More equations = fewer citations: part two

This post was triggered by reading Michael McCarthy’s blog post on “Statistical Inference in Ecology”. In it he asks about writing a chapter on statistical inference for an ecology textbook and is trying to tackle that perennial problem: how much maths can you include and still make it readable and understandable?

In section 2 of the chapter “A short overview of some probability and sampling theory” I thought the issue boiled down to the question:

When writing for a general bioscience readership should you use mathematical symbols such as these?integral

First there is the argument that equations put biologists off because of maths anxiety. There may be some truth in that but I think there is another argument. A sizeable proportion of biologists in the UK have never studied calculus so have no idea what an integral sign means. In the UK I’d estimate this proportion to be about two-thirds based on the maths qualifications bioscience students start their degree with and the mathematical content of a bioscience degree (ref). Obviously this varies widely so these figures are estimates but nevertheless a good starting point.

If a biologist hasn’t studied calculus then including an equation such as this is the equivalent of putting a quote in another language. Just the other day I was reading a novel which had lots of quotes of poems in French. I stopped reading because I wasn’t able to translate the French and the author didn’t translate it into English. And it’s a horrible feeling, leaving me pretty fed up and the book  in the recycling bin. It didn’t motivate me to go and learn French I’m afraid!

How would you translate this equation? A graph and narrative explanation is a integral graphpossibility. You could include the equation but provide a visual and narrative explanation alongside it so that the reader gets the message that the integral sign just means getting the area and the x and x+dx at the bottom and top of the integral sign just show you the two boundary points.

In my experience using multiple modes, for example narrative and visual, works best – does anyone have other ideas?


About JennyAKoenig

I specialise in science education and communication. Projects have included maths education for bioscientists, study skills for scientists with specific learning difficulties and pharmacology: bringing the science behind how medicines work (or don't!) to a wider audience. I have a PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Cambridge and a BSc (Hons 1) from the University of Sydney. Until Sept 2015 I divided my time between my science education and communication consultancy Science ETC (see and teaching at Lucy Cavendish College (where I was a Fellow). I am now a secondary science and maths teacher.
This entry was posted in commentary. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s