Terrible advice from a great scientist
I am not inclined to write polemic posts. I generally like to leave that to others, while I take the admittedly easier route of waxing positive over various bits of cool science I find or hear about, and yes, occasionally do myself.
But WSJ editorial from E.O. Wilson has irked me so much, I have decided to go for it. The upset I felt when reading this was on several levels: as a teacher, and a scientist, and as a person concerned for the future of science, and science literacy. In this editorial, Wilson promotes a type of scientific illiteracy that is dangerous if taken to heart by aspiring scientists.
In essence, Wilson draws from his personal experience as a successful scientist who is not only semi-illiterate in math, but proud of it. He claims that, if he succeeded as a math illiterate, so can other scientists, except in “a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory.” (All quotes are from said article, unless noted otherwise.) He claims that “Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.” He continues to state that: ” 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.”
OK, let’s take a closer look. First, Wilson’s claim from personal experience that “advanced math” is unnecessary. That he only got to taking calculus when he was tenured faculty at Harvard at the age if 32, and was never more than a C student. He became successful anyway. Wilson is a successful outlier: a genius that did the right things and was in the right place and time to get where he got, the lack of some basic skills otherwise mostly needed not hindering him.
This is the same as other successful extreme outliers: Bill Gates who became a billionaire but who never completed college. Gates is held as a shining example for those who argue that you don’t need college, all you need is hard work and ingenuity. (If everyone was ingenious, then it won’t be a rare and advantageous trait anymore, would it? And if everyone as a billionaire, that would mean we are in the midst of a Weimar Republic hyper-inflation.) This rationale has led to thousands of engineering school drop-outs to form their own startups in the late 1990’s, and we know how that has ended. For every one Bill Gates, there are thousands of college dropouts that went broke, and were unemployable due to a lack of formal skills. On the other hands, there are the thousands who completed their degree, gained successful work experience, and some may have formed their own startups that may or may not have become successful, but who have a formal and comprehensive education to draw upon and make them employable.
The same principle applies in Wilson’s case: for every science professor that is a self-professed math illiterate and who made tenure in Harvard at the age of 32, there are thousands of postdocs who are vying for an assistant professorship in any university. And those postdocs need to know some statistics if they are to be able to design and interpret any kind of basic experiment. This is a basic tenet of any experimental science and any advice to the contrary is terrible. They need to know calculus if those experiments have a time course. And they need to know basic programming if they are to analyze large amounts of data. Universities can afford to be selective. The postdoc who will usually get the job will be the one offering the most promise. And the most promise is offered by displaying a broad range of skills (among other things, of course). Furthermore, even basic skills are required to graduate with a viable Ph.D. It is a poor degree in biology whose owner does now know how to test for statistical significance, that most basic of requirements for designing and conducting experiments. Furthermore, biology today has changed in many ways since Wilson was tenured in Harvard. It is mostly a data rich science. “Intuition” cannot be used when gigabytes of data are involved.
The other problem I have with Wilson’s take on math, is his categorization of math as an auxiliary discipline which only serves to formalize creative ideas, but which is not part of the creative process. “Ideas.. emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake. They follow from thorough, well-organized knowledge of all that is known or can be imagined of real entities and processes within that fragment of existence.” Wilson claims that knowledge of math by itself cannot help generate such ideas, but can only help to formalize them once the nebulous intuition generates them. He draws upon Darwin as the ultimate biologist with no math background who “made it”. Darwin is Wilson’s Bill Gates, his outlier from which he draws general conclusions. However, even Darwin himself wrote:
I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics; for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.
It is this extra sense that makes math such a powerful asset to biological thinking. Indeed “thorough, well-organized knowledge of all that is known or can be imagined of real entities and processes within that fragment of existence.” requires math to chart and define these “processes” as processes in the first place. That “well-organized knowledge” can become well-organized by better understanding the fundamental discipline of knowledge organization: statistics. In fact, Wilson uses an intuition of math, unwittingly, to have these “processes” emerge. He then finds someone for the “follow-up steps” which “usually require mathematical and statistical methods to move the analysis forward.” Imagine what would be possible if Wilson was possessed of that “extra sense” that Darwin has recognized as promoting the creative process, rather than treating math as a technical followup. The ability to come up with models not relying on “dreaming” alone, but drawing upon the “extra sense” that Wilson unfortunately and mistakenly spurns as a mere adjunct discipline. Actually, there is no need to imagine such a scenario. As there are so many discoveries made in biology that drew upon both math and empirical biological knowledge. Ecology, genetics, population biology, neurobiology, biochemistry and, of course, molecular biology.
There is, of course, the remote possibility that Wilson is trolling for the sake of promoting quantitative thinking which is lacking in too many corners in science and especially in biology. That Wilson has recognized the lack of math in certain disciplines is hurting and holding back those disciplines, and has decided that the best way to promote young biologists to learn math and adopt it to their research and in their teaching is by provoking a tribal war between the mathematically literate the those who are not. Sadly, I doubt that this is the case. More likely, his self-professed math illiteracy serves the purpose of not recognizing the generalization from an outlier cannot serve as a viable model, or even an argument to support his position.
Finally, for a far more comprehensive post than mine, which links to many other responses including those supportive of Wilson, I suggest you read E.O. Wilson vs. Math at Dynamic Ecology.