Ecology vs Math: do we need to pick sides?

Like many other young ecologists, I chose this career because I cared about the Earth and because I wanted a job that gave me the thrill of discovery every day. Whether it’s seeing a new ecosystem for the first time, sighting a wild plant or animal species I’ve never seen before, coming up with a novel theory, methodology, or sampling technique, or finally ‘getting’ the statistical analysis I’ve been struggling with for weeks – I get to play explorer every day, and I love it.

Sadly, in some countries, it is a field that struggles to convince a large number of graduates to stay in a research career. This is mostly because of funding issues, but can also come from confusion after 4-5 years of being pushed and pulled between too many stimulating sub-disciplines and inspiring mentors.

Many students are bombarded throughout their degree with promotion of multiple sub-disciplines of ecology as “the one that rules them all”. As a naive undergraduate with a lot to learn about the industry and the world in general, this can influence which career path they take.

So it’s heartening when the more experienced generation encourage aspiring scientists to follow their passion and intuition and stick with science (particularly ecology and the natural sciences), even if they don’t fit into the apparent intellectual “norms”. E.O. Wilson’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal is just that.

Wilson is one of this era’s most well-known and influential ecologists. Like all of us, he’s not perfect and has probably made one or two mistakes in his career. But contrary to his critics, I don’t believe this piece is one of them.

I have lamented before ecology’s current obsession with mathematical modelling. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love maths (well, physics to be precise) and always have. But just having passion sometimes isn’t enough. My mental capacity is geared toward creative, philosophical, right-brain pursuits and I’ve sweated many a headache in my life, desperately trying to get my mental claws into things like this:

Einstein's blackboard, 16 May 1931. University of Oxford 'Bye bye blackboard' exhibition
Einstein’s blackboard, 16 May 1931. University of Oxford ‘Bye bye blackboard’ exhibition

…to no avail.

It’s a fact of life that some of us comprehend complicated mathematics and some don’t. It’s also a fact that some of those people who don’t understand complicated math, do understand ecology and the natural world (and lots of other amazing things!).

Yet ecological science’s apparent focus on modelling and metrics can be very, very daunting to those people. I spent much of my undergraduate degree feeling inadequate and seriously believing that I would never succeed in research because I struggled with statistics. Many of the textbooks and lecturers I encountered in my degree corroborated this – formulae, symbols, theories and predictive graphs are often given more credence in ecology than the intuitive processes that discover how the natural world actually ‘works’.

But I’m glad I bit the bullet and signed up for the ride – I have taught myself more about ecological theory and statistics in the last year than I learned in four years of university. There is a lot that I still don’t understand, and most likely never will, but I now know I have the ability to learn enough to keep my passion and creativity alive, and ensure I keep contributing to my field. If I had believed all the voices claiming that ecology can’t exist without maths and modelling, I would not be here.

We need more voices echoing E.O. Wilson’s, especially experienced and well-respected ones. Far from being “damaging” to the field (as some of his critics have claimed), Wilson’s piece merely points out that being only “semi-literate” in maths and statistics can be enough for you to make it in science, provided your passion, intelligence and intuition is strong enough to keep you focused and willing to expand your mind. And coming from someone of his standing, that is enough fuel to convince a wavering novice.

As I’ve discussed before, modelling and predictions are great (and indeed extremely helpful in some cases), but they are just that…predictions. Predictions cannot be facts until the predicted event has happened under natural circumstances, with little or no manipulation or interference by human hands (and don’t forget, predictions can sometimes be wrong!).

Just like a map can tell you how to get to a destination, but can’t tell you what condition the road is in…just like a recipe can tell you what and how many ingredients to put in your cake, but not how it will taste to you…and just like boiling an egg depends on a lot of specific environmental variables, mathematical predictions are not facts, they are educated maps for potential discovery.

To say that great ecological research cannot happen without maths, statistics, modelling or manipulative experiments is denying all the great discoveries that have happened in the natural world, some of them purely serendipitous! It also denies the intellectual power of just thinking about a natural system purely in terms of its ecological condition, history and natural processes. (The educational capacity of this approach is invaluable too – Ian Lunt’s popular series of quiz posts about his current study system are a great example).

So to any aspiring ecologist or scientist who is passionate about researching and discovering the natural world, but has nightmares about mathematical symbols dressed in white coats – don’t give up! You will make great ecological discoveries without fully understanding maths and statistics, or without conducting manipulative lab-based experiments all the time.

You will need to be receptive to maths, and you will need to collaborate closely with mathematicians and statisticians – you may even learn so much in the process that you fall in love with math, and become a purely theoretical ecologist.

But, in the meantime, don’t give up – semi-literacy (however small) in maths and statistics is just enough to keep your mind open to the wondrous discoveries of the natural world, and motivated enough to expand your knowledge.

© Manu Saunders 2013

33 thoughts on “Ecology vs Math: do we need to pick sides?

  1. argylesock April 8, 2013 / 2:33 PM

    You say this well. It’s true that we don’t have to pick sides – I find that it’s wonderful when ecologists and mathematicians work together. Wonderful, and useful.

    When helping undergrads to learn stats, I like to tell this story of my PhD. I thought about this particular disease in sheep; I went to farms and got covered in mud and amniotic fluid; I did some truly disgusting dissections and some truly mind-numbing DNA work; I learned how to use R, fell in love with it, and got better at stats than my supervisor; I teased out what my dataset really said; I went back to the farms and answered the question they’d paid me to answer. Oh yes, and I got a doctorate.


  2. manuelinor April 8, 2013 / 3:15 PM

    Thanks for the great example! Most phds, ecology in particular, benefit from multiple discovery modes.
    And I hope you inspire many more undergrads to follow their own path into ecology!


  3. Falko Buschke April 8, 2013 / 3:23 PM

    What a good, sensible post!

    I somehow got into a debate over at Jeremy Fox’s blog (Dynamic Ecology) about this exact topic *It would be nice if you could add a link to there.

    I am all for increase maths literacy. I also love maths and think it is often the most powerful way to expand knowledge.

    However, I just can’t stand the thought that the inner-circle of ecologists band together to decide which type of student is allowed to enter the field (This was the feeling I got after reading the critics of E.O. Wilson’s article). Maybe I’m just misreading their concerns?

    The irony is, while I was defending the lack of maths skills yesterday, I had an individual-based simulation model running in R (and it has been running for 6 days!). Only a maths fanatic would do something this stupid!


    • manuelinor April 8, 2013 / 4:19 PM

      Thank you! I also read Jeremy’s post – in fact, it sort of inspired my post, along with Wilson’s piece. I read your comment in the list, and it was the only one I agreed with!! – I could see you were trying to portray the other side of the story, but I think everyone was too caught up in championing maths itself to fully appreciate your point.

      For the record, I couldn’t actually find any anti-math sentiment in Wilson’s original piece – he says himself that he went back and learned calculus at the age of 32, and he makes repeated references to learning maths and increasing maths literacy etc.

      I had the same concerns as you from reading the criticisms… It would be nice if the experienced generation of scientistis (the ones that are in a position to influence and inspire the younger generation) encouraged aspiring researchers to explore and break their own path in science, instead of making us feel that we need to conform to one side or another to ‘make it’. Maybe that’s just naive of me 😉


    • Mike Bide April 8, 2013 / 10:45 PM

      “I just can’t stand the thought that the inner-circle of ecologists band together to decide which type of student is allowed to enter the field”

      I think you’re misunderstanding the position of the quantitative ecologists. They’re upset that Wilson’s Second Principle excuses ecological students – many of whom feel an aversion or fear towards quantitative tools – from having to push themselves statistically, or mathematically. It would be like a mathematical ecologist saying to students: “If you don’t like mosquitoes, feel free to do all your ecology from behind a desk.” Good science only happens where theory and reality regularly meet, and Wilson basically says that ecology doesn’t need to do this.


      • manuelinor April 9, 2013 / 7:03 AM

        Thanks Mike – I understand where the quant ecologists are coming from, but I just felt they had got the wrong end of the stick; hence why I wrote this. I used to be one of those ecological students with an aversion/fear of quant tools…and I couldn’t find anything in WIlson’s piece where he says that you don’t need math to do Ecology.

        In fact, he makes repeated references to increasing your knowledge if you don’t feel competent – in particular, he says that maths and statistical methods are “usually required” to advance any theories or concepts you came up with via intuition.

        The tone I got from the piece was one of encouragement and inclusion – for those of us who are passionate about ecology and may have plenty of other talents/skills, but do not have the “exceptional” math skills (not ordinary, or basic, but exceptional) that many talented quant ecologists have.


  4. Terry McGlynn April 9, 2013 / 5:03 AM

    I think this is put quite well. Thanks for taking the time. Maybe you could directly link to the Dynamic Ecology thread on this, so people’d find this?


    • manuelinor April 9, 2013 / 6:53 AM

      Thank you Terry, I appreciate your comment!


  5. Jim Bouldin April 9, 2013 / 2:36 PM

    Well stated manuelino, thanks.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t tell us anything useful because there’s no advanced math in it, and as we all know, advanced math is the One True Way to knowledge and understanding.


  6. Rachel April 13, 2013 / 3:46 AM

    The only time I don’t like maths and ecology together, is for Habitat Suitability Indexes for potential presence for great crested newts. It just doesn’t work properly and it really distresses me!


    • manuelinor April 13, 2013 / 10:09 AM

      Thanks Rachel, great point! I’ve read some of your previous posts on the newt…. I haven’t worked with HSIs, but I’m sure it happens with a lot of other animals/plants too. I think that’s a great example of authority bodies taking models/predictions as gospel, and forgetting that they are just a prediction – we have to be open to changing our minds and accepting that the real-world situation might be different from the prediction…unfortunately that often doesn’t happen, especially where government conservation plans are concerned! 🙂


  7. Into the Eremozoic June 3, 2013 / 5:38 AM

    Well put…I’m a fan of Wilson’s work too – the name of my blog is inspired by him.


  8. Alison Jobling August 19, 2013 / 1:26 PM

    Nice post, Manu. It’s an interesting subject for me, because I’m coming at it from the other side: my degree is in maths, while I’m drifting (in a layman sort of way) into ecology. And I know from experience (teaching biomaths and stats to ag. and ecol. students, as it happens) that lots of those students fear and resent the maths and stats, which often leads to them either avoiding them altogether or not using them correctly.

    Maths and stats are just a bunch of tools, after all: the important thing is to know when to use which tool and what the tools can do for you (which includes limits). I’ve seen psych students using stats in ways that were completely inappropriate and led to ludicrous conclusions, because they refused to consider that they needed to think about what they were doing before and after (this might be just a general tendency of undergrads, perhaps, or because psych students have little understanding of science ;-)).

    I’d like to be able to say that ecologists don’t need to be able to solve complex maths problems, so much as understand when various maths tools should be used and what the results will say, but perhaps I don’t know enough about ecol. research to be able to comment.

    By the way, thanks for liking my post – I hope you’ll find other stuff there from time to time that you like. 🙂


    • manuelinor August 19, 2013 / 2:07 PM

      Thanks Alison! I completely agree – I absolutely love the intricacies of mathematics and statistical analysis, but I was never taught that in my undergrad. I had to do a PhD to learn it all myself – all we were taught was how to use a particular software program and analyse “normal” data. I definitely believe that the approach to teaching statistics (and maths and science in general, for that matter) is turning a lot of students off…something I hope to expand on a future post, but it’s certainly a contentious issue for some 😉

      Your blog is great and I’m looking forward to reading more on there!


      • Alison Jobling August 19, 2013 / 2:43 PM

        Thanks for the compliment, and I’m looking forward to reading more on your blog too. 🙂

        I heartily agree with your suggestion that maths/stats/science teaching methods are turning a lot of students off. I’d take it further back than university, though: all of school seems to be geared at beating down the natural desire of kids/teenagers/adults to investigate.


        • manuelinor August 19, 2013 / 6:19 PM

          Yes! I completely agree, and I hope that those who have the power to change the education system will see that soon.


          • Alison Jobling August 20, 2013 / 8:36 AM

            I doubt it, but then I’m a bit of a pessimist. We shall see…


  9. Matt Bradley September 17, 2013 / 8:46 AM

    Brilliant piece. I’m just starting as an undergrad Animal Biology/Ecologist, into the field for all the same reasons as everybody else. While I always get top marks in my essays and assignments, I always fall a bit short on the maths, though I feel this is due to not taking a maths A-Level, and only being taught a minute amount of basic maths in the run up to my first year of uni. I’m managing as well as I can manage for a person in my position, and it sounds like I’m in a similar position to the one you were in. I love maths, but I still struggle with aligning my thinking toward the left side of the brain, rather than the right.

    I just came here to state that it’s encouraging to see that I’m not the only one, and it was actually a TedTalk by E.O.Wilson that calmed my nerves significantly. I think his video should be shown to all undergrad ecologists, personally. It did a world of wonders for me.


    • manuelinor September 17, 2013 / 10:07 AM

      Thanks Matt! I think there are a lot of things that the science education system can do differently…maybe one day soon! 🙂 You’d be surprised how many people feel like you, especially when they start a degree like ecology. So stay inspired! The most important thing that undergrads are rarely taught is how diverse and flexible maths and statistics actually are.


  10. nishanth December 6, 2013 / 4:53 PM

    This is exactly what i wanted at the moment… I struggle a bit with maths and statistics. But a passion for ecology is too deep. spending hours together reading about natural world, while working in a biochemistry lab ! I was contemplating to take do PhD in ecology, but the maths part and those theories held me back a bit.


    • manuelinor December 7, 2013 / 8:51 AM

      Thanks for your comment! Some maths skills are definitely important to do any kind of scientific research, especially ecology, but I think if your passion is strong enough you can find a way to learn it 🙂


  11. Robbie Emmet July 25, 2014 / 11:39 PM

    Thank you for the post! But what about the other way around? I’m an aspiring statistician who wants to work in the field of ecology, but I’m not particularly interested in ecology in and of itself.


    • manuelinor July 26, 2014 / 9:25 AM

      Thanks Robbie, great point! Yes, it does work both ways – if you choose to specialise in the field/ecological side of ecology or the maths/statistics side, the two are not mutually exclusive – both elements are essential to any ecology research project, so it doesn’t help to label one side as the ‘only way’ to do ecology. As an ecology statistician you also have the added bonus of getting to look at multiple different organisms and ecosystems, rather than just specialising in one as most ecologists do! 🙂


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