The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Science is harder than the Arts.

A recent study has proven what has long seemed obvious to anyone who has ever observed pupils in school: Sciences are harder than the Arts.

The study, at Durham University examined the examination results of over a million students and was commissioned by the Institute of Physics and SCORE (Science Community Representing Education).

Students of similar ability, but different subject choice were compared to extract the relative hardness of subjects. The core finding was that science subjects at A level were a grade harder than Arts subjects, in general. This means that a student will score lower on a Science subject, than an Arts subject, although be of the same intellectual standard. Indeed, those behind the study commented that: "A student who gets a C in Biology is going to be generally more able than a student who gets a B in Sociology."

Differences were noted within the Arts subjects, too, with some being demonstrably easier than others. A student studying film studies instead of History can expect more than a grade improvement in his or her results. A student picking media studies instead of English, improves by half a grade.

Students seem to be aware of this. There is a long-term decline in the number of students studying the harder science subjects - and a long-term rise in the number of students picking soft subjects. Since the mid-90s, the proportion of students taking media, film and tv studies has risen by over 250 per cent; while the proportion taking Physical Education and Psychology has doubled. Meanwhile, such subjects as Physics and Chemistry have slipped.

Now, I find this very strange. It seems that examining boards are not standardizing the grading across subjects. All that is necessary to correct for this is to ensure that a student of known ability would perform at the same grade across all subjects, assuming equal effort in each. An A grade in Film Studies, should be just as hard to get as an A grade in Physics. If it isn't, then more credit should be given to students who study harder subjects. Either the exam grading systems must change to reflect these inherent differences in ease of subject - or the way exams are regarded by Universities should change.

Indeed, there are signs that Universities are making moves in the right direction. Both Cambridge University and the London School of Economics have published a list of subjects that they consider too easy = and indicated that they will not accept anyone who studies more than one of them, out of their subject offering.

If it is indeed so, that a Biologist with a C is better than a Sociologist with a B, then Universities should begin to decline Sociologists with a B in preference for Biologists with a C. Perhaps then their student body will begin to reflect the best of the applicants, rather than the most adept at choosing cushy subjects.

I don't know if it was just my school, or not, but this phenomenon was easily observable among the students there. The pupils of exclusively Arts subjects were generally less bright than the students of Science subjects. It didn't take a large study to see this: it was immediately evident.

My question is: is this a global phenomenon? Is it just UK exams that reflect this bias, with Science exams being inherently tougher than Arts exams? How about your country? Do you think Arts students seem less bright than Science students? Are Arts exams easier?

Comments please.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 4:32 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes! Definitely! Arts is by far easier than science.

I remember one arts friend who commented that he could never understand why people like me torture ourselves studying engineering instead of taking arts subjects which are much easier.

Fortunately for NUS, where i study, the latest figures show that the Science and Engineering faculty combined far outweighs all other schools.

I am inclined to believe that Asia is focusing MUCH more on science and engineering compared to the western world.

I remember reading an article within the last 1 year- It was about how Germany was facing a shortage in engineers due to a dip in the enrollment figures. And in the US, many of the brightest minds were "queuing" up to study biz instead of science and engineering-- And all because of the money.

I believe one way to entice people back to the science side may be to raise the monetary rewards in terms of salary, which is sorely lacking behind the executives in Wall Street. Of course, the real aim should be that people WANT to study these subjects in order to advance humankind to greater heights instead of the selfish motive of money.

Hopefully, even if the western world fails to turn this trend around, Asia will be there to pick up the slack.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am rather glad that SOMEWHERE is studying the sciences. It is definitely a worry that all the major Western powers are reporting drops in those pursuing sciences. Of course, this could presage a Western decline to come...and, if so, it will be no-one's fault but their own, for such collective focus on the easier subjects.

We will, no doubt, see how this plays out with regards to the West and Asia in the next few decades. It should prove interesting. Ultimately, of course, it will come down to this: each nation will get what it deserves.

Thanks for your comment.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

The top students in my law school were engineers. They arrived to graduate school with incredible study habits. It is easier to master art from a science background than science from an art background. Math is definitely the more complex language.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Shannon, for your observations.

Incidentally, science and engineering are very popular choices in Asia at University. Arts are much less popular here...what does this say for the long-term relative success of Asia vs. the West? We will see...

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why am I not surprised that this study, commissioned by the Institute of Physics and SCORE (Science Community Representing Education), holds science to be more intellectually challenging than the arts and humanities?

Philosophy, understood classically, did not make a distinction between the arts and sciences as we do today: Aristotle wrote the Rhetoric and the Metaphysics. We do a disservice to knowledge qua knowledge when we mutilate one branch in favour of another.

The arts may be badly taught in school today (or may not be taught at all), but that is not to say that it is less useful or humane than the sciences.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You seem to have overlooked the nature of the study. It is a comparison of student performance in examinations. It is not a political exercise. It merely shows that it is easier to score higher in certain subjects than in others.

The study does not comment on the usefulness of the arts or humanities. I,too, have not said they are not useful. Indeed, I am a writer, so it would be somewhat self-defeating to say the arts are not useful.

The study was NOT conducted by the IOP or SCORE - they merely paid for it. Durham University conducted the study.


12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your post oversimplifies the matter.

I would agree that it's much easier for someone of only average intellectual ability to pass an arts subject than a science subject. It's pretty hard to sound at all reasonable in, say, math without understanding the basics of the topic while it's possible to form a valid opinion in theatre, for instance, without being schooled in the subject at all.

That said, the soft sciences are also known as the complex sciences because there are so many more factors to consider in the former. It's much harder to be right in biology than in physics, and it is arguable that the most profound chemistry requires more intelligence than the most abstruse mathematics. Heck, meteorology is pretty much impossible without computers to take over working memory load.

Therefore, I predict that the weak or average student of an art is typically less bright than that of a soft science, who is in turn intellectually less gifted than a hard science major. At the very highest levels of achievement though, the smartest students of all are probably the philosophers.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would agree with your views on relative difficulty. It is my own observation that Chemistry, for instance, seems much more complex than mathematics (at school level)...there are so many more skills involved and so much more information. It is, I believe, a greater challenge to a child than maths at an early age.

Re. Biology. Yes. It can be very complex and there is just so much to understand before one can make any headway in it. It is an underestimated subject.

Yes. Philosophers are perhaps the most expert thinkers for what they do is focus on thought itself.

Thanks for your comment.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would agree that somehow, it is easier to get an A for an arts subject than a science subject at 'O' level. That is primarily an academic issue which the institutions have to sort out by moderating the grades their students get.

However I would not compare the two "subjects" in the field of intellect. It's really apples to oranges. To say that scientists and mathematicians are intellectually superior just reeks of intellectual snobbery and elitism, regardless of the original intent.

I say this because I am somehow getting this vibe in law school, even though there are certainly many arts students who outperform their science peers. But perhaps I should reserve my opinion on that because I cannot exactly pinpoint where the study of law really lies; it certainly bleeds into both areas of the sciences and the arts.

And for the record: I was a media and communications student in a local polytechnic before reading law in University. And I can assure you that it is MUCH harder to get a perfect GPA in media (none in my year, or any year for that matter) than it is in engineering (plenty).

2:07 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Err...nothing can "reek of intellectual snobbery and elitism" if that was NOT the intent. You are explicitly disregarding the concept of intent, in your assessment. This, for someone studying law, is quite remarkable. Are you going to become a lawyer who dismisses the intent of his clients...when the presence or absence of intention defines whether or not particular types of crime have been committed? Wow.

Science is more demanding of the intellect, in most cases. The exception would be philosophy which is just as demanding as any science. This is noticeable in terms of the IQ of different student bodies: science students will be measurably much smarter than Arts students in general. That is not to say though, that a particular arts student might not be smarter than a particular science student - they may very well be.

Re. grades. Yes. In certain soft subjects it is hard to be "perfect" because it is subjective. In scientific subjects perfect scores are possible (though hard to get) because there IS a known right answer.

Thanks for your comment.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Valentine, you have misunderstood me.

I do not mean to say THAT (intellectual snobbery) is the intent.

I understand where you are coming from regarding the science subjects being more demanding. What I meant to say it LOOKS (smells?) like elitism. And you know how people react to that.

I am not disregarding the intent. I can't see why you'd assume that. To extrapolate that into me "dismissing my client's intentions" is rather remarkable.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I invite you to read your original comment, again, which says, quite clearly that whatever my intent my comment reeks of intellectual snobbery. You have stated, quite clearly, that you are disregarding my intent. It is not assumption at all...I have just read what you have written.

I extended that disregard of intent quite reasonably to your profession, because people generally tend to do in many circumstances, what they do in one. Thus it is fair to look at the possibility - perhaps even probability that you would disregard the intent of defendants, too.

I merely applied logic.

Thank you.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Your explanation is appreciated, however. Thanks for expanding on your thought.

8:53 PM  

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