mathematical literacy

anonymous asked:

I have recently binge-read your "biology is terrible" tag. I love biology, but the lack of mathematical literacy in my fellow biology majors has unsettled me for a while, as well as the emphasis on memorization over conceptual understanding. I am probably going to grad school next year; is there anything I can do in the early stages of my career to make biology less terrible?

To clarify: I know I can’t single-handed lay fox academia. What I’m really asking is, how can I avoid becoming part of the problem?

1.  First of all, don’t go to grad school unless you cannot conceive of being happy doing anything else.  I mean, you won’t be happy in grad school either, but at least you’ll take comfort knowing that you didn’t have anything better to do.

2.  Learn to program.  This is non-negotiable.

3.  Take as much math and physics as possible.  I pushed for special exemptions to take almost all my coursework from other departments, and I’m very glad I did.  My constant regret is not having studied even more math.  The following tools have been helpful to me: calc, linear algebra, dynamical systems, probability and statistics / stochastic processes, and statistical mechanics.  In my experience you can never know too many sampling algorithms.

4.  Read books.  Rob Phillips’s Physical Biology of the Cell is a wonderful introduction to biophysics and math modeling in general.  Jim Keener’s Mathematical Physiology is also good.  Bill Bialek’s Biophysics is amazing, but also assumes more mathematical maturity.

5.  Get into the habit of sketching little models all the time.  What’s important here and how do I capture it?  What are the nouns and verbs of my model, so to speak?  What sort of data do I have, and what sort is collectible in principle?  If I had a gun to my head and had to estimate the answer, what would I say?  How far could I get with pencil and paper?  Do I want to explain or merely predict?  How would I validate it?  Build quantitative models of the things you study in your courses, because your professors probably won’t.

6.  Talk to people.  Make connections outside your department, explain to them what you’re doing and make them explain their stuff to you.  You’ll be learning a lot from the other grad students you know, so you should take care to choose them well.

7.  In fact, if you really feel strongly about this, consider broadening your application process to consider departments in biophysics, BME, neuroscience or the like instead, depending on your inclinations and prior coursework.  If the mathematical culture of the average bio department bothers you, remember that you are unlikely to be able to do much to change it.

8.  That goes double for your advisor.  The best predictor of the sort of work you will do as a graduate student is the sort of work that previous graduate students have done in that lab.  So make sure that you and your advisor are on the same page about the level of mathematical rigor you’re aiming for.  Or better, make sure your advisor is several pages ahead of you.  Choose your advisor carefully.  Choose your advisor carefully.  Choose your advisor carefully.

Veel succes, anon.

Why are some adults so eager to find young people dysfunctional? Some adults simply fail to acknowledge what our young people actually know and are able to do, and instead focus on what youths do not know and how they fail at arbitrary tasks. To illustrate, when the 1999 NAEP data on mathematics were released, they showed growth in the average scores over every previous administration of the test. One would have thought this an occasion for rejoicing. Instead, the National Center for Education Statistics intoned, “The mathematics skills of our nation’s children are generally insufficient to cope with either on-the-job demands for problem solving or college expectations for mathematical literacy.” We think it’s appalling that a government agency would engage in such education bashing on the basis of tests that do not measure real-world skills and have unknown abilities to predict performance in the jobs of the future.
—  Berliner and Biddle, “The Manufactured Crisis”
One thing that angers me about Tumblr

Which I’ve seen a lot of elsewhere, too, but it’s especially bad on Tumblr: you guys are a fairly intellectual community. You can talk easily about politics and morality and philosophy and social issues and literature and art and even science, but a lot of you seem proud of mathematical illiteracy. Maths is always the subject that gets picked on here. God forbid you guys don’t know who wrote Romeo and Julietor don’t know that the Church of England was formed by Henry VIII wanting a divorce, but somehow not knowing Pythagoras’ theorem is something to be proud of? 

It’s okay to find maths hard, really. I find maths hard. Most people do. Our brains aren’t hard-wired to find numbers easy. But a huge portion of my Tumblr followers seem to take great pride in reblogging anti-mathematical sentiments, gifs decrying maths as useless, and jokes about their mathematical inability. It’s fine to be bad at mathematics. But it’s not fine to be proud of that. It seems to me a tad hypocritical that you guys seem to (rightfully) rip the shit out of people on Facebook who think reading or history is for losers, but remain proud of the fact you can’t do algebra.

People keep saying things like “when has algebra ever been useful for me? Am I ever going to use trigonometry?” Well, here’s the thing.

  1. Algebra and trigonometry are a lot more useful in a practical sense than studying poetry or ancient history, but I don’t hear people complaining about those subjects. You can’t consider yourself a well-rounded, educated person without some grasp of mathematics.
  2. Yes. Yes you are. The chances are you’ll end up using some sort of maths beyond basic arithmetic if you go into business, economics, marketing, engineering, science (especially science) or any field that involves numbers or measurements in some way.
  3. Even if you’re not going into those fields, mathematics is good training for your brain in exactly the same way reading poetry is. You’re never going to “use” poetry, but it’s still very important to learn about because poetry is an important part of our culture and you can’t consider yourself educated without some appreciation of it. Also, reading poetry helps train your brain to think creatively. Maths works the same way. Even if you’re not going to use algebra, maths gives you the mental toolkit needed to solve problems, to think quantitatively, and to think logically and rationally. In today’s world those skills are indispensable. If you’re not going into one of the fields listed in point 2, then true, you’re probably not going to need to remember the details of trigonometry. But it will be a very useful skill in your everyday life if you’re able to measure things, to think quantitatively, to be comfortable with numbers and shapes and be able to work through a problem in a logical way. Mathematics is all about those skills. When you think in that way, you’re doing maths whether you realise it or not. And learning algebra and trigonometry and so on is a great way to sharpen those skills and train your mind while simultaneously being useful to those who are going to need it (i.e. everyone planning on going into the fields listed in #2.)
  4. Maths is a really important part of human culture and it’s becoming more important every day. Computers would not work without mathematics. Transport would not work without mathematics. Almost all of the things you rely on every day involve  mathematics in some way. 
  5. Maths is the only truly universal language. English, German, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Tagalog, Arabic… they’re all made-up, human constructs, and accidents of human history. But mathematics applies everywhere in the Universe. It would be a shame to pass up the one chance you’re going to get at living your life in this universe without learning to speak its language.
  6. Maths can actually be fun. No, really. It’s a fault of our school system that most maths teachers are horrendously bad at what they do and most maths textbooks make the subject seem intensely boring. The nature of teaching a class of 30 students means that the high achievers are inevitably going to be bored and left behind, while the low achievers will be struggling and have no idea what’s going on - only a small portion of the class will be engaged and interested at their level. But that’s a fault of the education system, not maths itself. I guarantee you that there is a maths problem out there that’s just right for your level - whatever level you’re at - and will be interesting to you. I bet even you people who reblog “when are we ever going to use algebra” posts have still had the occasional moment in maths class when an interesting fact or problem makes you go “hmmm!”

Maths is not easy. It’s not a subject you have to love. I can see why some people struggle with it - hell, I struggle with it. So do mathematicians. And God knows I know maths teachers can be horrendously boring and our education system turns maths into one of the most mind-numbingly boring subjects ever. It’s okay to not be good at maths. It’s okay to hate the school subject. 

But not appreciating the role maths plays in human culture and its importance is not okay. And being happy with your mathematical illiteracy - proud of it, even - is absolutely not okay!!! It’s a problem that you should be fixing. I have no qualms whatsoever with people posting about their difficulties with maths - I’d love to help you myself, if it’s something I can do! - or about terrible maths teachers. But I don’t want to see anyone bad-mouthing one of humanity’s most important achievements itself, okay?

dearratbastards replied to your post: dontmakemagsmad replied to your photo: 40 Pounds…

MATH! Also, I am super impressed by you. What a BAMF you are.

Math is important, you guys! I hope my zero posts on the subject have engendered a deep understanding of the critical need for increased mathematical literacy in the United States and its importance in the daily lives of all young Americans, young women especially. MATH!

Thanks, girlfrand, the feeling is soooo mutual :-)