Tag Archives: verbal

STEM vs. Liberal Arts: Which is Harder?

The essay Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? got me thinking – not about the subject matter of angst-ridden young adults and mass shootings, but the inimitable eloquence of the writing style itself. The precision and skill of how the words were chosen and arranged to make the essay informative yet galvanizing.

So, is STEM easier or harder than the liberal arts? The online opinion seems to skew in favor of STEM being harder, but it would be nice to have an official academic study about this. Another, perhaps related, question is: which subjects are perceived to be harder? For student who found high school easy and got good grades, which subjects are they more likely to major in college, versus c-grade high school students. I imagine students who perform poorly in high school, once in college (assuming they go), will choose subjects they perceive to be easier. If c-grade high school graduates are choosing STEM in collage, and a-grade high school graduates are choosing literature, philosophy, and history, then STEM may be easier. And then you would have to look at the graduation rate and GPA. If c-grade students who major in STEM outperform c-grade students who major in liberal arts, it would further lend credence to liberal arts being harder.

Although the data shows the humanities have a higher GPA than STEM, this does not necessarily prove the humanities are easier:

Major Average GPA
Education 3.36
Foreign Language 3.34
English 3.33
Music 3.30
Religion 3.22
Biology 3.02
Psychology 2.98
Economics 2.95
Engineering 2.90
Math 2.90
Chemistry 2.78

It could be that all the a-grade students are flocking the the humanities, while the c-grade ones go to STEM. The a-grade students, possibly being smarter, get higher grades than the c-grade students.

If SAT scores are a good proxy for high school performance and IQ, we would expect low-scorers to major in ‘easier’ subjects:

Interestingly, literature, social science, and linguistic majors have as high of SAT scores as most STEM majors. Although math and physical sciences rank among the highest, the difference isn’t substantially higher than that of the literature majors. The major ‘liberal arts’ is only four points lower than biology. The study also doesn’t tell us the completion rate, only the choice of major.

It’s also been observed that the verbal sections of both the GMAT, ACT, and SAT are harder than the quantitative sections, with top verbal scores being much rarer than top math scores, although this can be attributed to the verbal sections having a higher ‘ceiling’ than the math sections.

One possibility is that the threshold to become ‘good’ at math is lower than to be ‘good’ at literature and writing. Maybe it’s easier or more attainable for your typical high school graduate to grasp advanced calculus and special relativity than, say, publish an article in the New Yorker.

Perhaps STEM is more inclusive than liberals arts. It seems there is a sort of pretentiousness in liberal arts, especially with literature and the divide between ‘low-brow’ and ‘high-brow’ tastes. Another question is, how do you define ‘hard’ and ‘complexity’; what makes a subject ‘complicated’? Is it the number of things you have to memorize, the quantity of reading, the synthesis of information? STEM may be easier because usually the only thing that matters is the correct answer or outcome, not the ‘prettiness’ of the underlying mathematics. Whether you pass or fail depends on your ability to product correct responses to technical questions, not necessarily elegant responses. The liberal arts, especially writing for publication, requires not only a unique perspective but the ability transcribe your ideas into prose that is grammatically correct and enthralling to the editor and reader. It’s like imagine in math you not only have to produce the correct answer, but are restricted to a certain set of symbols in your derivation, but, on the other hand, some STEM problems are very difficult.

Verbal Harder Than Math?

Steve Sailor and and Steve Hsu have new posts about education and IQ.

Hsu’s post mentions that the infamous Terman IQ Study excluded Nobel laureates Shockley and Alvarez, possibly because highly verbal loaded test hurt their score, causing them to narrowly miss the cut-off.

iSteve, referencing an article originally in the New York Times, discusses how many Americans are illiterate regarding math.

It’s odd how math is being held as this paragon of difficulty when the evidence, on the other hand, suggests verbal is harder than math. Yes, the useless literary arts major may be harder than a STEM degree. The NYT article laments how Americans are bad at math, but I can wager they are even worse at writing, grammar, and reading. Let’s take a look at the discrepancy between verbal and numeracy scores on the GMAT:

Such a discrepancy also exists on the SAT and GRE, with verbal scores being lower than math. From Wikipedia

There are many explanations, but how about the simplest one, which is that verbal is hard. Some of these tests ask the definitions of words that individuals seldom, if ever, encounter in their school reading or in conversation. The presumption is that those who do more reading outside of the classroom will score higher, and this is true, but it could also be that verbal ability, not math ability, is better correlated with IQ – or – that verbal scores have a higher correlation with IQ than math scores.

Another possibility is that verbal, being harder, has a higher ceiling than math and that harder math questions are needed to even it out. Not so sure if that would be effective. Verbal, unlike math, cannot be reliably taught beyond the fundamentals. With some patience, you can conceivably teach a person of average intelligence fairly advanced math, but you cannot cram thousands of obscure words into his head or make him better adept at digesting long, complicated reading passages in a time limit. Math has a ‘plug and chug’ element to it, whereas verbal requires the synthesis of the rules of grammar and style. If you make harder math questions, people will adapt and scores will go up.

I’ve always marveled at how authors can put words together in the precise order to both convey a message and captivate the reader…seems much harder than arranging symbols to make an equation, and from personal experience doing both, it is. People are impressed by calculus…nah that’s not impressive or hard…writing 500 words that aren’t full of grammatical errors and malapropisms and doesn’t read like total juvenile/amateur shit…that’s way harder.

Ultimately, we’re simply expecting too much from the double-digit IQ masses that fill the public schools. Studies show that the average IQ of a high school graduate is around 100, so many should be expected to fail. Harder standards will mean more failures and or more coddling to make slow kids catch up. The former is bad for the morale of the student and the latter will drive up education costs even more, as well as defeating the purpose of having higher standards.