United we (under)stand divided we fall (prey) | Sunday Observer

United we (under)stand divided we fall (prey)

11 April, 2021

“United we stand divided we fall” is a quote that is used quite often to encourage collaboration, team work and patriotism. One of the important characteristics employers look for in their employees is their willingness and ability to be good team-players. Whether it is the family unit, a business organisation, a particular industry or even a nation, the unity among the members of an entity certainly strengthens the energy of its existence and the efforts of achieving its goals.

Surprisingly enough, one important place it is not seen is our formal education system where the learners are divided into specific subject areas as early as possible. Especially in our State education system, not only do we divide them into different streams but also we prohibit them from even trying out any subject outside their chosen stream.

One or other

One’s future is pretty much decided right at the time when one decides on the subjects one would like to do for GCE O/L examination. Then the GCE A/L program requires one to be in one of the areas from science, arts, commerce or technology. Science stream then divides again into physical sciences and biological sciences. Only the physical science stream requires further knowledge of mathematics. A familiar phrase seen and heard in communications about knowledge and or education is ‘Math & Science’.

The common understanding of the phrase is two-fold. 1. The word ‘Science’ in this phrase refers to ‘Natural Sciences’ which include ‘Physical Sciences’ and ‘Bio Sciences’. 2. The word ‘Math’ (for Mathematics) is connected to the word ‘Science’ with the word ‘and (&)’ because mathematics is considered as something different from the ‘Science’ as it is used. It is also very clear that the word ‘Science’ in this common usage does not include anything coming under the category of ‘Social Sciences’.

Therefore, it wouldn’t be illogical to assume that Mathematics, excluded from ‘Natural Sciences’, could be considered within one of the other categories such as ‘Social Sciences’ or ‘Humanities’. Though it is not easy to see mathematics included in those categories, what is becoming more and more common in universities, is having all different departments in Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities within the College of Arts & Sciences or the College of Liberal Arts. Facing the challenges due to rapid social, technological and economic changes of the world, it will be easier with a broader knowledge that can identify all the different factors involved with them and with skills that can formulate the connectivity of those factors spreading through all those different disciplines.

The origin of Mathematical Biophysics which led to the creation of mathematical theories and models of human behaviour through the works of scientists such as Nicolas Rashevsky, who started out as a physicist and ended up creating and teaching a ‘Mathematical Sociology’ course in the University of Chicago, is a good example of crossing the boundaries of different disciplines in order to understand human behavior.

Promoting and opposing

Though there seem to be two main camps, one promoting and the other opposing, the use of mathematics in all areas of education including Social Sciences and Humanities is becoming more and more popular around the world. The role of mathematics in problem solving strategies, irrespective of the discipline through which it is done, is recognised as an extremely important aspect of the skill development programs.

The intention is to have sustainable development activities leading to better living standards for all the inhabitants of the planet. Economics, out of all subdivisions of social sciences and humanities, seems to be the discipline that has leaped over the others, in reaping the benefits of using mathematics for deeper understanding of constraints and arguably for better formulations of economic systems and policies. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul A. Samuelson considered mathematics to be the ‘natural Language’ of economists.

Formation of clusters, due to ideological differences, among certain groups of people whose group identity is kept intact under a more general definition, such as economists, scientists, athletes, artists and even members of political parties, has always been an area of interest for sociologists, psychologists, political scientists and ironically even for economists to study in the process of understanding human behavior. Paradoxically, those studies will also be using mathematics in the process of analysing data and or in making generalisations and future predictions through the equations and models suggested by that data.

Specialising in one area

Starting from the latter part of the 19th century people started treating different areas of interest such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, geography, economics...etc. in their own individual cocoons and specialise in one of them without paying much attention to the connection of that to any of the other disciplines.

Branching out into more and more specific areas became the trend in the academic world where the competition among them was even encouraged as a natural stimulant to increase the rate of development of each discipline. Little that they realised, this branching out, though it facilitated certain economic benefits through career advancements and marketability of expertise, was taking them into isolation through narrower and narrower arteries.

This trend can be seen even within a particular discipline due to overcrowding of these arteries. Overcrowding is felt due to competition.

The competition creeps in because there is a market for knowledge. The market then controls all the economic factors influencing the individual or the group. A century of forced separation of different branches of knowledge inadvertently made the educators/researchers in one discipline insensitive to the effects of their actions on any of the other disciplines.

When things went wrong with some of the policies introduced in some countries during this period it was not easy even to find out what went wrong and why, since the experts themselves were trying to analyse things with their tunnel vision. The trend of separation and isolation started to change towards the latter part of the twentieth century and ‘inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary education/training’ became magic words.


There are enough people including policy makers, who are willing to take the risk of using mathematical models especially when the failure of the theory or the model is not going to have much of a negative effect on them. Theories and models based on mathematics attract people to rely on predictions made on stocks, bonds and other markets where they can trade options and futures.

Overreliance on mathematics may even have contributed to economic disasters around the world over the years, including the failure to predict international financial crises in time, to make relevant players aware of the imminent dangers.

Interestingly enough, the concept of deciding a price according to the future expectations and buying options has been tried successfully by Thales of Miletus (624 – 547 BC) by using his knowledge of ‘stars’ to predict the type of olive harvest months ahead and paying deposits on all the oil-presses in advance. That perhaps was nothing more than a clever usage of astrology which is also based on mathematics.

The use of astrology for future predictions and or finding out the causation of certain phenomena which were difficult to explain otherwise was an ancient practice which is still in use by the modern forecasters and or gamblers time to time, though they may shy away from admitting it.

People of the calibre of Charles M. Schwab and J. P. Morgan who are considered as successful businessmen were known to have consulted the famous astrologer Evangeline Adams before they made important business decisions.

It is interesting to note that, when Ms. Adams was accused of illegally helping some of the players in the financial market to gain an edge over the others using a pseudoscience (or witchcraft) she managed to get an acquittal by showing the courts that astrology is based on astronomy which is based on mathematics and therefore it is a pure-science and should not be considered illegal.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]