For a couple of days my hands have hovered over my keyboard, itching, poised to respond to one of the many discussions arising following E.O. Wilsons Wall Street Journal article (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323611604578398943650327184.html), but until now I’ve refrained from commenting, despite feeling like I have a lot to say on the matter. The discussion on the ECOLOG mailing list now seems to have evolved into a discussion on class prerequisites at all levels of education, with the general consensus swinging towards “we need more mathematics, earlier, and biologists need to either stop shirking away from it, or quit saying it’s science” (I exaggerate). I disagree. Personally, I was put off maths very, very young by a string of bad teachers and a lack of understanding of its use. It wasn’t through lack of trying – my parents plugged me into extra maths tuition (well, I cried that money away) and my sister and I were subscribed to Kumon maths in a failed attempt to conceal the C and D shaped blemishes on our report cards. All of this to no avail. Following a convenient (well, to my teenage math-phobic self it was convenient) switch between the UK and American schooling systems, I gleefully slipped under the radar and haven’t taken a maths class since I was 15, unless you count a “Quantitative Methods in Biology” course in my first year at university. This course consisted of sitting a multiple choice exam (i.e. solving for x involved plugging in each of the answer choices to see which worked). If you passed the exam, you didn’t have to sit the course. Again, I gleefully washed my hands of maths. Phew! Another year, another avoided maths class. I did a mental happy dance and merrily continued my biology degree, merrily endured the haughty looks of the chemists, physicists and engineers who couldn’t put “biology” and “science” together in a sentence unless accompanied by sarcasm or derisive snorts. After all, I “didn’t do maths”. Or maybe I had dyscalculia. I definitely had maths phobia (looking at an equation either made me cry, sweat, swear, renounce my studies altogether or all 4 simultaneously), so I avoided it because I could. And as a result I continued with my education. If I had been forced to do maths, I have no shadow of a doubt that I would have quit, perhaps even before the end of my undergraduate degree like my father did for the same reason.
Fast forward 7 years and two further degrees later and I’m now an ecology research scientist. I don’t think any amount of force feeding of maths, at least not the way I’ve had it taught in the past, would have done an iota of good. To me, learning maths as a child felt like someone shouting at you (in English) “SPEAK ARABIC YOU IDIOT! WHY CAN’T YOU SPEAK ARABIC?! JUST LOOK AT IT! IT’S JUST LIKE THAT” (ok, maybe the 20 odd maths teachers across multiple continents and institutions were all rubbish at their jobs, that would be unfortunate). So as the conscientious student I was, I’d really try to “see” this elusive “thing” I was supposed to “get” on the page through my tear-blurred vision. One of my high school/university boyfriends jokingly bought me a colourful 6th grade maths book. I couldn’t do any of it. And this is where I wholeheartedly agree with E.O.Wilson, who says in his Wall Street Journal article that, aged 32, he joined an undergraduate calculus course. I can now see the need for maths, I WANT to learn it, I seek out ways to learn it. As my academic career progressed, I began to THINK in a more mathematical way. I realised that sometimes (ok, a lot of the time), the best way to express a relationship is with an equation. I find myself explaining things by drawing graphs in the air. I began to see maths more like a tool, a language with rules, just like coding, just like writing, just like operating a bit of field equipment. People had told me this very thing when I was younger, but back then I didn’t get WHAT I was supposed to be communicating. How could I use maths to communicate concepts, relationships, patterns…when I hadn’t the faintest idea what these concepts were or why I would be communicating them? Worse, I was actively told that I couldn’t expect to do any sort of science because I wasn’t good at maths. I wanted to be a naval architect, but that “when I grow up” dream was killed when I was 7 and didn’t know my times tables well enough.
So I try and learn and I improve. I’m never going to be a “maths whizz” but I can and do try. Incidentally, I am not alone amongst my peers. Some of the smartest people I met during my PhD were also “mathophobes”. One of them is a fantastic field ecologist -one of the most resourceful, creative and committed people in the field I know. Another sat for hours and hours teaching himself maths once he had the maturity and drive to do so. He is a geophysicist. This geophysicist also stared at me agog when I described what ecologists do. He said “but that’s a ridiculous amount of variables! How do you deal with that?!” I don’t know, I’m working on it, but if even the physicists are wary of the numbers involved maybe it is not surprising that maths is terrifying to many biologists and ecologists.
Ironically, I was always attracted to theoretical ecology/biology and modelling and in this field, yes, I do feel that my inferior maths skills sometimes hold me back (as in, it takes me a bit longer and I have to consider things that others might take as second nature more carefully). But I’m better at other things, I am at least aware of one of my major weaknesses so can compensate accordingly, and just because I’m far from wonderful at maths does not mean I cannot do valuable, interesting, sound science and thoroughly enjoy doing it. So thank you E.O. Wilson for your article – I sincerely hope it is taken as I feel it should be; that people are different and force-feeding people maths at every educational stage might not work for everyone and you just might discard people who would be fulfilled, happy and useful as scientists. Yes, scientists.