One would instinctively expect the Royal Society to be in favour of a
mathematical education – yet this was not the stance taken at a recent Café Scientifique with Dr Matthew Inglis. By contrast, he promoted the idea that scientists and mathematicians had done an excellent job of brainwashing the public into believing that mathematics was essential for brain development and critical thinking.
Dr Inglis began his talk by discussing the Theory of Formal Discipline and its proponents ranging from Plato to Sir Adrian Smith. In this theory, a mathematical training provides the ability to think logically and apply logic to different situations so that we actually ‘think’ about situations differently. He went on to discuss tests done on A-level students by himself, as well as work done in this area by Thorndike. Both sets of research that students who had studied mathematics got better at solving problems that were identical to the ones they had studied previously but that they were unable to solve problems similar or different to those studied. As such, studying mathematics improves mathematical abilities but has little or no impact on critical thinking.
It was proposed that one reason the Theory of Formal Discipline had become so prevalent might be that most policies related to education are based on intuition, unlike those in healthcare that are inextricably linked to the evidence. Although an interesting view, (and to give credit where it’s due here, the suggestion came from an audience member) it sounds suspiciously like another intuitive idea rather than one linked to evidence.
The format of the Café Scientifique, with a fifteen-minute lecture and over an hour left for questions from the audience, provoked a dialogue between the audience and the researcher. Although this meant that the Dr Inglis didn’t describe a lot of details of his work, it did mean that everything discussed was pertinent to the audience and that made the event more enjoyable than one with a lecture format. Although this left instances when Dr Inglis had to refer answers out and to explain the limitations of his knowledge, the format aided, rather than hindered, the success of the event and I recommend future Café Scientifique events, especially on topics that would benefit from discussion.
The Café Scientifique event ‘Does learning maths change the way we think?’ was given by Dr Matthew Inglis on 19 May 2014 at the Royal Society.