Field of Science

Who you gonna believe: E. O. Wilson or common sense?

I was planning a post on E. O. Wilson's recent flight of fancy, "Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math", in which he tells potential future scientists that knowing math isn't all that important, but it turns out Jeremy Fox has already said everything I was going to say, only better. It's a long post, though, so here are some key passages:
Wilson’s claim that deep interest in a subject, combined with deep immersion in masses of data, is sufficient, because hey, it worked for Charles Darwin, is utter rubbish. First of all, just because it worked for Darwin (or Wilson) doesn’t mean it will work for you, and just because it worked in the 19th century doesn’t mean it will work in the 21st. If for no other reason than that there are plenty of people out there, in every field, who not only have a deep interest in the subject and an encyclopedic knowledge of the data, but who know a lot of mathematics and statistics.

Wilson claims that strong math skills are relevant only a few disciplines, like physics. Elsewhere, great science is a matter of “conjuring images and processes by intuition”... I’m sure Wilson is describing his own approach here, and it’s worked for him. But I have to say, it’s surprising to find someone as famous for his breadth of knowledge as E. O. Wilson generalizing so unthinkingly from his own example. I wonder what his late collaborator Robert MacArthur would think of the notion that intuition alone is enough. I wonder what Bill Hamilton would think. Or R. A. Fisher. Or J. B. S. Haldane. Or Robert May. Or John Maynard Smith. Or George Price. Or Peter Chesson. Or Dave Tilman. Or lots of other great ecologists and evolutionary biologists I could name off the top of my head. Would Wilson seriously argue that none of those people were great scientists, or that they never made any great discoveries, or that the great discoveries they made arose from intuition unaided by mathematics?
Meanwhile, over at Finding the Next Einstein, Jonathan Wai draws on his own research to argue that mathematics ability is key to success in a wide range of scientific fields (though these data are unfortunately correlational).

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