Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

We do not need to teach math and science

Roger Schank, a math wiz, says we do not need to teach math and science.

What (…) makes no sense is the idea that math and science are important subjects. You can live a happy life without ever having taken a physics course or knowing what a logarithm is.

On the other hand, being able to reason on the basis of evidence actually is important. Thinking rationally and logically is important. Knowing how to function in a world that includes new technology and all kinds of health issues is important. Knowing how things work and being able to fix them and perhaps design them is important.

Lets get serious. We don’t need more math and science. We need more people who can think.

Of course, while I agree with his point, he is being a bit too hasty. If you want to run a business, you need to know that if you save 10% and then save 10% again, you do not save 20%. You need to know that if you sell something US$10 and US$1 = CAN$1.5, then you sell it US$15. So, we do need to teach mathematics if only because everyone (at least in Canada) is responsible for filling out tax forms. Yes, you can get your tax forms filled out by an accountant, but, in principle, you are the one responsible for any mistake made.

You do not need to know what a logarithm is? Depends what you do for a living. If you are a programmer and you need to sort a bunch of entries, you need to understand that the first algorithm you will think up (typically Bubble sort) is not going to cut it if you have to sort 10,000,000 entries. If you want to really understand the issue you need the concept of logarithm.

What about trigonometry? Most people working in a factory doing non trivial work need a basic understanding of trigonometry.

I must admit that I have little use for the chemistry I learned, but then, I have little use for the geography either. Who needs to know where is Val d’Or? Where he is right however is that math and science are not as important as some lobbies make it out to be. I know a lot about how to solve nonlinear differential equations. Way more than I need considering I haven’t seen a nonlinear differential equation in nearly 10 years.

But to be fair, education takes a long time to adjust. My education was modeled after the space race. We were all to be rocket designers or astronauts (or maybe cosmonauts if you were a pessimist). So Physics, differential equations, algebra, and so on, were thought to be central. It turns out that it is a fringe subject. Few people work for the space industry.

In Computer Science, for a long time, we thought that we were limited by our computing resources so designing extra efficients algorithms was very important. As it turns out, Tim Berners-Lee convinced me that we are not building the future out of algorithms.

So, one generation teaches the next what they think is most important. The old generation is almost always wrong. Yet, it almost seems not to matter because apparently, we manage to go forward.

Nothing to worry about here. The Americans will not go bankrupt because people in Bulgaria are twice as good at math. If you learn math, you probably learn to think straight, but there are other ways to learn to think straight.

(Source: Downes.)