Why are there not more science majors?

There is a new paper (pdf) by Ralph Stinebrickner and Todd R. Stinebrickner on this topic, and here is their bottom line conclusion:

We find that students enter school quite optimistic/interested about obtaining a science degree, but that relatively few students end up graduating with a science degree. The substantial overoptimism about completing a degree in science can be attributed largely to students beginning school with misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science.


Because math and science are hard, even when self esteem is high.

Only anecdotal: chemistry and biology are packed with pre-med drudges.

One of my children recently had a senior-level college chemistry class that was challenging him. He went to see the professor who dismissed his concerns with borderline anger. I suggested to my child that he go back and let the professor know he was only taking the class (and minoring in the area) because of personal interest and was not pre-med. He did and he said the professor's attitude immediately changed. My son said it was one of the best college classes he took.

Anecdotal, but the ECON department at a top public university that I attended was the same way. Utter arrogance and dismal by the professors until they heard he got accepted at a few top econ grad programs then they suddenly became ultra friendly and helpful. This was surely partially explained by the large number of business school rejects who populate the ECON department.

While I don't doubt that there is high over confidence in folks abilities which leads to attrition, I also doubt that colleges are bridging the gap between inadequate high school preparation and success in college.

I think that you are missing the fact there is a huge jump in difficulty between 101 math and science courses and 301 level courses.

While I found Calc to be easy, Calc 3 and Diff Eq and later are another level higher.
There are similar phenomna in the sciences (take Physics which jumps from Trivial to jaw dropping complicated).

You could draw a tree where there are many branches where students could fall off
1) HS Algebra
2) Calculus
3) Calc 3/Diff Eq
4) Higher Level so Math

Similarly for Physics, Biology, and even Foreign Languages (the only one which was a stumbling block for me).
1) H.S. Spanish Easy
2) Spanish 101-2 Easy
3) Spanish 201 and Conversation Easy
4) Spanish Literature- Dropped out a month into the course after it became clear that I was the only one no fluent in the language and that I would fail.

Just some thoughts.

I disagree. I found 301 level courses much easier because the testing is not so heavily geared towards "ease of marking" as the highest priority. Then again, you actually have to understand what you did in 101 weeks or years after the exam, if you are to have a chance in 301.

I agree. I coasted through first and second year math and physics but third year calculus was a rude shock. I still remember spending a whole day trying to understand one page of a calculus text book. I got over the hurdle and graduated in physics (first class honors) but then went to law school because the job opportunities seemed to be better.

Do you mean "challenging" in the sense of a good thing - stretching your child?

Or as a euphemism for a bad thing?

Just curious - where is "challenging" a bad thing?

I was bored silly in high school. It was very challenging (for me to not fall asleep.)

My impression was that any challenging causes the brain to consume more calories. Historically calories have been scarse, so the brain/body has had an incentive to not spend calories on mental tasks that do not give back immediate rewards, such as more calories. This in many people manifests in annoyance or bordom at the mentally challenging task at hand.

Many people build habits that overcome this, but many with fine minds do not and rather focus on task with more immediate rewards.

Yup. STEM is hard. I went to Rice at a time when 75% of freshmen entered intending to major in STEM, but one-third switched to softer majors by graduation. I triple-majored in non-STEM subjects and was Phi Beta Kappa, but I had it _much_ easier than my roommates who were B students single-majoring in a STEM field.

I was at Rice ( EE, future spouse ChemE), probably around the same time, and we both found the same thing. Life for the non-STEM folks was notably easier than STEM, although I'd say in general the non-STEM folks had considerably more fun.

I also tripled up on bullshit at a different place, but in the noughts. My life was much easier than that if people who learned real stuff. The always-there possibility of law school lets a lot if people get away with half-assing their education, myself included.

In some of my research, it is clear that STEM majors have higher cognitive ability majors compared to all other groups. Here is the paper: http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/56143/spatial-ability-stem-domains.pdf

And here is a blog I wrote on the topic: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/finding-the-next-einstein/201307/why-are-there-not-more-stem-majors

I wonder what we can do to encourage individuals to major in STEM while simultaneously ensuring they do not have misperceptions about their ability to perform well? Encouraging everyone to major in STEM really doesn't make much sense. Yet discouraging people who love science (but may not have sufficient ability) is tough to advocate as well.

Even after graduation, there are huge differences in outcomes after college that are not easy to predict by just looking at coursework. For instance, if you head towards long term academia, the skills that will get you towards a tenured job are very different than those that just get you accepted in a doctorate program. So many crash and burn getting the Ph.D, or in the years right after.

On the computing and engineering side of things, there's also gaps between grades and results at a workplace. Classwork that is just too theoretical helps those that can hit the books, but those skillsets will not translate to a workplace. At the same time, many doers that just lose interest in the courses will have no problem at all when faced with real world problems. For that, IQ is a better predictor than grades.

Bob, I will give you that work is not school. I don't think it is that the class work is too theoretical.

In the workplace, the problems are never well defined.
The work place requires a lot of communication to frame the problems.
Circumstances are changing, such that what was an urgent problem yesterday becomes irrelevant today.
Multiple factors, such as client expectations and management expectations, and cost, constrain solutions.
Solutions are seldom optimal.

STEM is great--for other people.

I always tell people that the "number of good jobs" available in STEM has nothing to do with your interest or ability in STEM. If you're a C student without much interest in a STEM field, get out of it. You might get a job if you do manage to graduate, but your life will be miserable with no shot at graduate work.

I also always tell people that the "lack of jobs" in a particular field has nothing to do with your interest or ability in the humanities or social sciences (or performing arts for that matter). Since corporations don't promise much in the way of permanent employment or benefits today anyway, why bother majoring in STEM if you end up with a temporary job or a job with few benefits. Why not major in something that interests you like history or psychology? The advantage is that you could pull off a high GPA and go to law or graduate school and make some real money for a while; avoiding all the low-grade STEM bullshit anyway.

Choose for yourself--not corporate America

George DeMarse
U.S. Office of Personnel Managment (Ret.)

No, because undergraduate science degree programs are designed to filter out people who wouldn't be able to do a PhD in the science.

The only reason to get an undergrad physics, bio, chem, or even math degree is to play in the fast lane of serious science. If you can't (or don't want to) do that, you should get an engineering degree and be useful to society. That is; this whole question is misplaced.

No, a large fraction of those that follow undergraduate science programs will become teachers of these subject in secondary education. They have to have very different qualities than the people that want to continue at a graduate level, but they have to be treated with respect as well.


Personally, I felt econ 101 was at least as hard as bio 101. I do not understand why people find certain STEM fields so difficult, especially the ones that contain little math, like biology.

Did you learn about variation within the species in bio 101?

News to me that biology contains little math. Data analysis in biology is very complex.

After completing a year in engineering (Waterloo), some years later I started back at it with a view to a degree in biology (U of T). It wasn't that the subjects were hard, it was that I simply wasn't willing to memorize lists of hundreds upon hundreds of molecules and other lists of names of things, which could always be looked up in a book. Testing was poorly geared to actual knowledge of foundational concepts and their interrelations, and laboratory practices and reporting were never worth more than 10-20% of marks. In the couple upper year courses I took, I found that more sophisticated understanding and knowledge can earn marks in many higher level courses, but I promise you, they earn negative marks in lower year courses. TAs are busy and they don't have time to look for sophistication in 1st and 2nd year projects (i.e. they always mark to a marking scheme).

I decided I was unwilling to go through it all and specialized in political science instead (minor in botany). Thing is, I'm not convinced that the problems I pointed to should be changed. Researchers can always look stuff up, Doctors don't have time to look stuff up. I'm glad to know that doctors go through those sorts of selection processes.

Ever hear of the Merck Manual? Most physicians consult references and databases all the time.

Now I have. I was thinking about an emergency room situation where there is no time to look stuff up, like the ones we see on TV. Indeed, most doctors work in circumstances where a properly researched answer is likely to be worth the wait.

I am the other Bill and took math, stats, and comp sci as an Econ major. I think math is too often taught as if the students were engineering or physics majors. And the texts are often the same emphasis.

It took a study to figure that out?

Comment of the day.



It's not just a mismatch between the actual skills required to get a STEM degree and the aspirations of the potential students. There is also a strong immigration / outsourcing turnoff factor. A few years ago, I took my son on a tour (open house) of Harvey Mudd university. A very impressive school to say the least. More on that later. What shocked me, was the professors literally begging the parents and kids to consider a career in science and technology. I heard professors saying things like

“You will be able to get a job” “No, jobs for software engineers still exist in the U.S., lots actually” “Scientists and engineers have very low unemployment”

The skepticism of the prospective students and parents was palpable. The combined notions that your job will be outsourced and you will be replaced (sooner or later) by an H1B were commonplace. Of course, they were a material deterrent.

What made this so disturbing is that the Harvey Mudd professors were right. Harvey Mudd graduates have (probably even today) excellent job prospects. Harvey Mudd may well be the best science and technology school in the U.S., perhaps better than Caltech and MIT (though smaller). Decades ago, I obtained a science degree from a school with a good reputation, the University of Chicago. I was amazed at how much better the Harvey Mudd students were. The Harvey Mudd professors had/have considerable basis for their confidence, as to the employment prospects of their students. Yet even in Claremont, CA parents and students were apprehensive. Note that my visit was well before the crash of 2008.

For the record, I have a STEM degree for a 'respectable' school and work in a STEM field.

Now is probably the best time ever to be a software developer. Probably even better than the dot-com era.


"Now is probably the best time ever to be a software developer. Probably even better than the dot-com era"

As someone who lived, worked, and invested through the dot-com era, I can assure you that you are wrong. The dot-com era (bubble) was far better.

A few simple numbers. In 2012, there were 39 VC backed Tech IPOs. In 1999 there were 368 and in 2000 there were 260. The actual post-bubble high was in 2007 with 72 VC-backed Tech IPOs.

The Nasdaq peaked at 5408.60 on March 10, 2000 (closing at 5048.62). It is now around 3445.

Two other software developer metrics support the same thesis. Back then programmers were routinely offered sign-on bonuses to jump ship from another firm. That doesn't happen much or at all these days. Back then, many software developers at least thought that options would make them rich (some even did get rich). Once again, that's almost unheard of now (with some exceptions in Silicon Valley presumably).

That Mark Zuckerberg is celebrated for forming a political lobby of billionaires to drive down the salaries of their employees by winning more visas in the immigration bill is a big rigid digit to young Americans about what the Big Guys intend for them.

Bingo! Post doc salaries are a disgrace and must be part of this story.


As both a software engineer and someone who hires software engineers at the kind of company that must compete on product quality and improvement speed, that is not a worrisome trend. It would be a mistake to think of software developers as a homogeneous group whose future wages will be uniformly influenced by more available engineering talent. It is a profession where signals about actual ability are becoming increasingly good, especially compared to the average high-skill profession. It is very possible that an increase in the supply of labor across the talent/ability spectrum will push up wages at the high end, via complementary capital creation and the formation of software companies that would not have otherwise existed, while maybe pushing down wages at the low end. It's a complex equilibrium when labor is capable of creating new capital (in the form of better open source tools that make other developers more productive) orthogonally to business goals.

The opposite is also possible. It's certainly not clear that Zuckerberg's actions will succeed in pushing down wages.

What is very clear is that the immigrants will have improved welfare. It's also clear that software engineers are not a group in need of special protection from competition when compared to basically any other profession.


"It’s certainly not clear that Zuckerberg’s actions will succeed in pushing down wages"

You can argue that Zuckerberg's actions won't, in fact, drive down wages. However, there is no question as to Zuckerberg's intent.

As for the likely outcome, a few points come to mind. You can certainly argue that network effects, economies of scale, business / industry cluster expansion, etc. will yield a sufficiently strong positive effect to offset that increase in supply (via immigration).

However, the data at several levels suggests otherwise. If your model was correct, then American students would be flocking into STEM fields to take advantage of the additional demand created by the positive feedback loops described above.

They aren't.

At a deeper level it isn't clear that immigrants are making STEM fields more creative. For example, Silicon Valley really took off in the low immigration decades of the 50s-70s. See "The Secret History of Silicon Valley" for a detailed account of how Silicon Valley took off, long before the public had ever heard of it.

In more quantitative terms, there were more tech IPOs in the 1980-1989 period (592) than from 2001 to 2012 (405).

The theory of 'complementary' immigration is well known in the literature. It makes for a nice theoretical model. However, the facts aren't friendly to the theory. In theory, low-skill immigration should generate positive externalities even for low-skill natives. We should be able to observe natives migrating into areas with large numbers of low-skill natives. In reality, large scale flight is the truth.

A different point is that there is more to STEM employment than software development. My comments pertain to all STEM, not just programming.

"You can argue that Zuckerberg’s actions won’t, in fact, drive down wages. However, there is no question as to Zuckerberg’s intent."

His intent is to increase quality and time to market of the services his company delivers. What's so wrong with that?

"If your model was correct, then American students would be flocking into STEM fields to take advantage of the additional demand created by the positive feedback loops described above."

Only if they were good enough to become superstars. Most are not, of course.

"In more quantitative terms, there were more tech IPOs in the 1980-1989 period (592) than from 2001 to 2012 (405)."

Yes, because it makes sooo much sense to compare 1980-1989 to the period just after the biggest tech bust ever. Multiple endpoints much?

It's because you can't get away with cramming in the hard sciences.

In my experience, everything else -- from humanities all the way up to most of biology and even some of the easier physics courses -- can be crammed the day (or night) before the exam. Not so with a math course, or a proper physics or chemistry course. One problem I've seen is that the more sociable kids in science programs end up with friends majoring in humanities, who seem to somehow have a lot of free time to party. They get sucked into that, and then perform poorly in science.

+1 on the free time point. My undergrad school required all freshmen to take physics, calculus, and chemistry both semesters the first year (and physics and calculus throughout the second year, too). Nobody had any free time. I'm pretty sure that if I'd gone to a school where there were English majors reading novels and occasionally going out during the week, I'd have become one of them. Not that that would necessarily have been a bad thing.

Ditto the incorrect perceptions with respect to chemical engineering as well. I would add that for biology, chemistry and chemical engineering that enjoyment of early subject matter is no indicator of subsequent enjoyment or competence. First year chemistry is mostly fundamentals and some stamp collecting; enjoying that has no relationship to your enjoyment of synthesis/reaction mechanisms, NMR/spectroscopy/analysis techniques, and statistical mechanics/quantum chemistry. Similarly, introductory biology is pretty much all stamp collecting, but has no bearing on how difficult or enjoyable you find biochemistry, genetic engineering techniques, or cell culture. And people think chemical engineering degrees are about chemistry rather than thermodynamics, kinetics and transport processes.

Some might say it's an inverse correlation. Some might wonder if that is intentional.

On the other side, the actual jobs are usually pretty interesting and often have little to do with thermodynamics, kinetics and transport processes and are more like the middle-school campaigns to boost interest in science. I never even had to buy a heat exchanger, let alone design one. And if I never have to calculate a distillation column it will be too soon!

Why the rope-a-dope? Someone either knows exactly what they are doing, or we have no clue what the hell we are doing.

Tell me about it. I received a copy of Perry's at graduation and have never needed to open it. It's a larger problem with ChemE in general. My suspicion is that undergrad teaches you what's necessary to undertake a research career in academic chemical engineering, and that since most programs were forced to cut down to 4 years instead of 5 most of the industrial practice got thrown out the window in favor of research prep. I selected my graduate program specifically to get information from industrial practitioners rather than having to go through the theoretical core (for the second time!) along with the doctoral candidates.

Well, now believe that all departments do the same thing and we'll be on the same page. It's just that Chem E is hard enough that it's a useful signal.

The malopropism in L's comment above made me think that Chem E's nickname should be "The Dismissal Science."

Signalling model of education.

You're smart and diligent enough to get through a difficult STEM degree, you must be smart and capable of completing complex projects. What you actually learned is irrelevant - it could have been klingon metaphysics as long as its hard.

Nooooo! It is only coincidence that where signaling is the most palpable happens to be where it is most remunerative!

I only made it through two semesters of chem, and only really liked the classes when it crossed over into physics. Perhaps chem eng might have been a decent choice.

Biology was a vocabulary building exercise with no attempt at explaining how things work. I just couldn't muster the interest to continue.

Physics was much more interesting out of the gate.

I wonder if putting a little more effort into explaining the universe rather than just labeling it would increase positive outcomes. Sure, it may be that I'm a lazy schmuch (or just not that bright), but why are most people interested in science? For the joy of knowing what the name of something, or how a system works?

The problem with intro biology is that it's a survey course that has so much breadth as to render anything beyond names meaningless. I hated intro biology for the exact same reason you did, and then took 3 semesters of biochemistry and loved it.

For me it was knowing how things worked. And how to build things better... although that's the engineer in me talking.

ChemE also gave every graduate a great midlife crisis plan: quit everything and start a brewery or distillery. And optimize it.

My guess is that people do find in chemistry and biology until they start hitting classes that require math, and that's where the breakdown occurs.

They also find out that there are very few jobs in math and physics anything less than a PHD and even some of them end up with jobs that only use their computor/progaming skills.

Absolutely this. Engineers only need a BS; physicist need a PHD. I can study physics on my own time without the pressure to generate paper.

And what jobs there are have very short half lives. There will always be someone younger and cheaper behind you. They offer high pay but only for a short while. Other jobs may pay less but are usually much steadier. It is no surprise standard retirement age is 55 for these, if you make it until then.

"There will always be someone younger and cheaper behind you."

This is true of most jobs. It's not very specific to STEM.

It's more true of STEM since in many other high-end professional careers your value increases over time as you generate contacts, connections, market/firm specific knowledge, get promoted, etc. In STEM it doesn't work this way and once your technical knowledge starts getting outdated you're done. A lot of people who are engineers just stay working in the trenches their whole career, it's easier for them to get knocked out as senior engineers don't tend to gain a lot of political power over their careers.

It's not that simple. You get older, your contacts retire, or shift to areas where they are no longer helpful. Your market/firm specific knowledge needs to be updated as the market/firm changes. You lose your desire to make sales calls 8 hours a day.

If you are, say, an advertising creative you run out of new stuff to say. Or maybe you don't, but they don't think gray hairs can speak to the 18-35 group.

If you are a church pastor, you now find the younger ministers not only have ordination, they are likely to have a few business courses, too -- our last pastor was 40 and got an MBA from Notre Dame after ordination. This better enables them to understand the financial and HR aspects of being a pastor.

I'm not saying you're wrong about senior engineers -- just that life's tough all over.

Studying for math and science is a skill which is not taught in high school nor in most college classes. Students who approach science even if they have a desire and intelligence are let down becuase they do not know how to study. Since most who get into college are bright enough to have skated by without much study in high school, they assume they can skate and skim in science as well.

I think the students are too focused on the results and not the process. That is to say if they don't succeed at once they assume they are not a good fit or assume they can't improve. They believe this because they have been told how smart they are and not challenged in areas they have not found immediate success. They don't know how to stick to it - I don't blame the kids for this, they haven't been taught how to.

I wish grammar schools still taught greek and latin. I don't know anyone for whom those subjects came easily, and it was the slog of learning how to do something which did not come easy which allowed the students to later apply themselves to other things which did not come easy. It's an experience which is not common these days.


Can't speak to the Latin/Greek example, but I agree. The most common manifestation of the "they don't know how to stick it" argument is the fact that you always hear kids telling people "I'm just not good at math," as if they have some sort of genetic predisposition that prevents them from ever learning math.

+1 on both.

Part of this is U.S.-specific, I think: the idea that your marks on an exam are evidence of your genetic predisposition, rather than whether you studied properly.

What ancient languages and math taught me was to make up my own charts/diagrams/outlines/pictures and build the subject within my own mind: the textbook was at best a set of challenges and problems, not something that would teach me the material by itself.

Oh no. I had to do Latin - disliked it intensely. Whether it prepared me for other things that didn't come easy I couldn't say; everything else I studied did come easy.

I took Latin in high school and hated it. It made me feel so stupid because it wasn't easy. In hindsight, with better guidance I would have understood I wasn't stupid, I just didn't know how to learn things which were hard to learn.

In the past 30+ years, I have had to learn how to learn hard stuff, and if I studied Latin today I am quite sure I would do fine. I can't say the same for many young people who haven't had to learn how to learn.

So true. My kids are currently in school in Singapore and not only are they already a year or more ahead of their peers in Canada but they know to study. The discipline and habits are almost as the knowledge, particularly at a young age.

Because science professors as assholes who, for the first time in their lives, have power over other people and they act like bullies.

The median exam grades of 39 should be a clue that your teaching sucks.

Discouraged by poor grades and low knowledge transfer, students opt to actually graduate by switching majors.

This is not all the fault of the college professors. Students come from high school with softball instruction by their "favorite science teacher" and are overwhelmed and shocked that they aren't A students anymore.

What makes anyone think that someone with an Education degree is dit to teach high school physics, chemistry, and biology?

There's a lot of stupid macho bullshit in introductory math and science classes in college, like the profs think they're filtering a Navy SEAL class or something. I wonder how many potentially successful STEM students wash out from unnecessary stress.

Yeah, they should focus on teaching, not filtering.

Going to disagree with this strongly.
I was a TA for several undergrad engineering courses, and the reality is that it's NOT that the teachers are trying to filter the class to flunk out the people who can't hack math, it's that the kids arrive in college so woefully underprepared.
You can't imagine the frustration entailed in attempting to teach complex numbers, much less signal processing, to a kid who doesn't understand trigonometry.
If professors do anything, it's throw a LOT of homework at first year kids, not ot filter the class, but to make them practice their algebra and trig so they can catch up to where they should be.

I basically agree with Hazel Meade. My academic experience is decades out of date, but at the time various of the math-y STEM fields had core requirements that seemed reasonable to me and were harder than anything taught in almost any non-STEM major. E.g., basic Fourier analysis and partial differential equations are traditional and IMHO reasonable requirements for several engineering fields and for physics-related sciences, and they seem to be all by themselves harder than the total degree requirements of various watered-down non-STEM degree programs. It seems natural for institutions to continue to teach these subjects even as STEM degrees get easier: whether or not STEM faculty have any more backbone than nonSTEM faculty, they're up against a wall that provides a certain stiffness of support.

(A lot of those non-STEM degrees can in principle be demanding, and perhaps even today they are taught rigorously in more institutions than I realize. But there's been a lot of widespread grade inflation for a long time, and there's a shortage of Schelling points in history or philosophy or literature where employers and other downstream institutions suddenly start scoffing at your institution once it becomes clear your graduates don't learn a subject like Fourier analysis.)

Not true in parts of engineering. They actively weed out.

If kids arrive unprepared...by all means make more money and remediate them.

Why don't they do that?

A median exam of 39 (out of 100) is too low, so I agree with you at least with respect to your numerical example, but...

In general as an intstructor I hoped that the median would be about 65-75% or so. I repeatedly emphasized to my students (the year I taught some Masters students) that if they did that well, then they were doing fine (B+-ish) in the course. To me, making things easy enough so that folks could get >90% of the material correct was doing them a disservice--would they think they knew everything there was to know?

Especially at the graduate level, students need to know (a) that the field is huge and a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge remains that they aren't mastering, but also (b) they are comfortably able to master important subsets of the field from just one course.

I agree it's frustrating, but college instructors take the prior preparation of the students as an exogenous variable. Your choices are 1) flunk a lot of them, 2) try to catch them up, 3) try to achieve the most you can with what you've got.

The problem, from the instructor's standpoint is that many of them stomp their feet saying, "They should know this by now." But foot stomping doesn't make them know it and it doesn't change the high school or lower division education of future students.

In top rated schools, this is probably not a problem. In mediocre to lower level schools, the programs have to be realistic about reaching its goals. Unfortunately, it is in the school's best interest to pretend that they aren't the problem and collect tuition until the students who are struggling either fail or quit. The school should have culled the herd prior to admission. Teachers should assess students and adapt to their needs rather than construct a mold and expect students to conform to it because that's what the teachers went through. As I said earlier, the teachers typically come from a higher tiered school than their students, i.e. they are more intellectually prepared and capable.

Given four years, I think just about any student who has been admitted can be brought up to speed with good teachers and the proper coursework. But something has to give, and that has to be all of the liberal arts education mandated by the college and university.

Professors are people who have absolutely nothing in common with marginal students. They have passed through multiple stages of the weeding out process. Why would we ever imagine they'd have anything useful to say about it?

One of the few times I made the mistake of going to office hours I made a comment about how the material the professor was teaching did not come naturally to me. In a huff he angrily informed me that he had to work his ass off to learn the material. Not a believer in the hard-form signaling theory, he.

Interesting perspective to think about, and clearly true.

As I've told before, we had a class that had zero As. The instructors response was "that's okay, there were a couple in the other section." (taught by another professor)

Will pre-med students stick it out through that type of shit?

Does the paper discuss why this misconception exists in the first place? I can think of two related explanations: 1) high school science courses are often *so* watered-down relative to college science courses, which causes misperceptions about how demanding it is to major in science (in college), and 2) high schoolers are not taking enough math (or HS math is not demanding enough) to prepare them for the analytical thinking required for college science courses.

I second this comment. Unless the HS student is in Honors or Advanced Placement programs, the subject matter is watered down heavily. I wonder if the paper covers high performing HS students in its analysis.

It is harder to get a science or engineering degree than an English, political science or business. Many people take the easy way out because they don't realize that such degrees pay less.

Or they can enjoy college and get a finance degree which paid basically the same (when I was making the decision). Every single male in both my finance and economics classes washed out of a STEM degree. I went from needing to study and do all homework to pass to being able to coast on test taking skills/logic/absorption from lectures essentially with a single decision.

Agreed. I transferred from Electrical Engineering to Technical Writing and had a much better outcome. Done in by differential equations.

It turns out that writing a well-crafted and persuasive email or proposal gets you invited to more and better meetings than banging out project designs all day, and thus promoted.

After the transition I took several "Electrical Engineering TECHNOLOGY" classes, which are essentially: forget about the calculus, a computer program does that for you- here's how to make things that work.

I disagree. I've got a Science degree, and I don't think I can get through a first year English class. I picked a program that did not require credit in English, or any language course.

That's signaling. Harder for YOU is not harder.

Question: How many times did it happen to you that you were expected to read and even digest over 1000 pages of profound writings in a single week, between all your courses. This is much different from problem set upon problem set, along with endless lists of simplified formulas and processes, used in lower year science courses.

Reflection takes time. It is possible to pass in the arts with less effort than it takes to pass in science because bullshit isn't worth anything in a science class, whereas someone with mastery of the art of written communication can feasibly pass many humanities courses with a minimal effort to drop the names of some key readings. However, I doubt you would find much difference in the effort it takes to get an A or A+ in a science course and a non-science course.

Well in my case, I went from a 2.5 GPA in my sophomore year of EE (I passed everything but Dynamics was only by the skin of my teeth)to a 3.7 or 3.8 while overloading all my business and expanded humanities requirements to graduate with a pair of Econ and Finance degrees and putting far less effort into studying. The difference in effort required to pass say electrico-eagnetic waves, differential equations, or thermodynamics (compounded by a schedule that means the easy class was usually an advanced in major class like Integrated Circuits) or ace any other class I took in my college career was easily an order of magnitude of difference.

Us non-EE engineers would literally start giggling in EE classes and homework sessions because of how much of a black magic it was.

I'm not even sure electrico-eagnetic waves is a typo.

True story (I only tell true stories): Told by multiple Chem E department reps that "it is great for pre-med." Told by the pre-meds: "Oh, you can't do that. You won't be able to get the 4.0." Both are right. The actual truth is that it can be done, I've seen it done in some places, but I'm not sure why you'd do it other than cocksureness.

And the senior EE brother of my roommate would just say "but it's so easy, it's all just V=IR" and we would collapse in maniacal, insane, convulsions of laughter.

Eagnetic was a typo it should have been magnetic.

We had a prof who sounded like your roommate's brother. I think he met Thevenin or Norton as an undergrad.

All my engineering friends hated how little time I spent in study, once I switched. Since I'd long since passed the washout courses, the only "hard classes" remaining were the capstone classes which mostly involved getting bigger than normal teams working together.

Yes. I tried to teach V=IR to my boyfriend yesterday, when attempting to explain why it was a bad idea to hook speakers up in parallel to his amp.

Don't do that. Hook up his speakers for him and then he'll do whatever you want, if you know what I mean.

No question, engineering school is brutal. Coming out of an undemanding high school (is there anything but undemanding high schools?) I really had to make the decision to stick with it, and not change majors to WAAAAAAAY easier economics.

I really do think that grade inflation in the non-STEM classes has something to do with it. I was tempted, but ultimately I personally wanted to be an engineer. For those kids whose parents chose their major, I think the temptation is too great. How many kids really know what they want to do when they're 18?

On the other hand, once engineering school was complete, I pretty much knew I could do almost anything. After the difficulty of engineering school, I knew I could put the hours in or solve the nearly impossible problems, the ones that make your head ache because you're thinking so hard. You can't say that about economics.

As for engineering as a career, I'm 17 years into it, and it has certainly paid off financially and in terms of job satisfaction.

If you want more STEM majors, then pay the graduates more money. If you aren't paying them more money then you don't actually need them.

In other news, farmer complains about not finding enough workers to perform hard manual labor for below minimum wage...

+1 Story of my life. Physics / math (co-author on half a dozen published research papers), switched to law for the money.

And how about the Nurse Shortage I've been reading about my whole life? It's kind of funny how economists never seem to get around to pointing out that the propaganda from big employers about how they _need_ more immigrants due to worker "shortages" violates all of Econ 101. You might almost think that economists are deferential to the self-interest of the Big Money Boys.


At my last job they put out an ad for a $32k/yr lab tech position and had people with Ph.Ds applying.

Next study is why they aren't paid as well - that might answer this question too.

I believe this has already been reviewed here: http://www.theonion.com/articles/national-science-foundation-science-hard,1405/

I completed a minor in math because I'm a stubborn S.O.B. Most shortcomings can be overcome with sufficient stubbornness and self-loathing.

Outside of possibly Engineering, Science/Math degrees are really not a very good bet financially. You need a PhD to have a chance at getting a job in Math/Science it's just not really worth it. I really wish I had gone with my idea of doing an econ major and maybe a math minor rather than a math major when I was in school.

This is just wrong. All STEM have an advantage over all non-STEM in incomes and employment, and that advantage persists throughout your career. I don't know why this myth persists.

See: http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/acsbr11-04.pdf

The careers are much shorter though, so the pay really doesn't compensate.

Didn't read the link, hey? It measures lifetime compensation.

If you are lucky, you can make out very well. If you aren't, you don't. It is the difference between a high risk/high reward gamble or a low risk/low reward payday. Just like stocks, low betas payout better over the longer term though high betas are more exciting.

I'm sure that they used statistics in that study Lord.

EXPECTED lifetime earnings, anyone?

Sorry, too lazy read that study, but does it control for intelligence? Intelligent people probably do well regardless of the major, thus minimizing some of the purported benefits of non-engineering STEM (or, uh STM).

We are just effing stupid. The 400 level diff eq class we had to take was nothing but engineering problems. Someone decided the engineering label was the practical 4 year (ha!) degree and math wasn't.

That's when I left engineering... when I discovered that half of the rest of the courses had names disguising the fact that I was in for a degree in applied math.

Once again I want to make the point that I vastly preferred CBBB over prior_approval as the local troll.

I often found CBBB way off base, but not nearly as scary and crazy as prior_approval. I don't care about the Koch brothers, Germany strikes me as an awful place, and I don't think I'd have wanted prior_approval in my department either. But CBBB's employment issues are actually interesting.

This is a known software issue.

And Microsoft is working on it.

Finch, Do you think you are persuading anyone by personally attacking someone?

I think anyone who has read long enough to be familiar with prior_approval's schtick does not need to be persuaded, and anyone who hasn't just wouldn't understand

Prior_approval, Do you think you are persuading anyone by personally attacking someone?

Where did this come from? Weird I'm in Germany right now....and I have to say not really my kind of place either

I suppose its already been pointed out, so I'll just give my anecdote. I have an engineering technology degree (aka applied engineering) and have had managers with a B.S in physics, chemistry, etc... They're not ignored, the just don't always get the test laboratory job.

As a high school physics teacher who has an actual degree in physics, I think there is a lot of blame to go around.

1. Science teachers who have no idea how to do science. I challenge my kids all the time to do science. My favorite labs are the ones where I say, "Here is your equipment. Here is what I want you to find out. Good luck."

2. Administrators who want headlines. I teach my kids physics. My administrators want me to use more web technology to show that the school knows technology. When I tell them that web sites are great for learning 'about science' they smile thinking that I am agreeing with them. Then I get into a lather and say that I don't teach an 'about science' course, I teach a SCIENCE course. Sure making a powerpoint has its uses, but most powerpoints give facts, which can be looked up. Doing science involves finding new facts or at the very least confirming facts through experiment.

3. Parents. The overwhelming majority of parents are great, but the select few make it worse for everyone else. I have heard on more than one occasion, "How do you expect my child to get into a good school with a C+?" Then they complain to the guidance counselors and administrators.

4. Central office staff. This is my own personal cross to bear. Indulge for a moment. My AP physics course recently went from an average of 300 minutes per week to 200 minutes perweek, 50 minutes less than the AP recommended time per week. This was due to the central office and school board voting in block scheduling. A year later, and I am still so angry about this.

5. Students. One of the most interesting things that Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in "Outliers" was that country performance on international math tests was perfectly correlated to the number of questions answered in a following long survey. Suck it up and do it!

I think I understand your frustration.

I taught a Math class of Education students that were going to teach high school math. As a Pure Math person, I, of course, mistaken that they would be interested in what real Math is. So I started explaining the madness in those method, procedures, etc. What I got was complaints from the students: "Just show us how to do it and forget about the reasoning." If future teachers were not interested in the why of things, what do you expect the students to know ?


You want to teach students the concept as well as the formula. So you start with the simplest possible conceptual building blocks, and derive the more complex formula. So they can rememver the simple concepts and remember how to get to the more complex formula, and they also learn how the field is internally integrated into a consistent body of knowledge.

But if the teachers aren't even interested in knowing what the concept is, then they are never going to be able to impart those concepts to students.

"I taught a Math class of Education students that were going to teach high school math. "

Education students who are going to teach high school math don't take math classes. In fact, the bulk of math teachers aren't "ed students"; they majored in something else (often, but not always math). They have to pass a math content knowledge test to demonstrate ability.

Back in the day, there were math majors for secondary high school teachers, and I suspect that's what you are talking about. These were never the majority of math teachers, and there's relatively little research done on what percentage of these folks became math teachers---and in any event, they still had to pass the credentialing test, which is non-trivial. (The big difference in teacher credentialing these days is when the teacher has to pass the test. Before 1998, it was after entering ed school, but now, you can't get into ed school without passing the tests.

In other words, your experience is absolutely useless in determining what math teachers know or value, particularly today.

My last year of high school I eagerly signed up for AP Chemistry. First day, the teacher told us that his wrestling coaching career had been a bust so he was going to focus on teaching. First week, the textbooks hadn't arrived and he took that as an excuse not to teach. Second week, the textbooks were in but he still did little more than mope.

I dropped the class and added a typing class. That skill has gained me two jobs, which is two jobs more than AP Chem would have done.

The teachers of pretty much every discipline would say exactly the same things.

As adjunct faculty, I once taught a course in Introductory Engineering Dynamics. It was probably the first vectory calculus engineering course for most engineering majors. It was a large class, but after giving my midterm I was shocked to find half of my students flunking. I was upset enough that I went to the Dean and asked for advice on what I was doing wrong. "Not a problem," was his answer. "This is the course that separates the engineers from the business majors and half the students always flunk."

I wasn't very happy with the answer, and announced additional office hours and tutoring sections. Guess who came to those - almost only the B+ and A- students. I don't know if that meant that half the students had already decided that they didn't want to be engineers, were hopelessly discouraged, or what, but the fact is that most STEM fields require solid math skills and willingness to work pretty hard.

I hope your dean never found out you were trying to break their weed-eater.

The dean is doing those forthcoming business students a favor. The hard sciences are a tournament. You can make a good living as a mediocre business or economics grad; mediocre science grads can't feed themselves. Get good, or get out.

Agreed the people who wound up in business are probably better off, the hard sciences ARE a tournament and you need a PhD to even have a shot at the game. Engineering is better but the good jobs are realy reserved for only the top students and even then the pay isn't good enough to really justify the effort here. A competent, but not spectacular, Chartered Accountant can outearn a very good engineer.

I'm not sure this isn't some kind of bias. I believe that by going into a major at a university you are putting yourself behind the 8 ball because there are a couple dozen majors for thousands of different careers. That means there will even be a glut of people who can size distillation columns compared to the number of careers sizing distillation columns. So, there is even a glut of engineering degrees despite that being the best bang for the time/buck degree. Maybe a Chartered Accountant is better on that score.

Networking can now be done with computers, no pun intended, that one of the main benefits of a business major is networking should not make business professors comfortable any more. Not that it ever should have. If your main value proposition is as a gatekeeper you are on borrowed time.

General observation:

People in math and science fields think that they have the hardest courses, and that other areas of study overvalue themselves.

However, most of them struggle to communicate, whether in oral presentations or in writing, in a manner that engages audiences to take an interest in their writing.

What's the point of all that math and science knowledge if you can't communicate?

Science is a method. Background knowledge is needed, but a sophisticated understanding of all that textbook knowledge is only possible through experience of how hard it is to use the scientific method to "prove" even simple things. Enter: bridge between science and philosophy.

What’s the point of all that math and science knowledge if you can’t communicate?

News flash: Math is a language.

The better you can communicate to business people, not only fellow propeller-heads, the more likely your projects are to get funded.



"What’s the point of all that math and science knowledge if you can’t communicate?"

That's a hard one. You might cure a form cancer, make nuclear fusion practical, invent a room temperature superconductor, etc. and no one will know you did it...

Actually, they will. Plenty of people with mode than adequate communication skills (and no talent for math / science at all) will be glad to publicize your breakthrough for fun and profit.

Indeed. That's what I do for a living, in a sense.

shi de. Es una idioma que muchas personas entienden muy mal. And that's why you need to learn to write.

In my experience communications, even more than computer programming, is something that academia doesn't teach very well. Some of the people who earn degrees which are supposed to teach them about software aren't all that good at software, and some of the people who do the best work in software just picked it up on the side. Many people with degrees that are supposed to teach them communication aren't all that good at communicating, and many of the people who communicate best just picked it up on the side. So software and communication are important, but they make it important to distinguish carefully between being instructed and learning, because they're fields where being instructed (and passing exams) can easily fail to lead to much learning.

I'd contend that prices are important too.

I graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering from a top 10 progam. Spent a decade in the Medical Device field with patents/products that are saving lives. What they taught me in school had very little to do with what I actually needed to be successful. Going through it - I felt that if this is what engineering was actually going to be I would hate it. Tried to find other fields that appealed to me but stuck it out as the return on investment didn't make sense and I could always switch afterwards.

My personal Net/net - if colleges were more applicable to the real world the STEMs would have higher graduation rates and a broader base to choose from. Colleges are not teaching what is actually valuable and only sort out the weak while also sorting out people that would have been able to make a positive contribution if they would have been able to get those students into a different mode of how to learn.

If I could have skipped those 4 years and done an hands-on program for engineering it would have been better for everyone except the college that made 4 years of tuition and taxpayer assistance from locking me up for 4 years as I earned the diploma that "proved" I was worthy.

My take on the Engineering degree: everything else is even worse for labor market applicability

Did they try to tease out the difference between what is labeled a lack of "ability to perform well academically in science" versus what might really be simply a more punitive grading standard in science classes? I was a double major in biology and economics and received much better grades in economics. It's a big leap to jump from that fact to a conclusion that I understood economics better than I understood biology. I would guess that any group of people with a similar IQ would get better grades in economics courses than in biology courses simply because the grading system in economics is more on a humanities scale than on a science scale, but it would be interesting to see if there's actual data on that. There is essentially a GPA tax on science classes and a GPA subsidy on humanities and social science classes, and people choose majors and courses accordingly.

I think I largely agree, although people will presumably also consider their strengths when choosing majors.

I guarantee that any resources devoted to increasing the number of math/science majors will be focused entirely on closing "the gap" by trying to find recruits among "underrepresented groups" i.e. groups with substantially less interest in and aptitude for science than white/asian males. And therefore, the results of any such efforts will be about as successful as attempts to close "the gap" in primary education has been at increasing overall primary educational performance.

Sadly, I think you are right. Schools in the U.S. are dealing with too much BS (like the debate on affirmative action/racial preference in college admissions, closing the gap which translates into teaching the class to the slowest learner, etc.) instead of focusing on the real important things that will make a difference. Many high school graduates in the U.S. are like giants in liberal arts/humanities but at the same time dwarfs in hard sciences.

Worse, it will be spent on hype-man recruiting rather than screening earlier for aptitudes, personality, and life situation. Thus, it will only make the problem highlighted by this post worse.

I think it is true that some science (and other) profs think of their courses as extended IQ tests (or Darwinian selection derbys) designed so that only the fittest survive.

Don't go into a department with lots of beautiful women.


I went to a whole -school- with not many beautiful women, and it wasn't until after I graduated that I realized this feature. Fortunately in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king so I did okay.

For the ladies, engineering school is a great place to go for your MRS degree.

Since our engineering school had a somewhat of a holdover finishing school on the other side of town, it always surprised me they didn't convert a nursing school (degrees in equine studies likely have their place but needless to say aren't really popular in the post-modern economy).

These days is no difference between the working environment of a scientist and that of a non-science majors. Actually the humanities majors may have it better as it is easier for them to get into managerial positions, whereas the techies are viewed as replaceable labor and treated as such in most American corporations.

So knowingly or not, the students are making the right decision.

Do you have any evidence for any of this? My instincts are that everything you said is wrong, but of course real data would be dispositive here.

Gregor is just incorrect.


This next cite is a little dated, but engineering grads dominate the population of Fortune 500 CEOs as well, so it's not just success at the low end:


The idea that non-technical people generally have some secret, difficult-to-observe skill that makes them successful later in life is just false.

Yes, and while your people skills might have sucked when you were a teenager, you can learn that "on the job", so to speak. There's no iron law that says that everyone who was an anti-social dork at 15 is still an anti-social dork at 40. Get your degree, then go party your ass off when your in your mid-20s.

To noone in particular, we spent a decent portion of our senior year of Chem E giving presentations and just writing reports. This should make your head spin. If not, I can explain it.

Talk is cheap.

How about .... "words are powerful" and "actions speak louder than words"

Talk is cheap if it's all you do, but it's also a precursor to any coordinated action. And pretty much no one can do anything significant on their own, when it comes to major stuff.

Only later did I learn the way I take that phrase: talk is cheaper than effing up the equipment.

High schools simply aren't preparing students for college level math. I'm not even going to say science. It's completely all about inadequate math preparation. You can learn the scientific facts and concepts easily enough, but without the math, you're never going to be able to do any of the homework. People show up in first year college and have no idea what they are getting into. It's way over their heads and the flunk out or switch majors right away. I say this as someone who has taught undergraduate engineering courses. Kids who can't do algebra or trigonometry are never going to make it through a freshman level calculus course.

Which reminds me of an article I was reading in the NY Times about education reform in mathematics. The reformers have bene trying to teach math without teaching any established formula for solving pathicular types of problms. I suspect that might have something to do with it. I definitely appreciate the value of teaching students to think creatively, but you don't want to deprive them of the core concepts they need to move on to higher level math.

As EdReal points out, most kids can't hack algebra at all, no matter how you teach it and how many years (sic!) you give them. It's just not going to ever work.

I don't know I struggled with math until part way through high school when I got some tutoring and then was able to understand the fundementals. After that I improved significantly. On the other hand I'm not sure I'd be worse off if I had just failed HS math altogether.

I'm late as usual in seeing this, but Scientific American wrote about this a while back - concluding maybe we produce too many scientists - that many can't find a job in their chosen field.

Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?

quote from the story:
"There is no scientist shortage,” says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers—about 18,000 of them American citizens—who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year.

Huge difference between the labor market for Ph.D.s in physics/chemistry/biology and the market for people with B.S. degrees in anything technical.

That's the point. That's why Engineering is the way to go except that it demolishes your GPA and you will miss anything you think is a college experience. I can only remember studying in the collegial library once. The basement of a Chem E building is the 10th level of hell with a door in the floor if you want to keep going. I still have nightmares about it, literally. What we are sending our kids to is horrifying, to me.

I guess I am far from modal, because: (a) I found undergraduate Chem E to be pretty manageable. There were times when it was a lot of work, but not al lthe time. (b) I enjoyed the material. I agree with folks upthread who said it was all applied math. But learning applied calculus and algebra gives you a entirely new way to understand the world. (c) I decided to take the wallet-depleting move of getting a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. That gave me all the "college experience" I needed. (d) The basement of our ChemE building had some old lab equipment and no one ever went there.

This concatenates with a previous MR post about how marginal SAT STEM student freshmen at top tier schools usually end up transferring to humanities whereas those same SAT scores usually end up completing their STEM degree at a lower tier school.

I wonder (I don't know what effect this has) if the rising tide of anti-science and pseudo science and plain lies dressed up to look like science has an effect.

We are surrounded by bullshit. Vaccines cause autism. Distilled water can remember the molecular structure of things previously dissolved in it and thereby cure disease. If you buy the "global warming is a hoax" bullshit, you have to throw out molecular spectroscopy, a chunk of thermodynamics and statistical physics and billions of data points. Einstein's theory of relativity (on which your GPS depends, by the way) must be wrong because it implies a legal right to abortion.

I wonder who are more or less likely to engage in science after they have been exposed to this kind of rubbish.

Yes clearly this is the problem, which is why white Republican suburban and rural school districts are so terrible, and urban Democrat school districts are so phenomenal.

"If you buy the “global warming is a hoax” bullshit, you have to throw out molecular spectroscopy, a chunk of thermodynamics and statistical physics and billions of data points. "

Do we also get to throw out the IPCC models that have been wrong on temperature, sea level and tropospheric warming?

Or does theory now trump evidence in your ideal school?

Alan, I think you are part of the problem.

Very few people believe global warming is a hoax, however the idea that we should do what the scientists tell us to do economically certainly could be called a hoax.

The vaccines "cause" autism doesn't even make sense. No "thing" causes autism and since noone knows what causes autism we have to test EVERY hypothesis. Not testing the fuck out of vaccines is irresponsible and unethical considering they are already on tenuous ethical ground by requiring majorities of people to take them.

Who really cares about the water distilled stuff. And does that negate science in the mind of a high school student about to be tricked into thinking science is a good career?

Science as a career is fucked. Science as a god is the problem. Science as a political football is evil.

What exactly do you do in science, sir?

Very few people believe global warming is a hoax, however the idea that we should do what the scientists tell us to do economically certainly could be called a hoax.
- My point is that there are still a few influential people peddling the hoax nonsense. Do denigration and ridicule discourage young people from choosing science as a career? I don't know. I don't know many scientists telling us what to do economically. I know some who point out the consequences of various options and say that the economists should be examining alternatives so that politicians can make informed decisions. ( I am not saying politicians are likely to listen.)

The vaccines “cause” autism doesn’t even make sense. No “thing” causes autism and since noone knows what causes autism we have to test EVERY hypothesis. Not testing the fuck out of vaccines is irresponsible and unethical considering they are already on tenuous ethical ground by requiring majorities of people to take them.
- You're right, but there are plenty of people who *do* think vaccines cause autism. Vaccines have been tested very thoroughly and the chance of death or peramanent damage from vaccine preventable disease is far greater than the chance of death or injury from vaccine. I have no wish to compel people to be vaccinated: I just don't want the unvaccinated anywhere near me or my family.

Who really cares about the water distilled stuff. And does that negate science in the mind of a high school student about to be tricked into thinking science is a good career?
- I care about people who die because they took a homeopathic "remedy" instead of evidence-based treatment. There might not be many of them but I think a more suitable number would be zero.

Science as a career is fucked.
- Oh, I dunno, see below.

Science as a god is the problem.
- I guess it could be. I'm happy to engage in thorough, systematic, controlled tests and measurements from which I draw conclusions that mostly turn out to be correct when tested. I tacitly keep god(s) out of it.

Science as a political football is evil.
- Would you settle for "mis-representing science to advance a financial goal is evil"?

What exactly do you do in science, sir?
- I'm a physicist by training. I run a company that manufactures specialised measuring equipment for the automotive, aerospace and biomedical industries and for research labs, including (shock, horror) NASA, and universities. An insignificant fraction of my sales are to people engaged in atmospheric physics. I travel the world, I have a lot fun doing what I do and I make plenty of money :)

Chip makes a good point. Most of what is doubted is not the actual science. It is the borderline pseudo-science like long-run computer simulations and then when climate scientists decide to dabble into economics.

I'm glad you actually have some actual experience in science so we can have an actual conversation as opposed to the usual science jock sniffers who say similar things.

We are sitting here on this post talking about how the STEM system is fucking itself and the high school kids who actually are excited about what they think would be a life in science. I couldn't even remember the word "homeopathy." What makes you believe that any of the talking points (vaccines, evolution, etc.) are affecting real kids? How could that possibly be worse than what "science" itself is doing to them?

" I just don’t want the unvaccinated anywhere near me or my family."

Vaccines are interesting, let's start there.

Your statement is contradictory, but more than that it is unscientific. Let's start with that there are no vaccines for the vast majority of communicable diseases. There are certainly side-effects to vaccines. I think people should be paid. Noone from the left has ever mentioned anything remotely like that notion. They force it through school access. If you don't want people compelled, then join with my compensation model.

I'm not sure why wholesale acceptance of everything that comes down the pike is considered pro-science. Explain that to me. It also has never really been thought that "vaccines cause autism." What it was was a scientific paper was published that the MMR in UK caused a gut problem that produced autism-like symptoms, IIRC. That paper has supposedly been discredited way after the fact, and I don't think a scientific paper can really be discredited by a journalist, that notion is kind of ridiculous. So the fact is that idea originated from science and was never really disproven by science.

I applaud your entrepreneurism, but to me (without knowing anything else) that's hardly evidence for the education system. As I mention above, one of my friends is a math genius who was failed by the education system and is now an entrepreneur. That he was an amazing individual that our signaling education system couldn't even identify is something that convicted it beyond redemption for me.

I just wanted to add a comment based on my personal experience. I entered college majoring in physics and about 1.5 to 2 years in I realized I wasn't going to be able to make it. It wasn't that I wasn't trying. I studied far more than most I believe - I know many friends in the major who studied less and who intuitively understood things far better. I struggled particularly with a math class (Matrix Theory) that some others said was "easy." I think I ended up getting a C in the class - it was the one and only C I ever got. I always strived for A in everything as an indicator that I was up to the task - but I did get a few B in my math and science classes despite top effort - but it was enough to make me realize maybe I can't do this at an adequate level? The math in particular that I was doing made no intuitive sense to me - it was rules to generate a solution without me understanding what that solution meant. To say that math and science is hard and that people who fail at don't work hard enough is an overly cynical, flip, and inaccurate appraisal in many cases - myself and some friends included. It's that the work is hard - and some like myself genuinely don't understand it and how it applies. There is a case for the "weeding out" in my case - as it made me realize my limits. I'd never not been able to do anything I put my mind to up to being lost in that Matrix Theory class - (although I was getting the hint at my struggles with some of my physics classes also). When you hear people doing well around you saying how easy some of this stuff is when you're trying your hardest to grasp it - then you begin to realize you're probably going to be a lame employee - so you look for something better suited.

I changed to Econ afterwards due to the influence of an excellent teacher who caught my interest (I spent a semester taking classes in a wide array of departments and Econ grabbed me) - but it seems unfair to me to say people don't pursue math and science because it's hard. You can outwork folks but still not understand what's happening. It never happening to me up to that point - I could outwork anybody and in my career I made a practice out of it - but I couldn't outwork the brilliant folks in math and science. It takes more than hard work.

All imho

Talent plays a role in every field I think, and something like math aptitude is really necessary for physics. I'm not sure whether the right teachers or preparation would have made a difference in your case, but it's certainly true that some very smart people have trouble with the math. I personally had trouble with calculus until I got a teacher who really made me interested in the subject and helped me understand the logic, and math was never hard for me again - at least not until the research level.

Yes, it's difficult to get anywhere with math if you aren't grasping the underlying concept.

Matrix Theory IS easy, to ME. It's just a notational way of writing a long row of sums, really. You have to have teachers who can teach the underlying concepts. I think one of the best things I ever did was when my first year calculus techer made us memorize the proof for the Fundamental Theorum of Calculus.

Hazel, It's been 20+yrs ago now, but I just remember grids of numbers, and performing operations on those numbers to arrive at something else. It was garbage in / garbage out to me. We'd start with something I had no idea what it represented, and then we'd end up with something else that I had no idea what it represented.

I also discussed it with one of the better physics majors that I was friends with and he also said it was easy and that it made perfect sense to him. To me it was just manipulating numbers without reference with rules for solving the puzzles. Every day in class was just more puzzles. The answers might be right, but they were only right because the process was followed properly - I had no sense of what the processes intended to model or compute.... It was my failing - I just wasn't getting it - and it was probably best that I hit that wall when I did so I could change my course.

Shane M,

As I've said, the fact that they can't (or don't even try to) remediate people like yourself is evidence of the signaling theory and calls into question the entire exercise. The really sad thing is that maybe what trips people up could be easy if taught better. But then people will defend education by turning on a dime and then claiming that the signaling theory (only after I finally convince them it exists) is a feature rather than a bug.

The reason is quite simple actually. It doesn't take a world-class economist to figure this out. Which is the U.S. K-12 education system failed students in this country miserably in math and science and didn't really prepare them for the STEM majors (even some student may have the interest). You can look no further than the math portion of the SAT or whatever standardized test (including GRE which is supposed to test someone with an under degree). One word to describe it is pathetic and I am not even being rude here. Countries in Asia and Europe have far more rigorous math and science curriculum than the U.S. so this should not come as something overly shocking even to the people who are not working in the STEM fields.

K-12 education in the U.S. is focused on reading, writing, speaking, communication, which is all good. But students and teachers need to get over the myth that math is hard and whoever is good at math is nerd. There needs to be some paradigm shift in the U.S. Until then, we will still lack significantly behind Asian and European countries in producing STEM talents and workers.

"Both students and teachers need to get over the myth that math is hard and whoever is good at math is nerd"

... maybe, or we need to embrace the fact that math is hard, but doable and absolutely necessary. At some level, math is a challenge for everyone, but that's true of any area of study. American schools and families seem to accept far too low a bar, especially for certain groups. I did some substitute teaching in college and almost fainted when I second grade girl told me 'couldn't do math.' (But then, there was the boy in her class who tried to steal my money in a counting game I set up ... wonder what he's doing now.) Second grade is far too early to mentally check out of math, while I agree real analysis (cool as it is) may not be for everyone. I also think mathematical literacy is linked to financial literacy and there are real-life payoffs to improving math skills (even or especially if you become an English major instead of a STEM). Expectations matter.

For what it's worth, our math champion from high school ended up dropping out of college. He probably wasn't a prodigy, but was the best we had. He also happened to be good at computers so he ended up doing that successfully, after a fashion, with no degree.

Unless you're going to get a PhD - and are assured of your academic rockstar status - there's no reason to get a pure science undergrad degree. There's no work in it, you'll end up with a somewhat low GPA - reducing your chances of getting into a good grad school - and you won't exactly meet the future movers and shakers in the labs that you would at the frat parties you could go to if you had more time to party.

Applied sciences (engineering, computer science, etc) are far more directly useful in terms of finding work.


A B.S. in chemistry qualifies you for a $32k/yr job as a lab tech with little path for career advancement. The really smart people realize what a losing bet this is and decide they would rather do something easier that pays better and doesn't need you to wast 5+ years of your life working on a Ph.D.

For me it was about scheduling labs. I worked my way through college and I needed to optimize my schedule. A three hour lab one day a week wrecked either two Tues/Thurs class slots or three Mon/Wed/Fri ones.

ha! that 7:00am Tues/Thurs lab was the one and only early morning class I ever scheduled. It fit the schedule, but lesson learned!

I completed majors that were not challenging, but I still manage to make good money, with no clear path that would have led to a higher income (aside from a probabalistic shot at starting an eventually-successful business). That is why I didn't major in something challenging or useful.

As someone with equal respect for the difficulty of "sciences" and "other subjects", I am surprised at some of these comments. The parts of science that are well enough understood to be taught at the undergraduate level are Trivial. Just about anyone with the motivation to post at an economics blog like this has high enough of an IQ to follow any form of undergraduate math or science, if it is taught correctly. My surprise at the comments is the decision not to acknowledge that , if you tried to do well at math and did not succeed, it was your fault and not the teacher's fault. (Yes, I am aware of the variable involved in the search for creativity; that is an eccentricity on the teacher's part, not a part of the "undergraduate major": - as can be figured out by contrasting "undergraduate creativity" with the actual form that scientific creativity really takes in these latter, belated generations - a few startling ideas, one or two in an exemplary lifetime, but mostly just subtle and useful variations on complicated themes, reached after years of tailored improvisations and variations).
I am also shocked at the contempt for language arts. Housman, the classical scholar, once privately remarked, when informed he had been praised as one of the two or three best Latinists in the world, that he was not flattered, as it was not true, and if it were true only four or so people in the world would know it, and the individual who praised him (in the London Times or something like that, substitute MIT or Caltech if you wish) didn't appear to be one of them. Kolmogorov was awestruck with Pushkin, who was not awestruck by the Kolmogorovs of his day, Nabokov (as opposed to Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt fancier) dropped zoology at Cambridge for modern literature, Poe and Goethe dabbled in cosmology, with interesting results, whereas no actual full-time cosmologist has ever, as far as I know, had anything near a first class prose style, much less an ability to write competent verse that could be actually considered poetry.
That being said, the useful advice I have for anyone who bothered to read this comment is that if you have an intelligent child who can't score straight As in a STEM subject with no more than 40 hours of work per week, you should recommend they transfer or change majors (or in some other way fire their professors).

The formal math used in actual STEM jobs not requiring PhDs is often trivial. So why is there this artificial hurdle? See my discussion on Chem E above. The most useful math I learned was the pages and pages of dimensional analysis we did. That is basically all I ever used in subsequent jobs. You try to get to differential equations and it is mostly just a hobby.

English is hard - line 7 should read "acknowledge .. it was the teacher's fault and not your fault." Bottom line - avoid teachers who expect you to learn 2 or more years worth of their hobby in one year, unless you simply enjoy that challenge, b/c one year's worth of their hobby, well understood, is almost always more than sufficient for your own real education and goals.

Your comments are so wrong-headed on every count that it's hard to begin. Can you demonstrate that you have any qualifications to judge the difficulty of STEM classes? Got any A's in Classical Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, or Computational Hydrodynamics to show off?

You are also quite wrong about the literary talents of actual scientists. Ever hear of Aristotle, Descartes, Bacon, or Pascal? There are plenty of modern scientists with excellent prose styles too, and not a few who have dabbled in fiction, including full-time cosmologists Hoyle and Gamow.

CIP Thanks for reading my comment. In the last 2 years I have read at least 10 pages of the prose style of more than 50 scientists. In Russian, French, English, Latin and, to a lesser extent, in Greek. As to the classical scientists Aristotle (at his best, see Guthrie for details), Plato (in his more psychological works) , Lucretius (a mere theoretician, of course), and the encyclopaedist Pliny all have first class prose styles. Descartes is popular with the French poseur elite (see Le Monde et Le Figaro, passim) but strikes me as artificial and an unempathetic but pitiable sufferer from an early form of germ-based neurodiversity. Pascal, on the other hand, was a world class genius, and his prose is among the best of his language. His theological work is even better than his mathematical work. As mentioned in my comments, Nabokov, Goethe, and Poe are unquestionably good writers. Ditto Lomonosov, Agassiz, and Faure (the entomologist). In my opinion, Hoyle is to Stapledon as Maugham is to Dickens (not an insult, but not a big compliment, either) and the few pages of Gamow I have read were amusing, but only in an old-country-newspaper-special-feature or Dover-press-recreational-science-whiz-bang type of way. Among living scientists with strong math backgrounds, the only ones I have read who have anything like a first class prose style are the American physicist Laughlin and the Lebanese logician Taleb (whose reflections on Mandelbrot's assessment of a certain well-known science Nobelist as merely a "bonne eleve" are much more insightful than anything I could say on the subject). The engineer Gene Wolfe and former math teacher Vernor Vinge also write like angels.
As to my accomplishments, they may be meager, outside of a few fairly unique parlor tricks, but I always assume, until proven otherwise, that anyone who writes interestingly on line is potentially more accomplished than I am. To assume otherwise seems counterproductive.
As to my being objectively wrong, I think you disagree because you might believe "grading on a curve" is not intellectually dishonest. I believe it is, and I hope taking that belief into account makes the comment that you find so foolish much less so. Furthermore, I did not mention my complete agreement with Steve Hsu, among others, that only one in ten thousand people can fully handle the intellectual demands of contemporary physics . In defense of my silence on that subject, I would point out that the parents of those one in ten thousand are hardly going to be wanting my advice. However, by not mentioning that belief, I may have appeared to undersell the difficulty of getting an "A" in certain undergraduate courses led by elite teachers.

It's fruitless, I imagine, to argue about such matters of taste as what constitutes a "first class prose style." My point was not that many scinetists are among the great prose stylists, but rather that may can express themselves clearly and even elegantly.

My real argument is with the claim that any intelligent person can easily learn modern STEM subjects without breaking a sweat. That has not been my experience in five plus decades as scientist, science learner, and occasionally, science teacher. Top science schools work their students very hard, and they do so for good reason - there is a lot to learn. Very many bright people cannot hadle the work.

Have you considered the possibility that the reason Kolmogorov admired Pushkin more than Pushin admired his mathematical contemporaries might be that Kolmogorov saw a larger world than Pushkin did?

I'm afraid that I have no idea what your remarks about Descartes mean, but his reputation will have to rest on his undeniably great contributions to thought. I will leave his literary reputation to those who know French.

Your experience and conclusions are of course valid. But there is still room in the world, if not at the Harvey Mudds and MITs, for people aged 18 to 22 who are intelligent but not genius caliber to spend 4 years with teachers who don't expect them to be creative beyond their experience, or to be equally adept at too wide of a range of established subjects, and who are willing to reward a civilized level of effort - 40 hours a week - with good grades and a B.S. degree, after which the student can get a job and, if he or she still wants to, indulge to his or her heart's content, maybe at work and maybe in his or her spare time, in the harder and rewarding work of being an original scientist/mathematician.
I should have pointed out that I have no opinion on engineering, which is a whole other country.

"The parts of science that are well enough understood to be taught at the undergraduate level are Trivia."

Anyone who would say this is an asshole. The proof is trivial and is left as an exercise for the reader.

RS - If you had carefully read the post, you would have encountered the word Trivial. Not trivia. The meaning of Trivial which I assumed interested readers would understand is defined as that which, however complicated, does not lead onwards to complete understanding. It is a word frequently used by mathematicians, who often refer to quite complicated proofs as trivial, meaning that, having been discovered, they do not guarantee or even signal further paths into new knowledge. Trivia, on the other hand, generally means that which is worthless, leading nowhere in particular. The distinction is amazingly important: that which is trivial (for example, the results of 2-body Newtonian mechanics, the art of architectural perspective, Erastosthene's sieve) is often amazingly interesting, while trivia is, more often than not, not interesting in and of itself, even where it has the virtue of completeness.

I was sort of a middling math student I suppose. Nevertheless one of my favorite classes was first semester calculus by a Dr. Wall at the University of Texas. He developed theory in a very easy way. I also enjoyed an operationally inclined Differential Equations taught by a Mr/Dr Sahtout. I enjoyed his noting that 'what we know is so small in comparison to what there is to be known,' intuitively correct but how to calculate that? Later when I saw the radioimmunoassay equation I thought it was possible to specify a dose for maximum precision and solved the problem with partial differential equations. When it go published, they took out many of my intermediate steps. That to me made it more a matter of faith, hard to read through, and I think a lot of math is like that. It's like a bike ride. You may have sufficient torque to take a slope in a middle gear but I may need it in a gear that requires less torque, not that that is not something that could be built up, and we're not really sufficiently interested in doing that.

(Failed) science students make up a disproportionate number of terrorists and mass murderers: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/geeks-are-killing-us/

Well this topic is 50 years old. See Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

The ARM is the police force of the United Nations. ... Their basic function is to enforce mandatory birth control on overcrowded Earth, and restrict research which might lead to dangerous weapons. In short, the ARM hunts down women who have illegal pregnancies and suppresses all new technologies.


Some guys drop out of STEM fields because they are tired of being considered nerds and they cannot get laid.

Better-looking women in the non-sciences, and more time to pursue them.

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To what degree are incoming freshman guided by parental expectations -- get a science degree and you are guaranteed a good job when you graduate. Two years in they figure out that they never really liked science that much to begin with.

So focus should be on making science easier and more enjoyable.

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