The Importance of Learning Math and Science

“When am I ever going to use this?”

Throughout high school, this was a sentiment I heard a lot when it came to math and science. I occasionally thought about it myself. Over the years, I was given a series of differing explanations but none of them were particularly satisfying. The work we were doing felt arbitrary at the time, learning things not because they made us better people or well equipped, but rather because that’s just what school and the curriculum was. And that can be incredibly discouraging. Pair it with someone’s struggles to understand the concepts and it’s unsurprising that math and science gets the bad rep it does in high school. It’s unsurprising that people can be comfortable with saying “math is hard” and leaving it at that. So, looking back, I wanted to dig into why math and science is a worthwhile study regardless of whether you enter a STEM field.

The first explanation I used to hear was, “Math is everywhere. If you think you’re not going to use math, you’re mistaken.” Similarly, there’s a lot of practical applications of physics and biology. And to some extent that’s true. Having a good grasp on numbers helps us make sense of finances, probabilities, time calculations, etc. There are a ton of reasons why human anatomy is a pretty decent thing to know, and an understanding of basic mechanical physics tends to be a good idea in a world where we operate high-velocity 2-ton machines down interstate highways. But if that’s the real reason we’re taught the things we’re taught, why was I taught the chain rule? Or that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell? The curriculum isn’t 100% practical knowledge. And I was curious what the value was in learning things that weren’t going to be applicable in my life.

I had a high school teacher tell me once to not think about my education in terms of a list of facts that I will need to use at some point in my life, but rather, that the calculus class I was in would teach me to think. It was less about the exact algorithms we were learning and more about working out our brains to make them stronger. Making them capable of absorbing more information easily. As a way of “learning how to learn.” She seemed on to something, but she didn’t expand on that. The thought that class was a way of training us how to think stuck with me, and as I thought about it more, I started to form an idea about why math and science is valuable to learn. And why it’s so hard for so many people.

Studying math and science is an exercise in accepting the unintuitive. Material is easy when it’s intuitive, but the really fun stuff happens when we leave that comfortable world. I think school makes the mistake of leading you to believe that negative numbers, fractions and logarithms should just make sense. Or that objects should behave as you would expect them to when studying mechanical physics in spherical vacuums. So when you encounter the unexpected, when you arrive at a solution that doesn’t make intuitive sense, you’ve got two options: Either you figure that your intuition is bad and derive the corollary that you’re bad at math and science. Or you realize that the world is so magnificently complex that intuition is not the best tool to understand how it all works. I think a lot of people opt for the former, but there is joy in accepting the latter.

A venture into the unintuitive. Destin on Smarter Every Day shows that when you accelerate in a car with a balloon inside, the balloon swings forward. He explains the phenomenon here:

We are innately terrible at understanding complex systems. We are built to be awful at deriving and understanding sound logical arguments. Our brain is pretty phenomenal at looking for patterns and creating mental shortcuts instead. We are pretty great at ballparking things and reducing the cause-effect relationships we see into the simplest possible terms. And while that might have been useful a couple thousand years ago when fast reactions to sudden threats were way more important that making sense of complex systems, it is far less useful today. Math and science is hard because you’re working against your natural inclinations. But for us to be a productive, well-informed society, we need people to be able to do this well.

Our struggle to comprehend the unintuitive is regularly taken advantage of. It’s unintuitive that when the globe warms only a few degrees, that that would be catastrophic. Within a single day the temperature varies more than that and we do fine. It’s unintuitive that injecting your child with a strain of a disease will keep them and their friends healthier. It’s unintuitive that driverless cars are already safer than those driven by people, and that in my lifetime we should and probably will reach the point where driving commuter cars is outlawed. If you wonder why fear-mongering is so effective, or how people could possibly be anti-vaccinations or climate change deniers despite the overwhelming evidence that they are wrong, this is why. Because people abuse the mental shortcuts we use to get us to firmly believe things that are not true.

It’s imperative that everyone can understand and accept scientific fact. It’s crucial that everyone, regardless of whether they work in a STEM field or not, can understand that our world doesn’t always work in predictable ways. That truth lives in what is observed and studied in a controlled environment. Truth lives in studies that are replicated across multiple labs. It lives in “doing the math” and arriving at surprising conclusions. It lives in well-formed logical arguments. Not in what “feels right” in your gut. And when we learn to seek truth with rigor, we no longer get confused. We cannot be swayed by appeal to pathos. We can move our world forward.

To me, that is why it’s imperative that every student gets a solid math and science education.

If you want to exercise these thought muscles but aren’t in school any more, YouTube is an incredible place to learn about the unintuitive. If you think that I’m wrong and you totally have a knack for understanding how things work, check out Veritasium’s playlist of videos asking you to predict what will happen next. I struggle pretty hard with these and I consider myself a STEM person: