Math is Tough For Scientists Too

By Chelsea Whyte on June 26, 2012 9:18 PM EDT

equation
Does reading an equation feel like looking at gibberish to you? Sometimes even scientists are stymied by math. (Photo: Creative Commons: quinn.anya)

Trying to figure out the math in published studies does a number on scientists. Researchers Tim Fawcett and Andrew Higginson of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences found that even scientists have trouble when it comes to math.  

They found that scientific articles that are less text-heavy and present more equations on each page are not cited by other scientists as often as those that rely more on words to explain their findings. The most math-heavy articles were referenced 50 per cent less often than those with little or no math.

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"This is an important issue because nearly all areas of science rely on close links between mathematical theory and experimental work," Fawcett said.

The researchers analyzed nearly 650 studies on ecology and evolution published in three leading journals in 1998. It's particularly important for scientists not to gloss over the math in scientific studies, especially if further studies are to be done to validate the findings.

"If new theories are presented in a way that is off-putting to other scientists, then no one will perform the crucial experiments needed to test those theories. This presents a barrier to scientific progress," Fawcett said, according to Canada.com.

Co-author Andrew Higginson suggested that adding a bit of verbal flourish might help experts get their point across, reports Agence France-Presse.

"Scientists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work," he said. "The ideal solution is not to hide the maths away, but to add more explanatory text to take the reader carefully through the assumptions and implications of the theory."

Fawcett and Higginson published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a US peer-reviewed journal.

Hopefully, they didn't include too many numbers. 

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