Is there hope for math-challenged scientists? Temple Grandin, E.O. WIlson speak out.

    Shock and outrage were bound to follow when the famous biologist-writer E.O. Wilson proclaimed that many scientists are at best “semiliterate” in math. When this heresy appeared in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, Slate responded with the bluntly headlined, Don’t Listen to E.O. Wilson and the Huffington Post with Why E.O. Wilson is Wrong.

    Wilson’s work on ant colonies revolutionized the scientific understanding of cooperative behavior. Two of his books have won Pulitzers. He’s well repsected, but in some circles, math is revered. A favorite buzzword is STEM – for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math combined in an indivisible unit. Pulling them apart, according to today’s thinking, is like trying to tear the quarks out of protons.

    The critics accused Wilson of being a dinosaur – an octogenarian relic from a time when science wasn’t quite so mathematical and you could become a superstar simply by making diligent observations of nature, drawing profound inferences, expressing yourself in vivid language, and standing tall when people threw buckets of ice water over your head.

    Now, they say, you need to crunch data and use statistics to get anywhere.

    My first instinct was to side with Wilson’s critics and even take their math advocacy a step further. People who write about science should be competent in math too. How can anyone write critically about scientific studies without a good sense of probability and statistics?

    A completely different view of this controversy opened up for me last week when I was able to have lunch with another famous scientist – Temple Grandin – who is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a pioneer in improving conditions in slaughterhouses, and a person with autism.

    Like Wilson, she is a writer. She scores in the 95th percentile in verbal skills. She got freelance assignments writing for livestock magazines before she became a scientist. And, she says, she’s very bad at math. Not just bad relative to other scientists: She never got to take geometry because she couldn’t master basic algebra. She believes her problems with math stem from the same brain abnormalities that underlie her autism. Other highly functioning autistic people are good at math and not verbally gifted – there are no hard and fast rules about how to be autistic.

    It occurred to me that the root of this math flap comes down to a belief in math aptitude. The critics make the assumption that people who have problems are not lacking in aptitude – they’re “math phobic”. It’s all in their heads. It’s nurture, not nature. In Slate, Berkeley math professor Edward Frenkel was explicit about this: “..I believe anybody can be good at math if it’s explained in the right way”.

    That’s politically correct. But is it true? And how far can you take it? Can anybody get an 800 on the SAT with the right kind of explanation? Can anybody become a theoretical physicist? A statistician?

    I asked Temple Grandin what she thought of all this. She’s a visual thinker, so she held her hands about two feet apart, to represent a math spectrum, and pointed to her younger self near the bottom. “I can go from here to here,” she said, moving her finger from the bottom to some point a little below average. “Someone else could go from here to here,” she added, moving from the middle to point that was closer to the top. But she doesn’t believe that she can go from deficient to excellent.

    Grandin says she has worked hard to get as good as she can be. But at some point, she believes, you have to stop dwelling on your deficits, bank on your strengths, and start getting things done.

    Once you read past E.O.Wilson’s bombshell about scientists being semi-literate in math, he tells a similar story, only in his case it wasn’t an autistic brain that left him behind but an inadequate math education in rural Alabama. He made up for his deficiencies as much as he could – even taking a calculus class as a 32-year-old professor. But he compared his situation to a person learning a second language as an adult trying to compete with people who had been bilingual since childhood.

    Both E.O. Wilson and Temple Grandin realized they had gifts in areas other than math. Neither claimed to be proud of their deficiencies – as Wilson’s critics wrongly accuse him. Nor do either of them claim math isn’t important. In another Wilson-blasting piece, Psychology Today used the sub-head: Wilson uses his personal profile to conclude that math ability is unimportant. If he didn’t think it was important, why would he have taken that calculus class?

    In her latest book, The Autistic Brain, Grandin describes her gift as visual – she can observe a cattle processing plant, see it in her mind, sketch the whole thing from memory, and pick up the details that are causing problems, especially with spooking the cattle.

    Her understanding of cattle seems well-grounded in science. Cattle, she said, are prey animals, wired to panic at certain changes in their visual landscape. They don’t spook because they know they are going to die, she said. “You’d never get them down the chute in that case”. They spook in response to changes in light, or reflections, or the sudden sight of humans.Grandin’s unusual achievements came to wide public attention in the mid-1990s, when Oliver Sacks created an unforgettable profile of her. She stood out, even among all the other compelling stories in his collection An Anthropologist on Mars.

    It was clear from my interview that she brings many gifts to the scientific table beyond her unusual visual sense and her intuition for the bovine mind. She’s intelligent and resourceful, and passionate about an important aspect of American life that many are afraid to face even as we enjoy our hamburgers. She lights up whenever our conversation turns to cattle and cattle processing. She’s now a public figure, writer and speaker but she would no more give up slaughterhouses than Stephen Hawking would give up cosmology after writing a couple of best-sellers.

    As her condition became well-known, neuroscientists all over the country wanted to scan her brain. She obliged, and in her book she included an image of her brain next to a more ordinary “control” brain. She points out a number of unusual features – regions where her brain is much larger or smaller or less symmetrical than most of our brains.

    She devotes one chapter to visual thinking and in her research she found herself taking a number of aptitude tests. In some tests she scored up near the top, with visual artists. But she surprised herself when she got zeros on tests of spatial reasoning – which is something scientist usually do very well. She contrasted her performance on these tests with that of her book’s co-author, Richard Panek, who is a professional writer. He did better than she did on some tests, and worse on others. The difference, she said, is that like other “neurotypicals” he didn’t have any gaping deficits. Non-autistic people are less likely to show excellence in some areas and then perform at a second grade level in others.

    Grandin said one of the important messages she hoped to get across in her book is that science and other collaborative endeavors can benefit from different kinds of minds. The engineers who designed the Fukushima plant, she believes, may have been great at math but some deficit in visual thinking and attention to detail led them to put the backup generator in the basement. A more diverse team might have prevented disaster. You need mathematical minds, and visual minds, big picture thinkers and small detail thinkers.

    Grandin doesn’t want an office at the Institute for Advanced Study where she can work out the equations of state for the early universe. She is a highly intelligent person who wants to go into slaughterhouses and make the conditions more humane for the animals and for the workers. Who would stop her from going down this career path if she can’t solve partial differential equations?

    I’d be much more concerned about those who think they understand math but don’t, or those who fake understanding and cover up deficits – not those, like Wilson and Grandin, who are honest enough to come out of the closet with their math deficiencies.

    E.O. Wilson may have made a poor choice of words in declaring some scientists “semi-literate” in math, as this term implies willful contempt for math, or laziness. He’d be harder to criticize if he’d instead written that some people are disadvantaged or differently abled when it comes to math. If they’re smart enough and gifted enough in other ways, and they work with courage and passion, such people can still find ways to change the world.

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