“Math is hard,” or “I’m just not good at math,” are phrases we’ve all heard people say. I’m sure you’ve even heard people you regard as very intelligent utter those words. So why? What differentiates (no pun intended) those who are good at math from those who are not?
The debate over what makes math “hard” comes down to the age-old question of nature verses nurture. It has implications that affect everyone: from study habits, to careers and ultimately one’s livelihood. It’s a debate that was vividly illustrated by two recent articles.
One recent article in Nature, a weekly journal of science, discusses entrepreneur and geneticist Jonathon Rothberg’s plans to sequence 400 of the top academic mathematicians’ and theoretical physicists’ DNA to determine which genes, if any, provide the foundation for mathematical aptitude.
The article goes on to describe Rothberg’s work as very controversial. There are critics who say being able to identify embryos with a genetic predisposition for math ability could lead to selective abortions and other abuses based on the trait. In addition, researchers are skeptical of the statistical power of such a study because of the small number of participants and how complex the trait of intelligence is, which could lead to misdirecting attention to faulty conclusions.
Despite the controversy, this research is potentially beneficial. Michael Hutchings, a mathematician at University of California, Berkley, says one potential benefit could be to parents who use the information to understand the particular abilities of their children and to give them the support they need.
Rothberg represents the nature side of the debate over the inherent ability to do math, an opinion deemed dangerous and self-destructive by Miles Kimball and Noah Smith. They recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic that turns the implied causality of Rothberg’s research on its head.
Based on experience teaching math at the college level as professors of economics and the research of psychologists, they argue that attitude and perceiving math as achievable is far more important than innate ability. They cite research that shows the grades of students who are taught to believe that their intelligence isn’t predetermined had the ability to improve their grades through hard work.
Both arguments have profound implications for students. If you buy into the nature argument, then students should adopt a model of the time they invest into math and other hard subjects that stresses what they are giving up. If a student finds math relatively difficult and has to spend more time and energy than others on it, the student’s opportunity cost is much higher and they might be better off spending their time in other ways.
If you prefer the nurture argument, however, opportunity becomes far more inclusive and extends to all those who want to achieve. In this world, preparation, discipline, practice and diligence become the watchwords for those looking to succeed.
Only time and more research will tell whether nurture prevails over nature, which I hope it does. Ultimately, like other great debates of science, I see the end result that will be the most explanatory of the human condition as a composite of the two theories. If it is, we have a lot of work to do as a culture to orient ourselves away from the excuse of “I’m just not good at math” and embrace hard work and perseverance as the cornerstone of success.
Photo courtesy of AdamK, Wikimedia Commons