Tag Archives: wsj

Should Andrew Gelman have stayed a math major?

Andrew writes:

As I’ve written before, I was a math and physics major in college but I switched to statistics because math seemed pointless if you weren’t the best (and I knew there were people better than me), and I just didn’t feel like I had a good physical understanding.

But every single mathematician, except one, is not the best (and even that person probably has to concede that there are still greater mathematicians who happen to be dead.)  Surely that doesn’t make our work pointless.

This myth — that the only people who matter in math are people at the very top of a fixed mental pyramid, people who are identified near birth and increase their lead over time, that math is for them and not for us — is what I write about in today’s Wall Street Journal, in a piece that’s mostly drawn from How Not To Be Wrong.  I quote both Mark Twain and Terry Tao — how’s that for appeal to authority?  The corresponding book section also has stuff about Hilbert and Minkowski (guess which one was the prodigy!) Ramanujan, and an extended football metaphor which I really like but which was too much of a digression for a newspaper piece.

There’s also a short video interview on WSJ Live where I talk a bit about the idea of the genius.

In other launch-related publicity, I was on Slate’s podcast, The Gist, talking to Mike Pesca about the Laffer curve and the dangers of mindless linear regression.

More book-related stuff coming next week; stay tuned!

Update:  Seems like I misread Andrew’s post; I thought when he said “switched” he meant “switched majors,” but actually he meant he kept studying math and then moved into a (slightly!) different career, statistics, where he used the math he learned: exactly what I say in the WSJ piece I want more people to do!

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E.O. Wilson does not think math is unnecessary

This piece by E.O. Wilson has been much shared and much griped about in my circles, but I think it’s a case of a provocative headline (“Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math:  discoveries emerge from ideas, not number-crunching”) prepended by the WSJ to an essay that says something much more modest and defensible.  I’d paraphrase Wilson like this.   Being good in math is like being a good writer.  Everyone agrees:

  • You can do great science and be a terrible writer;
  • Being better at writing is a worthwhile aspiration for any scientist.

The conjunction of these two statements in no way feels like a denigration of writing.  Nor is Wilson denigrating math.

I’ve said this before but it’s important so I’ll keep saying it — when you write an opinion piece for a publication, you don’t write the headline — the editors do, and they’ll put whatever loosely relevant headline will generate the most clicks.

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Stop me before I evoke again!

From Chris Rickert in Saturday’s Wisconsin State Journal, writing on Sun Prairie’s denial of a land use license to the town mosque:

It’s not often you encounter a business park condominium association and Friday call to prayers in the same context.

The first is pure ex-urban Americana, evoking images of identically nondescript buildings, large parking lots and easy access to a major highway.

The second is worlds away, evoking images of rows of dark-skinned men kneeling in unison, Arabic broadcast over bad PA systems, even terrorism.

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Prof’s skills add up to Hollywood gig!

So opines Doug Moe in the Wisconsin State Journal, which has a nice interview with me in tomorrow’s paper. Look closely and you’ll see that Ken Ribet has a photo credit!

In case anyone’s coming here from the WSJ and wants to read some of the things mentioned there: you can buy my book here. You can read my Slate columns here, including my thoughts on Barry Bonds and the placebo effect. The best pizza in Berkeley (or anywhere) is Cheeseboard, and the best ice cream in Cambridge (or anywhere) is Christina’s, as described in The Restaurant Hall of Fame.

To a guy like me, for whom “get this paper done in a hurry” means “within the next three months,” Moe’s output of five punchy columns a week is really startling. If you’re not already reading him, check out his recent columns on the surprising difficulty of street-naming and vanity plates too hot for the DOT.

Despite Moe’s lightning speed, his article gets the facts right. Well, except one: I do not “nurse” my coffee. Cold coffee is gross.

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