current state of the art

Martha Dunham st402621 at brownvm.brown.edu
Thu Nov 7 10:40:47 EST 1991


A biologist's 2 cents worth:

I agree with Marc Roussel that a majority of biologists do not know math well.
It is still possible to do excellent biology with only a minimum of math
knowledge - even statistics can be done cookbook or by a computer.  Many of
the mathphobic biologists are also awed by those who _can_ do math - this
provides a comfortable niche for anyone who can explain mathematical ideas
in layman's terms.  If such people come from outside biology as often as not,
so be it.  But now I am going to flame a bit.  I get very frustrated when
non-biologists assume I will not understand mathematical things simply because
I am a biologist.  I also get frustrated by non-biologists who claim to be
better at explaining biology than biologists are.  This is not a personal
attack on Marc Roussel, who has the decency to realize that he tends to study
mathematically interesting problems.  It's certainly a generalization (as is
"biologists don't understand math"), but non-biologists studying biology tend
to get distracted by issues that don't really relate to the biology they
claim to be explaining.  The result is journals full of interesting models
with unreasonable assumptions.  Sometimes models are built on top of models,
adding more biologically unreasonable assumptions.  I question the utility of
this kind of work (in real economic terms).  I know biologists (in general)
do not read those papers, and I suspect mathematicians rarely do.  So what is
my answer?  Non-biologists who want to explain biological phenomena should
consult real live biologists.  There's only so much understanding that can
be transmitted in books.  Communication between fields is, to me, the most
exciting part of science.  I'd like to see more of it.  Training biologists in
math is also important - we should work from both sides towards the middle.
But realistically, a mathematician and a biologist working together will be
more productive than one biologically trained mathematician or one mathematical
biologist.

Well, that's a long two cents and I suppose I've annoyed a few people.  But
letting out my frustrations has lowered my stress factor - how about you?

Martha Dunham
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