E. O. Wilson’s comments on mathematical skills seem to have touched few raw nerves.
If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have. Think twice, though, about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include most of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties in molecular biology.
Newton invented calculus in order to give substance to his imagination. Darwin had little or no mathematical ability, but with the masses of information he had accumulated, he was able to conceive a process to which mathematics was later applied.
For aspiring scientists, a key first step is to find a subject that interests them deeply and focus on it. In doing so, they should keep in mind Wilson’s Principle No. 2: For every scientist, there exists a discipline for which his or her level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.
Even though the writer of this commentary represented a country in International Maths Olympiad, we tend to side with E. O. Wilson. Mathematical skills are too overrated, and lately ‘mathematical model’ argument is being used to sell various dubious projects, while proper scientific approach is taking a back seat. We will give two examples outside biology.
(i) When we pointed out in an article in 2005 that US housing prices were in a bubble and most banks were making dubious loans, almost all economists told us that the bank loans were supported by ‘mathematical models made by very smart individuals’. Later it turned out that those very smart people did not consider the possibility that house prices could ever fall.
(ii) We wrote several times about dubious nature of mathematical models for global warming, but not a single person showed us any error in our assertion based on redoing the calculation himself.