The Sciences

Classicists are smart!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJan 25, 2012 6:15 AM


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The post below on teachers elicited some strange responses. Its ultimate aim was to show that teachers are not as dull as the average education major may imply to you. Instead many people were highly offended at the idea that physical education teachers may not be the sharpest tools in the shed due to their weak standardized test scores. On average. It turns out that the idea of average, and the reality of variation, is so novel that unless you elaborate in exquisite detail all the common sense qualifications, people feel the need to emphasize exceptions to the rule. For example, over at Fark:

Apparently what had happened was this: He played college football. He majored in math, minored in education. When he went to go get a job, he took it as a math teacher. When the football coach retired/quit, he took over. When funding for an advance computer class was offered, he said he could teach it after he got the certs – he easily got them within a month.

So the anecdote here is a math teacher who also coached. Obviously the primary issue happens to be physical education teachers who become math teachers! (it happened to me, and it happened to other readers apparently) In the course of double checking the previous post I found some more interesting GRE numbers. You remember the post where I analyzed and reported on GRE scores by intended graduate school concentration? It was a very popular post (for example, philosophy departments like it because it highlights that people who want to study philosophy have very strong GRE scores).

As it happens the table which I reported on is relatively coarse. ETS has a much more fine-grained set of results. Want to know how aspiring geneticists stack up against aspiring ecologists? Look no further! There are a lot of disciplines. I wanted to focus on the ones of interest to me, and I limited them to cases where the N was 100 or greater (though many of these have N’s in the thousands)


You’re going to have to click the image to make out where the different disciplines are. But wait! First I need to tell you what I did. I looked at the average verbal and mathematical score for each discipline. Then I converted them to standard deviation units away from the mean. This is useful because there’s an unfortunate compression and inflation on the mathematical scores. Disciplines which are stronger in math are going to have a greater average because the math averages are higher all around. You can see that I divided the chart into quadrants. There are no great surprises. People who want to pursue a doctorate in physical education are in the bottom left quadrant. Sorry. As in my previous post physicists, economists, and philosophers do rather well. But there were some surprises at the more detailed scale. Historians of science, and those graduate students who wish to pursue classics or classical languages are very bright. Budding historians of science have a relatively balanced intellectual profile, and the strongest writing scores of any group except for philosophers. I think I know why: many of these individuals have a science background, but later became interested in history. They are by nature relatively broad generalists. I have no idea why people drawn to traditionally classical fields are bright, but I wonder if it is because these are not “sexy” domains, to the point where you have to have a proactive interest in the intellectual enterprise


I also wanted to compare aggregate smarts to intellectual balance. In the plot to the right on the x-axis you have the combined value of math and verbal scores in standard deviation units. A negative value indicates lower values combined, and a positive value higher. Obviously though you can have a case where two disciplines have the same average, but the individual scores differ a lot. So I wanted to compare that with the difference between the two scores. You can see then in the plot that disciplines like classics are much more verbal, while engineering is more mathematical. Physical scientists tend to be more balanced and brighter than engineers. Interestingly linguists have a different profile than other social scientists, and cognitive psych people don’t cluster with others in their broader field. Economists are rather like duller physicists. Which makes sense since many economists are washed out or bored physicists. And political science and international relations people don’t stack up very well against the economists. Perhaps this is the source of the problem whereby economists think they’re smarter than they are? Some humility might be instilled if economics was always put in the same building as physics.

In regards to my own field of interest, the biological sciences, not too many surprises. As you should expect biologists are not as smart as physicists or chemists, but there seems to be two clusters, with a quant and verbal bias. This somewhat surprised me. I didn’t expect ecology to be more verbal than genetics! And much respect to the neuroscience people, they’re definitely the smartest biologists in this data set (unless you count biophysicists!). I think that points to the fact that neuroscience is sucking up a lot of talent right now.

The main caution I would offer is that converting to standard deviation units probably means that I underweighted the mathematical fields in their aptitudes, because such a large fraction max out at a perfect 800. That means you can’t get the full range of the distribution and impose an artificial ceiling. In any case, the raw data in the table below. SDU = standard deviation units.

FieldV-meanM-meanV-SDUM-SDUAverage-SDUDifference-SDUAnatomy443568-0.16-0.11-0.13-0.05Biochemistry4866690.200.560.38-0.36Biology4776060.130.150.14-0.02Biophysics5237270.510.950.73-0.43Botany5136260.430.280.350.15Cell & Mol Bio4976580.290.490.39-0.20Ecology5356380.610.360.490.26Develop Bio4906230.240.260.25-0.02Entomology5056060.360.150.250.22Genetics4966510.290.440.36-0.16Marine Biology4996110.310.180.240.13Microbiology4826150.170.210.19-0.04Neuroscience5336650.600.540.570.06Nutrition432542-0.25-0.28-0.270.03Pathology4685940.050.070.06-0.02Pharmacology429634-0.280.330.03-0.61Physiology4646060.020.150.08-0.13Toxicology4656100.030.170.10-0.15Zoology5056090.360.170.260.20Other Biology4736260.090.280.19-0.19Chemistry, Gen4836810.180.640.41-0.47Chemistry, Analytical4646520.020.450.23-0.43Chemistry, Inorganic5026900.340.700.52-0.37Chemistry, Organic4906830.240.660.45-0.42Chemistry, Pharm429647-0.280.420.07-0.69Chemistry, Physical5137080.430.820.62-0.39Chemistry, Other4776590.130.500.31-0.37Computer Programming407681-0.460.640.09-1.10Computer Science453702-0.080.780.35-0.86Information Science446621- Science4906730.240.590.41-0.35Environ Science4936150. Science460726-0.020.940.46-0.96Applied Math4877300.210.970.59-0.76Mathematics5237400.511.030.77-0.52Probability & Stats4867280.200.950.58-0.75Math, Other4747150.100.870.48-0.77Astronomy5257060.530.810.67-0.28Astrophysics5407270.660.950.80-0.29Atomic Physics5227390.501.030.77-0.52Nuclear Physicsl5067150.370.870.62-0.50Optics4957290.280.960.62-0.68Physics5407430.661.050.85-0.40Planetary Science5456940.700.730.71-0.03Solid State Physics5147430.441.050.74-0.62Physics, Other5197230.480.920.70-0.44Chemical Engineering4907290.240.960.60-0.72Civil Engineering456705-0.050.800.38-0.85Computer Engineering4657160.030.870.45-0.85Electrical Engineering4657220.030.910.47-0.89Industrial Engineering426699-0.300.760.23-1.06Operations Research4837430.181.050.61-0.88Materials Science5097280.390.950.67-0.56Mechanical Engineering4717210.080.910.49-0.83Aerospace Engineering4987250.300.930.62-0.63Biomedical Engineering5047170.350.880.62-0.53Nuclear Engineering5007200.320.900.61-0.58Petroleum Engineering414676-0.400.610.10-1.01Anthropology5325620.59- Relations5315880.580.030.300.55Political Science5235740.51- Psychology4845540.18-0.20-0.010.38Cognitive Psychology5326270.590.280.440.30Community Psychology441493-0.18-0.60-0.390.43Counseling Psychology444500-0.15-0.56-0.350.41Developmental Psychology4765630.12-0.14-0.010.26Psychology4765460.12-0.25-0.070.37Quantitative Psychology5156290.450.300.370.15Social Psychology5185940.470.070.270.40Sociology4905410.24-0.28-0.020.52Criminal Justice/Criminology418477-0.37-0.71-0.540.34Art history5365490.62- History5365960.620.080.350.54Drama5145410.44- History4905590.24- Writing5535400.76- Language6196331.320.320.820.99Russian5846111.030.180.600.85American History5335410.60- History5545550.77- of Science5966611.130.510.820.62Philosophy5916301.080.300.690.78Classics6096161.240.210.721.02Comp Lit5915881.080.030.561.06Linguistics5666300.870.300.590.57Elementary Education438520-0.20-0.42-0.310.22Early Childhood Education420497-0.35-0.58-0.460.22Secondary Education4845760.18- Education424497-0.32-0.58-0.450.26Physical Education389487-0.61-0.64-0.630.03Finance4667210.030.910.47-0.87Business Adminstraiton434570-0.24-0.09-0.16-0.14Communication458517-0.03-0.44-0.240.41Theology5375830.63-0.010.310.64Social Work428463-0.29-0.80-0.540.52

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