Math for Future Scientists: Require Statistics, Not Calculus

Essay by Robert C. Thornett: “The common requirement to pass calculus in order to major in a science is a killer of students’ dreams. And it unnecessarily limits the pool of future scientists.

Charles Darwin is a classic example of a genius naturalist who was not a natural at math. As a young man, he sailed around the world aboard the HMS Beagle and explored the giant tortoises and iguanas of the Galapagos, the rainforests of Brazil, and the coral reefs of the South Pacific. From these sorts of direct engagements with nature, he developed his theory of evolution, which revolutionized science. But Darwin wrote in his autobiography that after studying math as a young man, he found that “it was repugnant to me.” When statistics stumped Darwin during his experiments investigating the advantages of crossbreeding plants, he called his cousin, the statistician Francis Galton, to try to make sense of the numbers.

Similarly, Thomas Edison said that as a boy he had a “distaste for mathematics.” But this did not stop him from becoming one of the most famous scientific inventors of all time. “I can always hire a mathematician,” said Edison, “but they can’t hire me.” Edison was so interested in chemistry that at the age of 13, when he got a job as a newsboy and concessionaire on the Grand Trunk Railroad, he brought a chemistry set aboard so he could do experiments during layovers. Math and science are distinctly different fields, and a talent for one does not imply a talent for the other.

According to professor emeritus Andrew Hacker of Queens College of the City University of New York, less than five percent of Americans will ever use any higher math at all in their jobs, including not only calculus but algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. And less than one percent will ever use calculus on the job. Born in 1929 and holding a PhD from Princeton, Hacker taught college political science for decades and has also been a math professor. His book The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions argues that not only college students but high school students should not be required to take algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or calculus at all. Hacker points out that not passing ninth grade algebra is the foremost academic indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

Before the objections tumble forth, I should emphasize that both Hacker and I like math and neither of us wants to remove all math requirements; we want to improve them. And I believe high school students should be required to study algebra and geometry. But Hacker’s larger argument is that both high schools and colleges should switch to teaching more useful types of math that can help students navigate the real world. He says American schools teach basic arithmetic well up to around middle school, but they stop there when they should continue teaching what he calls “adult arithmetic” or “sophisticated arithmetic” rather than veer off into more abstract types of math…(More)”.