Do I need to be brilliant, good at math, to do good science?

A friend of mine recently posted the following comment on everyone’s favorite social media site during an afternoon spent with E. O. Wilson

“Don’t worry yourself over brilliance or mathematics. You need neither to be a good scientist.” — E. O. Wilson

and it got me wondering… is he right?

After giving it some thought, I’m very confident that he’s wrong… and that he’s right… sort of. Let me just explain what I mean 😉

Now, make no mistake, being brilliant and/or having a solid understanding of mathematics (especially statistics) will make you be a better scientist!  I say this based on having the good fortune to have interacted with some very accomplished scientists who tended to be brilliant and to have a deeper grasp on mathematics than their scientific peers. And yes, this is true even among mathematicians.

Importantly, I’ve also met some really, really smart people in my life, including some mind-bogglingly smart mathematicians, who just weren’t good scientists.  So what’s the connection, and why does it matter whether Wilson’s quote is right or not?

First, “brilliance” is a bit of a nebulous term, meaning exceptionally talented or otherwise excellent.  I think it’s fair to interpret Wilson’s use of the word as “intellectually exceptional”, and in a sense, he’s right. Tons of good science are done by your average scientist, and far too many scientists suffer needlessly from “imposter syndrome” and benefit from encouragement to kick that habit of self doubt.  This, in fact, was the main point made by Steve Strogatz during his keynote speech last week at the 2012 SACNAS conference in Seattle. All young scientists need to be reminded that they’re doing good work, and that their mentors and those senior to them in the field are proud of them and have high hopes for their futures.

Importantly, we all have room to learn more and grow as scientists and science communicators, and there’s a risk of statements like Wilson’s giving people the impression that it’s alright to slack when it comes to shoring up your weaknesses, to pass on striving to become THE expert in your field, or to slack when it comes to developing a broad level of scientific literacy.

Second, modern science is highly quantitative, and the more math you know, the better.  Since “mathematics” is a broad term that most use to include statistics, it really makes me wince to hear Wilson say such things!  But is he right? Can you get away with not knowing any mathematics? I think you can, but it comes at a cost. You simply don’t have the tools necessary to see how your work interfaces with the theoretical underpinnings of science which these days are almost always best specified in the precise language of mathematics. Mathematical understanding is essential in physics, engineering, chemistry, etc. and biology is in the middle of a huge shift to being a quantitative discipline as well. Simply put, you do need to have a working understanding of mathematics (and statistics) to be a good scientist.

Finally, and this is where I think I agree with Wilson, these things alone won’t make you a brilliant scientist. Yes, being really really smart helps and knowing more of any STEM subject can make you a more capable scientist, but knowing how to pick good questions, how to collaborate, how to develop expertise in your field, how to manage your time, how to be your most creative, how to get work done, how to bring together what you are most passionate about with who you are as a scientist, these things all probably matter a whole lot more.  Recognize your limitations, work on them, but don’t let them consume all of your time.

I suppose it’s only fair to let Wilson have the final word on the matter:

“You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honorably. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure. Persist! The world needs all you can give.”  — E. O. Wilson

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