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Math Anxiety in School? Scientists Have It Too

Photodisc/Thinkstock(BRISTOL, England) -- Tell us if this describes you.  You’re a smart person who did well in school.  You were interested in science, but you didn’t pursue it because you were worried about all the math you’d have to learn.

Sound familiar?  Apparently biologists suffer from math anxiety too, at least according to a study in Monday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tim Fawcett and Andrew Higginson, two biologists at the University of Bristol in England, searched a giant database of scientific papers and found that if a paper had more than one equation per page, it was half as likely to be followed up on by other scientists.  It was mentioned half as often in later papers, at least in their footnotes.

“Articles less than 10 pages long with up to 0.5 equations per page are just as well cited as those with no equations, but increasing the equation density to more than one equation per page more than halves the number of nontheoretical citations,” they write in their paper.

Stephen Hawking famously worried about math anxiety. He pointed out that his 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time, had only one equation in it -- Einstein’s E = mc2.  An editor had warned him that any more would scare readers away.

This is a big deal, say the researchers at Bristol, and one that had never been quantified before.  Modern biology, like other sciences, is increasingly based on math; think of all the studies of genetically based diseases.  Scientists publish their work in order to spread knowledge -- to get other researchers to expand on their findings, or knock them down.

But if fewer scientists are looking, they say, that’s trouble.

“It is not easy to quantify the impact on the progress of knowledge, but potentially some important theoretical contributions have been overlooked,” said Higginson in an email to ABC News.  Math, he said, “is getting more and more important because complex biological processes are hard to understand without using mathematical models. The problem may therefore be getting worse.”

Fawcett joined in: “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,” he said in a statement to accompany the paper. “This presents a barrier to scientific progress.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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