Matematik? Det har vi folk til

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Jeg har tidligere skrevet om den amerikanske evolutionsbiolog Edward O. Wilson og hans teori om gruppeselektion.

Nu gør han sig til talsmand for at matematik er overflødig i det meste naturvidenskab.

During my decades of teaching biology at Harvard, I watched sadly as bright undergraduates turned away from the possibility of a scientific career, fearing that, without strong math skills, they would fail. This mistaken assumption has deprived science of an immeasurable amount of sorely needed talent. It has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.

I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case. Having spent my precollege years in relatively poor Southern schools, I didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama. I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age.

Det er underligt at skulle sige dette om en berømt forsker, men måske har vi her at gøre med endnu et tilfælde af Dunning-Kruger-effekten: at være så inkompetent, at man ikke ved hvor lidt man ved. Når man ikke kender et værktøj godt nok, er det svært at se, hvor kraftigt det kan være. Wilson gør en dyd ud af at sige, at han skam har skrevet mange artikler sammen med matematikere og statistikere, men han betoner, at det er dem, der skal komme ham i møde.

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.

Det ironiske er, at Edward Wilsons model om gruppeselektion formodentlig kun kan gøres præcis og evalueres ved brug af en matematisk model. Og faktisk er en del af kritikken af gruppeselektion netop baseret på en kritik af Wilsons brug af matematik!

Charles Darwins indsigt er dyb og epokegørende og skyldes i høj grad at han var sin tids dygtigste naturhistoriker – det var Darwin, der var med til at skabe videnskaben biologi ud fra den beskrivende disciplin, som naturhistorie primært er. Men tænk hvis han havde haft matematisk indsigt tillige. Mange af de ørkesløse diskussioner om evolutionsteorien kan i hvert fald delvis skyldes, at nogle har den opfattelse at evolutionsteorien bare er en samling postulater. Måske ville dette kunne være undgået, hvis evolutionsteorien allerede tidligere havde fået et matematisk fundament også. Darwin brød sig slet ikke om matematik i størstedelen af sin karriere, men mod slutningen skiftede han mening, som man kan læse i en artikel i Science News om netop Darwins brug af statistik:

Darwin himself came around eventually in his attitude toward mathematics. While he wrote in his autobiography of his youthful distaste for math, he also wrote that he wished he had learned the basic principles of math, “for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.”

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