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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5 thoughts on “E.O. Wilson does not think math is unnecessary

  1. Jason Starr says:

    The editorial does make other substantial points, e.g., much mathematical modelling in the sciences is of no lasting value. Another substantial point: you can easily find mathematicians and statisticians who will collaborate with you if you are weak in those areas, but collaboration in the other direction is difficult. Perhaps the title is based on these points.

  2. I think the main thrust of Wilson’s article is not especially controversial. But I would rather play with the question a bit, and instead of asking whether mathematics is *essential* for all science (answer: probably not), ask what *opportunities* exist in science to use the insights of modern mathematics (eg beyond calculus, linear algebra, classical probability theory) that are not currently being taken advantage of (answer: maybe lots?)

  3. BCnrd says:

    Discoveries in math don’t emerge from ideas too? Anyway, extrapolating from what was suitable for Wilson’s own early career quite a few decades ago should be done with care. To make an extreme analogy, Faraday knew very little math and made tremendous discoveries in theoretical physics, but nobody would recommend a current theoretical physics remain comparably unaware of math.

  4. Thads says:

    As Mitt Romney learned to his chagrin with the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”.

  5. Dan Silver says:

    E.O. Wilson’s perspective of mathematics is too narrow. What we call “mathematics” today comprises so much more than it did when he was in school. Mathematics is “unreasonably effective” in science because it is a projection of the way that we think. If some area of mathematics turns you off, then explore aspects of mathematics that turn you on.

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