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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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  • Re:He's not right (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Sunday April 21, 2013 @12:05PM (#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:math comes second (Score:4, Interesting)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Sunday April 21, 2013 @12:21PM (#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.
  • Re:He's right (Score:4, Interesting)

    by excelsior_gr ( 969383 ) on Sunday April 21, 2013 @04:49PM (#43511595)

    You are absolutely right, but the GP was making the point that the so-called "interdisciplinary" science is becoming the norm. Taking the author lists as an example was an unfortunate choice for an argument, but that doesn't invalidate his point.

  • Re:He's right (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Squirmy McPhee ( 856939 ) on Monday April 22, 2013 @03:12AM (#43513613)

    And from my experience, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles, your experience is the exception. In fact, many sciences do not even utilize technicians. In the ten or so laboratories that I have worked in/with and the labs of the numerous professors that I talk with about their publication policies, exactly zero will allow someone authorship on a paper that they don't see until it's "basically finished." I'm sure some fall through the cracks, though certainly not the majority. However, I would not generalize my experiences and neither should you.

    My experience -- also publishing dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles -- is quite different from yours and much more like that of the poster to whom you were responding. More than once I've found out that I was a co-author on an article when the publishing company contacted me to let me know that my article had been received for submission. That's even a step beyond what the first poster mentioned -- I didn't even see the article that I supposedly co-authored until after it was submitted for publication! I've also had my authorship credit manipulated so as to imply collaboration where there was none. It was accidental, I think, but afterward there was actually a story in the press about our non-existent collaboration.

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