E.O. Wilson’s is making people angry, which he has done many, many, many times before. His most recent bit of horrendous offensiveness takes the form of a post in the Wall Street Journal in which he had the audacity to claim that you don’t have to be superb at mathematics in order to excel in science. To be honest, when I first read the article, I prepared to write on the irony of Wilson claiming math isn’t important, when his most recent defense of group selection was criticized in part for apparent failings of the mathematical variety. But then I happened upon a response in Slate Magazine to Wilson’s post, in which the author notes, among other things, this very irony. I find the article attacking Wilson to be quite misguided, and so I am going to instead comment on the criticism of the rabble-rouser.
The author, Edward Frenkel, is a mathematics professor at UC-Berkeley, and so it is understandable that he would take initial offense to Wilson’s post, with its title of “Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math” and its strong statements like “many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.” However, I would think that one who has built a career of delving deep into theoretical mathematical concepts would be better able to understand what is beneath this very thin crust of first impressions.
Frenkel starts off with what seems like an outright falsehood, claiming that Wilson “tells aspiring scientists that they don’t need mathematics to thrive” and that “he actually believes … that most scientists don’t need math.” Of course Wilson is not claiming any such preposterous thing. First, as seen in the previous quote, Wilson calls most successful scientists semiliterate in math. Semiliterate ≠ illiterate. He says students don’t need to be “good at math” or have “strong math skills” or “exceptional mathematical fluency” (emphasis mine). More to the point, he explicitly states the importance of mathematics in science. He references his collaboration with mathematician George Oster for the development of theories of caste and division of labor in social insects. He urges those with a low mathematical competence to “plan to raise it” and to be cautious about entering fields “that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis”. And he notes the following:
Over the years, I have co-written many papers with mathematicians and statisticians, so I can offer the following principle with confidence. Call it Wilson’s Principle No. 1: It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.
In other words, Wilson thinks scientists should collaborate with mathematicians, should have some mathematical literacy, and should potentially plan to continue their studies of mathematics (as Wilson notes he did as a 32-year-old professor). Frenkel’s claim is simply false.
Much of Frenkel’s article operates under the assumption that his opening remarks are not falsehoods, and therefore it is not really worth addressing most of his subsequent claims. One thing that is interesting, though, is Frenkel’s dogmatic attachment to mathematics. He as much as claims that math is the only way to arrive at truth:
One thing should be clear: While our perception of the physical world can always be distorted, our perception of the mathematical truths can’t be. They are objective, persistent, necessary truths. A mathematical formula means the same thing to anyone anywhere—no matter what gender, religion, or skin color; it will mean the same thing to anyone a thousand year from now. And that’s why mathematics is going to play an increasingly important role in science and technology.
It is certainly true that mathematical principles are generally both objective and universally understandable. But I am not sure I accept his implication that science sans mathematics cannot possibly arrive at objective and verified truths. In any case, despite Frenkel’s insistence, no one, including E.O. Wilson, is actually urging for science sans mathematics. If Frenkel is having trouble sleeping over this, I suggest he try counting sheep.