Devil's Advocate: Are STEM subjects actually superior?

Yes: Alex Beckett (19%)


A matter of weeks ago, I wrote an article on ambition in the humanities, and the necessity of revitalising the latter, given the worryingly deep academic slumber into which they have fallen. I don’t talk of such decline lightly, I truly believe it. Hence, when I saw the opportunity to rub salt furthermore into the humanities’ wounds in this edition, I jumped at the chance and will take immense pleasure in exposing why STEM subjects have objectively leapfrogged their more literary counterpart.

Firstly, I would like to pre-empt, approximately, what my fellow controversialist is going to say in support of the humanities. I anticipate the reappearance of the old adage that life – fundamentally – depends on science, but that life’s pleasure, enjoyment, meaning, and so forth, are dependent on the arts and the humanities. We could see this golden locution like a sort of pyramid of life, in which it is the sciences that form the foundations, and the humanities that add all that is pretty and decorative atop. Some may believe this vision to be true, but frankly, I don’t. In fact, on the contrary, I find that oftentimes my pleasure and enjoyment of life are severely reduced by what I see taking place in the humanities.

For what I see unravelling in the humanities, at a base level, is a total inability to distinguish between objectivity and subjectivity. Look at how the sciences operate: largely, all of those who study them, all of those who teach them, and all of those who take an interest in them are on the same team. They work together, and frequently harmoniously, to find an objective truth that is out there and which is determined, unchanging. If two scientists disagree, the manner of resolution is evident and simple. One of the two will be closer to the truth than the other, and it’s in both of their interests to find out just what this truth is. Hence, there is rarely vitriol, there is rarely hatred, and it is a joyously rare moment that one is “cancelled” in the realm of the sciences.

On the other hand, in the humanities, what happens when two individuals disagree, when they don’t see eye to eye? The majority of the time, two sane individuals recognise the subtlety, and subjectivity, of their subject matter; they discuss, nuance, and perhaps, in the case of no agreement, they accept that they will never find a concrete truth. Thus, they may simply agree to disagree. This is how the process should look, ideally. But what is ideal is not always what is real. What is real, in this case, is horrifying. The golden snitch of objectivity has flown abruptly into the humanities’ game of quidditch and is now being claimed by all the players involved. The consequences of this are both absurd and hilarious.

Absurd because it is entirely nonsensical: rather than choosing to believe something because it is objective fact, it now appears totally acceptable in the humanities to state something as objective fact because one believes it. This is back to front. Furthermore, I find this predicament amusing because the points of conflict are typically totally insignificant. Who cares about the hypothetical political opinions of a third-person omnipresent narrator from a play written in the 12th century? Must we hold so dear our own personal perception, of an incomprehensible flood of jargon and terminology, on a topic as abstract as intersectionality, that we fall out over it? I think the answer is no.


But according to the dogma of the day, you cannot say no. According to the dogma of the day, it must be important. This is how the humanities retain their relevancy. We read endlessly about wokeness, political indoctrination, and cancellation in the modern humanities. Whatever you think of such concepts, positive or negative, we cannot rid ourselves of them. Because as the humanities go through their final death throes, as collectively it is recognised that the humanities have run their course unless a major, top-to-bottom transformation takes place, this vitriol, anger, this hostility must continue. So yes, I agree that the arts may have provided us with great literature in the past, and marvellous lockdown entertainment for those who needed it, but how could we rank higher than the sciences these subjects which now serve so frequently to divide, separate and outcast?


No: Marina Damji (81%)


In a world as digitally oriented as our own, it's unsurprising that elements of society choose to (misguidedly) claim that STEM subjects are superior to the humanities. After all, even a number of the firm naysayers to this question likely once hesitated over their UCAS options before reassuring themselves that, yes, if all else fails, they could always do a law conversion. Yet, this is not evidence that STEM subjects are superior to humanities, but rather, that society has once again successfully propagandised a myth. The arguments for STEM being superior have been quite successful, or at least successful enough to increasingly convince the occasional overwhelmed Highers or A-level student to swap History for Maths, but they are not necessarily true.


Although I’d generally agree that both STEM and the humanities have their equal merits, STEM lags behind the humanities in at least one key way. The STEM experience isn’t a path paved with gold for all students; notoriously, STEM subjects can still occasionally remain a battleground for female students. From male-dominated workspaces to lower retention rates in the workforce, STEM subjects and careers are markedly inferior to humanities at least in their lack of gender diversity. Arguably, one of the reasons why society touts STEM as superior to the humanities is in a last-ditch attempt to try to fill the shortages within the field, which are in part due to lack of female representation and poor retention rates.


In terms of arguments, your average Computer Science student will gleefully let you know that STEM subjects are superior on the basis that they generally lead to jobs that pay more than humanities degrees. Yet, we are evaluating superiority, which is not necessarily defined by pay grade. Some of the most essential and benevolent jobs are also notoriously underpaid; take teaching, jobs in the charity sector, and social work. I doubt even the firmest advocates on the pro-STEM side would be willing to suggest these jobs, despite their societal necessity, are somehow inferior. The conception that all STEM subjects will lead to profitable jobs is also misguided. Sure, if you’re doing a subject like medicine or engineering, you’ll probably be dropping your kids off to private school in a Range Rover one day, but the average Biology and Chemistry student has a similar graduate salary to their History and Classics counterparts and the same lack of a clearly defined career path. Ultimately, it is not only humanities graduates who choose to do a panic Master’s degree to try and put off figuring out what to do with their lives for another year under the guise of productivity, but this is also a phenomenon applicable to those who don lab coats and have weirdly expensive calculators. Not to mention, in the age of technology, not all STEM jobs will stand the test of time. Perhaps I’ll get paid slightly less in my non-STEM field one day, but at least I won’t be Black Mirrored and replaced by a robot.


In a post-lockdown world, it’s hard to argue that the arts and humanities are somehow inferior. As the humanities student’s favourite quote goes “life depends on science, but the arts make it worth living”. Those with jobs linked to STEM subjects have thankfully kept us alive, but at least during lockdown, the arts have provided us with much-needed distractions to keep life somewhat bearable. I, for one, kept myself half sane by listening to folklore on repeat during the second national lockdown. STEM and the humanities aren’t valuable because one field is necessarily superior to the other, but rather because at their best, they work in tandem to make life a bit more liveable. Ultimately, this debate, much like other debates relevant to the St Andrews student (Tailend vs Cromars, Shawarma vs Dervish, West Sands vs East Sands anyone?), will probably stand the test of time, but, at least in my opinion, the conclusion to this dilemma is quite individualistic; at the end of the day, hopefully, the subject you study is the one superior and most enjoyable to you, regardless of whether it's STEM or humanities.


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