English v. Math

I’m not sure that this won’t devolve into a Great Debate, but what the heck. It seems to me that people I know who are “good” in math and science are generally smarter (in the most cerebral, intellectual sense) than people who are “good” at, say, English or history. (And I say this as an English/History major, so please do not accuse me of trolling.) My question is two-fold: Do others get this same sense, or is it just my general stupidity in the math/science areas that make it seem that way to me? And is there any evidence on the subject, either way?

The differences between the Arts (English, History, etc) and the Sciences (Math, Physics, etc) are so extreme that I’m surprised we still teach them both in the same schools! One is objective and one is subjective.

If you wish to succeed in the Sciences, there’s no way to fake it. Either you know what you’re talking about or you don’t. If you don’t, there are objective ways to prove that you are a fraud.

The Arts on the other hand are often the santuary for the Bulls**ter. If you can talk a good game you can get past the fact that you don’t know what the hell you are talking about. I should know! BSing served me better than study in the pursuit of my degrees in History!

PapaBear writes, “The Arts on the other hand are often the santuary for the Bulls**ter”

That’s my opinion too. I was an engineering major in university, but of course had to take the requisite humanities courses. Not all of them were “easy” per se - for instance, French class was a challenge, and enjoyable. I placed out of English and took various other liberal arts classes as requirements.

But by and large, the level of BS involved in “liberals arts” was staggering, and not only that, but I could just make sh*t up and pass things with flying colors. “The relationship between the audience and the buildings in so-and-so-'s paintings is symbolic of blah de blah de blah” - I eventually got good at just spouting this crap, and it got me A’s in humanities classes!

By way of comparison, the information content in science, math, and engineering courses was staggeringly higher. When one gets deeply into various such areas, it’s not unheard of to spend hours understanding a single paragraph of text and it’s associated formulas in a textbook, and like PapaBear said, one can objectively determine who’s real and who’s BS’ing.

Then there were the “physics for poets” type classes, which were science classes aimed at liberal arts majors so they could get their requirements in. Most of them were just a shadow of the real thing - all the calculus was left out, the theories were over simplified, etc.


Gross generalization: there is a certain amount of rational, logical, straight-line thinking to the sciences; while the arts tend to involve mosaic (non-linear) thought.

On the other hand, there are documented phenomenon, like the way that mathematically-inclined people also tend to be musically-inclined, that make it difficult to draw any conclusions (that’s the math part of my brain speaking.) On the other hand, why not, shrieked the Duchess (that’s the art part of my brain speaking.)

Well, the flip side of this is that it has also been my observation that math/science people (and EXTREMELY intelligent people in general) may be . . . how to put this . . . less gifted in such areas as, ah, social interaction. (Translation: they sometimes can be a bunch of geeks.) Again, no real insult intended; maybe this is how I nurse my wounded ego when some physics discussion leaves me going “huh?”.

This sort of question intrigues me personally since I’m a sick and demented person who achieved their B.Sc double majoring in … Mathematics and English. Yes, there are arguments to be had for the sciences being strictly logical and rational (and maybe, on second thought, this does belong in GD) but as any properly written history of sciences will tell you, a lot of scientific discovery is of the flash-of-inspiration type, without a real reason until later. Strict adherence to scientific method has allowed us to document what goes on, but it’s still the flashes of intuition (such as the one that allowed Fermat’s Last Theorem to be solved) that make the discoveries.
And this is where the English part comes in, IMNSHO. The English department from whence I spring doesn’t tolerate BS well. If you want an A, you have to make your point relevant to the text, explain yourself clearly and coherently, and rationally develop your argument. In this way, my mathematical training was a huge asset when writing essays (does this make logical sense? was a question I consistently asked myself). And the intuition, the ability to feel and grasp concepts, was also an asset for interpretation of English texts, especially 20th century poetry. Doing the course plan I did left me with a rather well-rounded undergrad experience, I think, where I got a smattering of just about everything. BTW, I placed first in my class in Physics, too.
And, I play two instruments, guitar and trombone.

I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the problem is that scientific textbooks are not well-written on the whole. They are certainly informative, but often the method of expression is lacking just a little bit that would make the aforementioned hour-long paragraph 20 minutes. Understanding something is facilitated by a clarity of expression, easily obfuscated by technical verbiage. :wink:

So that’s my 3 cents (which converts to 2 cents US).

CK said

That reminds me of an MS fundraiser dinner I went to. After introducing myself to the guy sitting across from me, he asked me what I do for a living. After I told him that I’m an engineer, he asked me if I was involved with music in anyway. I told him that I sing in Choral Union and occasionally play trumpet, then asked how the hell he knew. His reply was that just about everyone he knows who is an engineer is also musically inclined. The thing is, in my profession, I meet a lot of engineers. While many of them are musically inclined, I’d have to say that a majority of them are not.

jodih said

. Hey, I’m insulted by that remark! And just when I was about to invite you down to Phoenix to see my Star Wars action figure collection too! :slight_smile:

SAT Math score: 800
SAT Verbal score: 560

What about people who are good at both Mathematics and Sciences and Literature and Grammar and Languages?

By the way,

15(soon to be sophmore)
Upcoming Calc student
Drama Queen
Jane Austen Fan
“Evil Witch of Grammar”(ask the kids who go to school with me)
and Geek

I brought this up in an earlier post. In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams says, I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s something to the effect of: "Mathematics, science, and engineering, these are the things we need to live. Literature, art, music, these are the things we live for. I always remember this, although I don’t know the exact quote.

I agree with many of the posters here. It’s good to be well rounded. Jodih, you seem like a very intelligent person. Your posts are very logical and well thought out. I think that if you get past all the math/science jargon, you will find that many of these concepts you already know and use.

As for the social aspect, I believe that time and age can take care of this. I’m a very introverted person, but get a few drinks into me and I can be the loudest person in the room. Alas, I still have much to learn of social interaction.

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I used to have a USEnet .sig that said “Why am I an art major? Because you can’t fake calculus.”

That said, I don’t know if one group is smarter than the other since, as has been pointed out, it’s not a cut and dry thing. Math/Sci majors seem to be less abstract in their thinking which is good for some things but not others. English, History and other liberal arts majors tend to pick up more of an ecclectic knowledge and are commonly much more interesting to talk to than someone who knows math and only math except for the bit of Pascal he also knows. Then you have your fun cross-over types like the Botony majors at my old school who were technically studying science, but were really a bunch of twig eating earth people playing guitar in the quad :wink:

“I guess it is possible for one person to make a difference, although most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”

English is a subject that needs lots of experience to be good at. However, lots of sciences also demand great amounts of memorized knowledge, such as medicine and the natural sciences. Math is just a tool for most of us!

Well, the way I look at it is that different people are gifted at different things. For example, I (an engineer/science type dweeb) recently saw a friend of mine paint. By which I mean, they took a paintbrush, and paint, and paper, and after some 30 minutes had created the most amazing nature scene.

Now, there’s no way I could ever do that, even if I dedicated my life to learning. The old neurons just aren’t hooked up that way. I can barely draw stick figures :slight_smile:

OTOH, when I try to explain to this person the physics behind something or another they’re wondering about, they’re as befuddled as I would be if handed a paintbrush and a canvas.

Good thing we have different sorts of folks around I guess!


I have to side with the mathematical contigent on this. I’m a genetics major and while the majority of liberal arts people that I meet are much more interesting than myself, they still couldn’t calculate an integral to save their life. English and other liberal arts are required classes for my major in order to (and I quote) “make me a well-rounded individual” What i see them as are easy A classes that help my GPA. I find it hilarious when a liberal arts major ends up in one of my calculus or chemistry classes. They get this deer in the headlights look and start enlisting private tutors and still get D’s and F’s. As for sciences requiring a large amount of memorization, well, yes, you need to know the formula. But you can’t just know the formula, you need to know how to apply it and manipulate it. That’s what stifles most non-science people. But last semester my physics prof allowed us a notecard with all the formulas and the class average on the exams was still around a 45-50. Some people just can’t do science or math. Of these people, some admit it and go into a liberal arts major, while other just keep trying and keep failing.

I don’t know about evidence on the subject other than hearsay. I’m a math/gear and think that we are generally seen as , umm, having less of a social life :). I’ve noticed that my classmates and I are usually the ones staying home and studying on the weekends. I’m a very quiet person and probably perpetuate the stereotype of the reclusive math major…I also know several musical engineers (and am one of them).
Somewhere in our education we learned math=geek, arts=cop-out. It’s a shame. I’ve enjoyed my humanities classes, but my fellows and I get strange looks whenever we venture into the conversation (whoa, the gears have opinions).

Isn’t that the truth. Sometimes it seems like the authors simply can’t express their ideas in plain english. I mean, we’re students for gosh sakes, not PhD’s.

As for BS-ing. I hated high school english because people were always reading too much into a story (IMO). Yes, stories have morals and life lessons, but picking at every detail just ruins the joy of reading. Please don’t force me to take some profound meaning from it.

$0.02 (give or take)

I’m another one of those oddities that ended up with both mathematical and verbal skills, with a twist – the utter, total inability to remember facts such as names, dates or places (ever have to go look up your own age on your driver’s license because you’ve forgotten it? – been there.)I think that probably contributes more than anything to my personal geekiness (of the absent minded professor type)…hard to make creative small talk when you can’t recall the plot of movie you saw two days ago. That confessed to, I think the perception of mathematical/spatial/reasoning ability = intelligence comes in part from a circular definition – it’s what intelligence and other standardized tests measure, as opposed to the ability to absorb and catalog factual knowledge or the creativity needed to create some wholly new work of art or literature (as opposed to the critical skills used in commenting on an existent one). I’ve got a friend that had to be dragged through calculus twice before barely passing, but can tell me the common and scientific names of any plant I point to, as well as the conditions needed for their care and feeding, and I’m continually amazed by this, particularly because I can’t do it. So if what we call intelligence is defined by math/space/reasoning ability, sure, anyone who can do these things appears intelligent. However, anyone who can do something you can’t do appears remarkable!
Second, when you hear people in a math or physics discussion tossing around specialized jargon and it goes over your head, keep in mind that most disciplines (medicine in particular comes to mind) have just as much specialized language, and it CAN BE TAUGHT. Part of the problem with math in particular is that it’s inflicted on everybody (and I think it should be)and then taught very poorly. Of course mathematical terms and concepts make little sense if the person presenting them can’t be bothered to break them down into accessible english, and then build up from there. (Personal gripe coming up, watch out!) I’ve seen quite a few teachers/profs fail to realize that just because the subject was immediately obvious to them, it might not be to the rest of the world. They’ve never been in the position of having to analyze their own thought processes – to sit back and say “I see how this works, now WHAT is it that I’m seeing? And how do I explain that?” Worse, I’ve known one that I far as I can tell actually enjoyed talking over his students heads, and refused to even attempt clarification. Some kind of ego thing (ooh, I’m smarter than a bunch of sophomores), and the existence of a small minority that did understand what was going on annoyed him to no end (heh heh heh). And yeah, you’ll run into those people occasionally too, not just in a school setting, but the ones who just can’t be bothered to explain anything “at your level”. They might be intelligent, but hey, they’re still jerks.
[Oh, the reason for the personal gripe? No one failed the freshman calc class I taught last semester. And it was calculus for non-engineers. Anyone else out there understand the enormity of just how bad a thing that is?]

I’ve had both experiences with profs, too. What really gets me is professors who really really try to break it down to the basics but people still can’t get it. Their answer is then to chastise the professor. I’m of the opinion that not everyone can be taught, because my fiance is hopeless in math. We’re talking basic, non-calculus math. I’ve tried to tutor him, given up, he’s paid an ungodly amount of money to tutors, still nothing. He’s just bad at math. I don’t care what people say, he is an example of someone beyond hope.
As for profs who talk above you, I had a molecular genetics prof who loved to do that and tell everyone how great he was. I went in once to express concern on an exam and he told me how I would never make it anywhere, etc etc, that in medical school I would be competing with the top students from Harvard and so on. I left almost in tears, only to look him up in the faculty guide and discover his Ph.D came from a second rate school in genetics. So the best way to deal with these people is to check their background. A lot of their pomposity drains away when you casually ask about their stint at a junior college or their 1.5 GPA.

As for the no-failures in that calc class, i believe it may be a sign of the end of the world.

Disclaimer: I freely admit to having a strong preference for math/science vs. all that fuzzy stuff :wink:

I think the difference between arts/social science & “hard” science is seen in the different ways people who excel in one view the other… The English/History crowd don’t/can’t get problem-solving; the Math/Science crowd can’t be bothered with “that crap”.

I think the crux of the issue is which gives you the greater satisfaction - solving a problem in which the answer will be the same 1,000 years from now, or seeing different things in the same picture/story at different times depending on what has happened to you recently.

Sue from El Paso

Comments on Memorizing facts vs. “you need to know the formula.”
Sometimes an applied science field requires looking at facts, recognizing a pattern and drawing a conclusion based on experience.It’s much more intuitive than using a formula. Still, you need some theoretical science for a foundation in that field.

I have to reply to the “solving a problem in which the answer will be the same 1000 years from now” That may be true in the introductory levels of science, but the higher you get, the less they really know about things. The lure of science is the unknown. I’ve asked many questions to professors who have had to answer “there are many theories on this, but there is no conclusive proof” The excitement comes in being the one to prove something.