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Is medicine more "scientific" than physics?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApril 15, 2008 3:02 PM


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Sheril pointed me to this data rich release of Science and Engineering Indicators. I was interested to see this table:

Table 7-12

Perceptions of scientific nature of various fields: 2006



Very scientific

Pretty scientific

Not too scientific

Not at all scientific

Haven't heard of field

Don't know









-- = ≤0.5% responded

NOTES: Responses to: How scientific is [field]? Detail may not add to total because of rounding.

SOURCE: University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2006). See appendix table 7-27.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2008

My first reaction is that this is gauging to some extent the prestige & familiarity of the typical American with these various fields. There is simply no way that medicine is more scientific than physics. Perhaps I have a very narrow view of what science is (e.g., prediction & precision), but it's an alternate universe where medicine is more scientific than physics, end of story. I would also argue that engineering is probably more scientific, on average, than medicine, though I think that is more contingent on debatable parameters of judgement. But I was curious about the social factors which might have shaped this perception. Table 7-27

has the goods. I've excised the important bits below the fold....

Characteristic Medicine Biology Physics Engineering

All adults3.813.683.683.21

Formal education

Less than High school 3.803.573.362.98

High school graduate 3.823.653.643.16

Baccalaureate 3.773.763.843.37

Graduate/professional 3.793.843.923.45

Science/mathematics education

Low 3.813.613.563.08

Middle 3.823.743.763.22

High 3.793.833.893.46

Family income (quartile)

Top 3.803.733.823.27

Second 3.843.683.713.27

Third 3.793.693.683.11

Bottom 3.773.603.533.17

Factual knowledge of science (quartile)

Top 3.803.843.903.43

Second 3.843.733.743.30

Third 3.803.603.613.07

Bottom 3.783.553.402.98


The table is on a 0 to 4 scale; 4 ~ very scientific, and so forth. Notice something? Medicine is the only field where education, scientific knowledge, and income has no effect. Contrastingly, the higher the levels of these characteristics the more esteem non-medical fields are held in, and physics leaps to the first position. What's going on? It seems likely that the perception that medicine is very scientific is confounded with the very practical and day-to-day relevance of this field for the average person. After all, you would hope that medicine was very scientific! While almost everyone encounters a well educated doctor in the course of a year, very few people encounger physicists regularly. People have a general sense of what doctors do (though not necessarily what medical researchers do!), and in comparison to most professions it is very scientific.

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