Science Majors are from Mars...

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticFeb 2, 2012 6:22 PM


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According to a new study, students with a family history of autism tend to major in math and science, while substance abuse and depression are more common in the ancestors of humanities fans.

In an online survey, over 1,000 new Princeton undergrads were asked about their intended major and whether anyone in their family had been diagnosed with one of 16 neurological and psychiatric disorders. More details here.

Of the 16 maladies, 5 were so rare that there wasn't enough data to analyze. Of the remaining 11, there were significant differences between the three types of students in four. The categories being humanities, social sciences, and "technical" i.e. science, engineering and maths. Social science majors were in the middle, except for autism.

See the graph I made above.

It's an interesting study. The autism result seems tenuous though because only 24 of 1077 students reported any autism in their immediate family. That's 3% of "technical" students and 1% of others, so not very many. The authors excluded schizophrenia and epilepsy from the analysis on the grounds of being too rare - and they had 18 each. Substance abuse and depression had over 150 each, so those differences are rather more solid.

The authors note that this fits with various previous studies and they discuss their findings in Baron-Cohen-esque terms:

It has been suggested that autism represents an extreme manifestation of a ‘‘systemizing’’ nature. Since ASDs have complex inheritance, shared genetic variation between close relatives might establish a continuous phenotype which in milder forms confers interest or benefits in understanding highly structured fields... Similarly, affective disorders may represent an extreme phenotype of emotional lability that, in milder forms, is commensurate with interest in the humanities.

Hmm. OK, but does that really make sense? Sure, it fits with the popular image of the Geeky Scientist vs the Tortured Artist - but that's not science, that's stereotypes. Why would emotional lability make you favor the humanities, exactly?

Imagine if the stereotype was the Geeky Artist vs the Tortured Scientist (and there really have been plenty of both, over the years). Couldn't we rationalize that equally well? Picture the scene... -

"People with autistic traits are drawn to study the humanities because they wish to learn about humans and their emotions, something they find hard to do in day-to-day life... While emotionally volatile people like science and maths because they offer a calming sense of order and stability..."

Campbell BC, and Wang SS (2012). Familial Linkage between Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Intellectual Interests. PloS one, 7 (1) PMID: 22291951

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