Innumeracy and the Biological Scientist

Ok, I admit it. I am a data geek. I was a quant major in college, and came to biology later in life. A result of too many weird maths and stats classes left me with a strong philosophy. I am a huge fan of John Allen Paulos. Top of the hit parade are two books: Innumeracy   and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.

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These books are filled with lovely tweetable nuggets (such as there are problems that require more steps to solve than time that has existed since the Big Bang, the real one, not the TV show). But mostly they are about a way of thinking about the world.

Don’t waste anyone’s time saying “I am bad at math” or “I never got numbers”. You likely had bad teachers, interested in facts and not processes, but it’s too late to blame it on them. Take responsibility for things. And you better damn well understand orders of magnitude and be able to manage the budget of that R011.

Anyway, time with numbers gives one a different perspective on data and doing science.

For example: in your work, is variation and variability a problem or a source of pleasure? If you are seeking The Pathway for Some Very Important Process, then all that variation that turns up in real data is a pain, noise and a distraction from the main event. If however, you are seeking to understand just what is the evolutionary basis for big heads on babies, or tiny femurs in whales, then variation is the source of all wonder, let alone the basis of natural selection or heterochrony or whatever mechanism you like. Molecular geneticists are mathematicians, but population geneticists are statisticians.

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