High Verbal, Low Math

Steven Hsu explains why so many evolutionary biologists, and other would-be scientists, simply don’t understand the topics or implications of the topics they are attempting to discuss:

I sent the message below to a social scientist I know who (like many, perhaps understandably) is confused about Stephen J. Gould’s status as an evolutionary theorist. Many Gould readers are surprised to learn that his main expertise was the paleontology of snails and that he struggled with higher mathematics. When I first encountered Gould’s essays as a kid, I concluded that there was just no there there. He was all literary flourish and little depth.

Which brings me to an observation I’ve been meaning to write about. It is that high verbal ability (which Gould certainly had) is useful for appearing to be smart, or for winning arguments and impressing other people, but it’s really high math ability that is useful for discovering things about the world — that is, discovering truth or reasoning rigorously. The importance of math ability manifests in two distinct ways:

(1) Powerful (deep) models of Nature (e.g., electrodynamics or evolutionary theory) are themselves mathematical. Most of the incredible progress in our understanding of the universe is just not available to people who do not understand math. For example, we can talk until we are blue in the face about the Uncertainty Principle, but there is no precise understanding without actual equations.

(2) The statistical techniques used to analyze data obtained in a messy, complex world require mathematical ability to practice correctly. In almost all realistic circumstances hypothesis testing is intrinsically mathematical. It is quite easy to fool yourself statistically if you don’t have strong math ability, but rather are simply following cookbook recipes.

High verbal ability is useful for more than just impressing others — it typically implies a certain facility with concepts and relationships between ideas — but high V alone is a dangerous thing. The most confused people I meet in the academy tend to be high V, low (modest) M types.

We see this repeatedly in people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, JF Gariepy, Ben Shapiro, Dennis Prager, Sargon of Akkad, and Curtis Doolittle, as well as most e-celebrities. They talk and talk and talk in circles in a manner that is superficially convincing to the average intelligence, but an analytical critique of their positions reliably reveals fundamental flaws that render them incorrect, if not nonsensical.

This is because most people don’t have what I think of as “a sense of math”. It doesn’t necessarily mean any higher math training, or even much knowledge of mathematics per se, so much as an instinctive grasp of statistics and mathematical relationships. You don’t actually need much math to understand the basics of statistics and percentages, but you do need a sense of math to immediately know that Ashkenazi Jews in the United States cannot possibly have an average IQ of 115 given the fact that their relatives in Israel do not have IQs nearly two standard deviations below them.

You don’t need to know much about math or DNA to immediately know that the number of genes that are fixed in any given species cannot have been fixed in the time allotted for them to have done so given the fact that we cannot observe species literally morphing before our eyes in real time. You don’t need anything beyond a basic sense of math to immediately understand that religion is not, and has never been, a significant cause of war, much less the primary one.

And you certainly don’t need much math, although a little knowledge of military history is useful, to immediately recognize that claims of 1,000 dead Russians per day in an invasion that has conquered territory at a historically rapid pace are absurd.

The High V Low M scientists tend to be popularizers rather than original thinkers, which is why Steven Gould was always going to be a fraud once he decided to try to make a name for himself as “a very original and great evolutionary theorist.”