E. O. Wilson, Scientists Definitely Need High Math Ability

Wilson uses his personal profile to conclude that math ability is unimportant

Posted Apr 08, 2013

“Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.”

He went on to note how he relied on a different set of abilities, notably spatial ability or the ability to visualize:

“Fortunately, exceptional mathematical fluency is required in only a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory. Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.”

Wilson is a noted author so he clearly has high verbal ability.  However, what he revealed in the passage above is that he also has high spatial ability.  Therefore, it is probably reasonable to conclude that he has higher verbal and spatial ability, and a relatively lower level of math ability.  Hence he concludes that math ability is not necessary for success in science, because he personally did not feel that he relied on it for success.

But is math ability only necessary in a few disciplines such as physics?

Can a scientist become great without math ability at an extraordinary level?  Certainly.  Wilson is probably an example of this.  But does this mean that math ability is not important? No.  Wilson may have had lower math ability relative to his verbal and spatial ability, but I doubt it bordered on the semiliterate.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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Note: see this excellent post from Jeremy Fox which aggregates much of the discussion surrounding the issue.