The Sciences

Does majoring in science make a difference?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDec 9, 2010 7:16 PM


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On occasion I get queries about what distinguishes people with science backgrounds from those who don't have science backgrounds. I think an anecdote might illustrate the type of difference one is expecting. Back in undergrad I was having lunch with my lab partner, when a friend saw us and decided to chat with us as we ate. This friend is now an academic, and has a doctorate in a humanistic field (something like Comparative Literature, I forget). In any case, she had read something about transgenic organisms, and obviously felt as if it was the time and place to go on a rant about this. She knew that I was totally comfortable with the idea of transgenic organisms, but she recounted the fish-genes-in-tomato patent story to my lab partner to illustrate how gross the outcome could be. My lab partner was a pre-med math major, and she just shrugged and explained that she'd done biomedical research last summer, so she understood the practical necessity of such methods, and admitted that it would take more than a story about "fish genes" in a tomato to freak her out. Kevin Drum's post about the lack of Republican scientists makes me want to revisit the issue of science vs. non-science. I think the lack of Republican scientists is pretty straightforward. There's the clear cultural gap, as the Republican party emphasizes its conservative Christian component, which turns off libertarian-leaning but secular scientists. And, there's the reality that agencies like the NSF and NIH are often attacked by fiscal conservatives, and many scientists in academia and government depend on this funding. Sarah Palin's attack on "fruit fly" research combined the two threads neatly and unfortunately. In any case, there is a major related variable in the GSS, MAJORCOL. The sample sizes are not the best, but at least it was a recently asked demographic variable, 2006 and 2008. I decided to look at three sets, those with "natural science" degrees, those with "cs & engineering" degrees, and the total pot (inclusive of the first two classes). The last is a snapshot of all those with at least a college degree (the sample is restricted to those who completed their degree). In the tables below each cell gives a percentage of the row in the column class. So in the first table 79% of CS & engineering degree holders are male. 22% of CS & engineering degree holders are Roman Catholic.

Basic Demographics


MaleWhiteBlackOtherProtestantCatholicNo Religion

Natural Science5780515392429

CS & Engineering7979318502218

All Degree Holders438668442717

IdeologyParty2004 Vote

LiberalModerateConservDemIndRepYes – Abortion on DemandBush

Natural Science4327304716377043

CS & Engineering3027433713505458

All Degree Holders3329384810425252

Bible is....Humans evolvedAttitude about GMO food

Word of GodInspiredBook of FablesYesNot concernedWon't eatAtheist & AgnosticKnow God Exists

Natural Science183644813042335

CS & Engineering116424753081648

All Degree Holders1659236417271051

Verbal intelligence (WORDSUM vocab test score)

Dull (0-5)Not dull (6-8)Smart (9-10)

Natural Science87022

CS & Engineering206614

All Degree Holders205724

I assume no one is too surprised by these results. Here's the code for the Majors: MAJORCOL( r:8,11,24,33,41,51"Natural Science"; 14,18"CS and Engineering";1-98"Full Sample") I counted biology, chemistry, geology, physics and mathematics as natural sciences. Math is probably a stretch. Computer science and engineering were obviously in the second category. Obviously there's more you could do. For example, 49% of males with natural science degrees voted for George W. Bush in 2004, while 60% of those with cs & engineering degrees did. The total sample for males was 57% for Bush. Many of the sample sizes are small, but they align with our intuition. Which perhaps makes them less than interesting....

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