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Math Education Science

Terrible Advice From a Great Scientist 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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Terrible Advice From a Great Scientist

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  • by void* ( 20133 ) on Sunday April 21, 2013 @11:30AM (#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'.

  • by stenvar ( 2789879 ) on Sunday April 21, 2013 @11:35AM (#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:He's right (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 21, 2013 @11:36AM (#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 (Score:5, Informative)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Sunday April 21, 2013 @11:40AM (#43509665) Homepage

    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.

  • Title and summary (Score:5, Informative)

    by O('_')O_Bush ( 1162487 ) on Sunday April 21, 2013 @11:47AM (#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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 21, 2013 @12:49PM (#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.

  • Re:He's right (Score:5, Informative)

    by Grieviant ( 1598761 ) * on Sunday April 21, 2013 @01:23PM (#43510377)
    You make the assumption that a long list of authors indicates a truly collaborative research effort. In practice, this is very rarely the case. From my experience, nine times out of ten the work is done completely by the primary author or the first two authors. The rest of the authors are supervisors, technical managers, those who secured the funding, possibly a technician who assisted with the experiments, etc., who never even lay eyes on the paper until it's basically finished.
  • Re:He's right (Score:4, Informative)

    by MagusSlurpy ( 592575 ) on Sunday April 21, 2013 @08:14PM (#43512397) Homepage

    This is true. About three quarters of the time, the paper is written by a single grad student, utilizing mostly his/her research along with a dabbling of other group members' work (and on occasion a more significant amount of work performed but often not understood by an undergrad), and then edited by the PI. Everyone gets their name on the paper, and often everyone is given a copy of the final draft to review before it goes to print just as a double-check, but the first author is typically the one that did all the writing.

Forty two.