Nobody’s ever going to mistake me for an elite basketball player. I’m taller than average (about 6’6″, a hair under 2m in SI units), but I’m not especially quick, or agile, or all that good a jumper. And I’m carrying at least 40lbs of extra weight above what a really good player my size would (in terms of mass, I’m closer to the dimensions of a really good (American) football player, though not nearly enough of it is muscle).
This doesn’t stop me from playing basketball, though. I love the game, and I play a good deal, at least for a guy in his forties with a full-time job. I can hold my own against much younger players at least in the kind of casual pick-up games that happen on campus. If nothing else, I can generally be confident that I won’t be the worst player on the court.
I bring this up because of a comment Kaleberg made over in one of the E. O. Wilson posts:
Maybe the problem revolves around the difference between being good at math and being good enough at math. Our culture puts a barrier around math, arguing that the ability to learn it is innate, so if you lack that talent, don’t even bother. There are other cultures where the attitude is that math might take a bit of work, but everyone can learn it well enough. (e.g. This is the case in much of Eastern Europe, China and India.) I’ve seen people who are actually fairly good at math simply choke when faced with a math problem.
I think this is an important point, and it’s one of the many factors rattling around that led to the book-in-progress. In fact, I go into this at some length in the (current draft of the) introduction. I think we’re far too quick to declare math and science aptitude to be innate talents, skills that only a tiny minority of people are capable of acquiring. This is certainly flattering to the vanity of science nerds, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s accurate.
The problem is that it’s difficult to sort out the effects of innate ability from the effects of practice driven by interest in the subject. I recognize that I am vastly better at algebra than a randomly chosen person on the street (as long as that street is in a city that isn’t hosting the APS March Meeting, anyway), but I don’t actually think of myself as all that exceptionally gifted, mathematically, because I know too many theoretical physicists who blow me away. Some of these differences are undoubtedly attributable to talent, but a lot of them are due to practice. I’m good at algebra, relative to a non-scientist, because I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 20-odd years manipulating equations as part of my job. A theoretical physicist or a mathematician can prove circles around me, though, because they spend even more time engaged in manipulations of abstract math. I’m way better than they are at soldering wires together, though, or any of the other routine tasks of experimental physics.
(Incidentally, I should note that I am not without sympathy to a weaker version of Wilson’s point in that original op-ed– I’m acutely aware that my mathematical background is very limited relative to a lot of physicists. I’ve never had a class in group theory, for example, and as a result, I don’t understand it very well. That hasn’t hurt my career, though, because I picked a field where I don’t need that stuff. Where Wilson loses me is the “don’t worry about the math, you can contract it out” thing.)
The same holds for basketball. I’m not an elite player, but I’m way better than average, especially for my age group, because I’ve spent a lot of time over the last thirty years playing basketball. That counts for a lot, and because of it, I can out-play even people who are more physically gifted than I am. And there are plenty of people who, despite being in worse physical shape than I am, could kick my ass all over a golf course, because they play a lot of golf, and I don’t.
I bring this up because, along with Kaleberg’s point about being too quick to declare math and science to be innate talents, I think we have an aberrant attitude toward those talents specifically. That is, while I would agree that my innate physical abilities prevent me from playing basketball at an elite level, that doesn’t keep me from playing basketball for fun. Even in academia, where any head-to-head competitive sport gets looked at askance by many faculty, there are even some social benefits from playing on a casual basis. I’m friends with faculty, staff, and students in some other departments primarily because of playing basketball at lunchtime. And when I came up for tenure, the then-Director of Residence Life sent a very nice letter to the committee, praising my engagement with students through basketball. If I were in a different work environment, it would probably be even more valuable for extracurricular bonding purposes.
Nobody thinks it all that odd for a 40-year-old without elite skills to play basketball for fun. And less aerobic sports like golf, even more so. In a lot of social circles, it’s kind of odd for a 40-year-old man not to play golf, even if he lacks the ability to play at a very high level. And millions of other people who can’t play sports at an elite level are passionately engaged with sports on a fan level.
When it comes to math and science, though, this kind of gets reversed. Not only is there no expectation that random people without elite math and science skills do science for entertainment, there’s actually a bit of stigma to it. I talk to and sometimes get email from people who have read and enjoyed my book who tell me that in a bizarrely sheepish tone, as if there’s something wrong with having an interest in physics as an adult who isn’t a scientist. People will tell me that they enjoy hearing about physics in a tone that suggests they’re confessing to some kind of minor character flaw, like a fondness for hair metal bands of the early 1990’s, or trash cuisine. And frequently this is followed by a comment that they really don’t have the math ability to understand science.
This is an attitude that really doesn’t carry over to any other field. I’ve never heard anybody sound sheepish about admitting to reading popular books about history, say. In fact, a lot of the time, people are sort of surprised that I haven’t read whatever the latest pop-history book is. But some of these same people find it hard to even consider reading a pop-science book, even one that is deliberately written for non-scientists, and features a cute talking dog as a hook. “Oh, I’d never be able to understand physics,” they say, as if lacking the abilities and training to be a physicist were reason not to even take an interest in popular treatments of the subject. It’s as if lacking the skills to play basketball at the college or pro level disqualified you from even watching an NBA game on tv.
I think that attitude is inextricably linked with the idea that math and science are innate talents, and not skills that can be picked up with a bit of effort. But it goes well beyond the corresponding situation for athletics, closing off even casual interest in the subject, in a way that is, I think, ultimately harmful to science and society as a whole.
There is a sense here where I’m agreeing with Wilson– you don’t need to have elite-level innate abilities to be interested in and involved with science, any more than you need elite-level innate physical skills to play basketball. What I disagree with is the notion that this is an inherent and unfixable state of affairs– that students who don’t believe that their math skills are up to snuff can’t do anything about this, other than hiring math nerds as contractors to do the hard stuff for them. If you’re genuinely interested enough in a subject to want to make it a career, you can almost certainly acquire the skills that you need.