One of the reasons I held off on commenting on the whole E. O. Wilson math op-ed thing, other than not having time to blog, was that his comments were based on his own experiences. And, you know, who am I to gainsay the personal experiences of a justly famous scientist?
At the same time, though, this is one of the big things that makes the original piece so frustrating. He’s speaking from his personal experience, but it feels like he’s chosen to draw exactly the wrong lessons from it. The relevant anecdotes are:
During my decades of teaching biology at Harvard, I watched sadly as bright undergraduates turned away from the possibility of a scientific career, fearing that, without strong math skills, they would fail. This mistaken assumption has deprived science of an immeasurable amount of sorely needed talent. It has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.
I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case. Having spent my precollege years in relatively poor Southern schools, I didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama. I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.
He obviously went on from here to have a stellar career, and from this he draws the lesson that math expertise isn’t actually all that important. Which, you know, is one way you could go with that, but I can’t help thinking that there are many more productive directions he could’ve taken from this starting point.
For example, having noted that his poor math background can be traced to his background in poor schools in the South, how about asking what can be done to improve the education at those schools? This seems like a possible starting point for a drive to improve the resources available to students in poor schools, so that the next generation of students won’t have to suffer the embarrassment of not having algebra before college.
Or, on a broader scale, the observation that otherwise bright students are put off by math seems like an excellent jumping-off point for some real inquiry. Why are these students put off by math? Is it something in their background, say, poor Southern schools? Are their skills actually weak, or do they just feel inadequate, due to some Impostor Syndrome kind of thing? Is there a way to either improve their skills or make math less scary for them, so that they don’t feel pushed out of science?
Those all seem to me like fruitful starting points for both scientific inquiry and policy activism. They’re questions whose answers could move you to try to change the world to make it better for everyone.
Instead, Wilson takes the path of least resistance. The most charitable interpretation is that he simply regards these as uninteresting issues; less charitably, he’s uncritically accepting the idea that math is something inherently unpleasant. In either case, mathematics is simply an obstacle to be worked around and it should be de-emphasized because his personal experience was that it never made much difference to him.
And that’s extremely frustrating, and kind of sad.