an inconvenient truth about social science and humanities majors

First, I’d like to thank our July guests, Jenn Lena and Katherine Chen. We are blessed to have such accomplished friends. Second, I’m picking a fight with Jenn Lena, just because I can. Earlier this week, Jenn referred to an earlier discussion of college majors, where I argued that some students drift into social sciences and humanities because they are easier and that this means that these students have less academic ability. Jenn called this view bonkers.

I may be bonkers, but I’ve got some evidence. But first, a few qualifiers. People may think I hate the humanities or that I think poets are dumb. Quite the opposite. I am impressed by the humanities. I think it requires enormous intellect to write great music or compose an insightful poem. Also, I freely admit that there a lot of folks in the arts who have high cognitive ability that’s on par with people in other fields. Doing great art is just as much of a challenge as solving a math problem.

But that still doesn’t mitigate the fact that the *average* social science or humanity major simply has less academic skill than the *average* science major. For example, consider this 2004 study from the Journal of Econometrics, Ability Sorting and Returns to the College Major by Peter Arcidiacono.  The paper analyzes labor market outcomes, SAT scores, and college major. The majors are sorted into natural science, social/science humanities, business & education. If you look at Table 2, the results are clear. The natural science majors had higher mean scores in both SAT math and verbal (!), though the verbal difference is small. The humanities/social sciences does about the same as business in math, but better in verbal. Education is dead last in both categories. These results are not atypical and common in the higher education literature.

There is also evidence about graduate students. Studies of GRE score by major, once again, show that sciences do better than humanities/arts/social sciences in math, and there are many science fields that do better than the humanities & arts in verbal GRE. Once again, education and some types of business, don’t do well.

Bottom line: On the average, science students are the best in terms of math, reading, and vocabulary. On the average, education is rock bottom. The arts and social sciences are in the middle, but still consistently less than the sciences.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 13, 2012 at 12:01 am

22 Responses

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  1. this is only an inconvenient truth if the sat and gre actually reflect human intelligence; a statement that is partially, but not totally true

    Erik T

    July 13, 2012 at 12:04 am

  2. I am fairly certain I already stated my position on this issue. …But fine.

    YAY SCIENCE! No greater pleasure than winning a rigged game.

    Standardized exams are designed to reward the skills scientists acquire/the traits that lead students to select into those majors.

    And yet most reasonable people understand, as you write, “I think it requires enormous intellect to write great music or compose an insightful poem.” SO THERE MUST BE SOME OTHER KIND OF SMARTS.

    Jenn Lena

    July 13, 2012 at 12:42 am

  3. Sohee Park, a psychologist at Vanderbilt, studies creativity and cognition. She notes that students who do very well on standardized tests have a great ability to focus intently and to screen out any “distracting information” or “remote associations.” As a result, they score much lower on a range of creativity tests. So, solving routine science problems might require better than average SAT scores, but producing innovative and path breaking science is associated with a different set of cognitive skills all together. Here is a wonderful example of the difference between two study subjects — the first subject was a good test taker; the second, did less well on standardized tests and tended to allow “distracting” information to enter into his thinking. When faced with a set of images — toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, etc. — both subjects were asked to generate “uses” for the objects. The first subject (let’s say the likely high SAT subject), wrote, “I would use the toothpaste on my toothbrush and then use the floss to clean my teeth every night”. The second subject wrote, “I am romantic but I am broke. I will take my girlfriend to the beach and I’ll use the toothbrush to write “ I love you” on the sand and make an engagement ring with the floss. I will squeeze the toothpaste on the floss and dry it to make it look like a pearl so she can have a pearl ring.” Would you want to live in a world that focuses exclusively on rewarding and selecting the first type of thinker? If we care about creativity in science as well as the arts, we need to stop orienting educational rewards around the first type of thinker at the exclusion of the second. Neither is necessarily smarter; the second is certainly more creative.

    Steven Tepper

    July 13, 2012 at 1:16 am

  4. “…I argued that some students drift into social sciences and humanities because they are easier and that this means that these students have less academic ability.”

    I think you got the direction wrong. People who enter social science majors may have less “academic ability” because of a program effect. Most of them are never asked to do better in the stuff the GRE measures in the course of their studies. So they don’t.

    “Studies of GRE score by major, once again, show that sciences do better than humanities/arts/social sciences in math, and there are many science fields that do better than the humanities & arts in verbal GRE. Once again, education and some types of business, don’t do well.”

    You know this allows for a lot of hair-splitting, don’t you?


    July 13, 2012 at 1:50 am

  5. In my stats classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, USUALLY students who are good at math, stats, as well as standardized tests are also good at writing and critical thinking, and unfortunately most of them major in or had background in biology/chemistry/medicine, economics, math, or psychology. We just cannot deny the fact that sociology has been losing its rigor (or never really gained it like economics and psychology and as Blalock noted in ASR about 20 years ago) over the past two decades or so. Today’s administrators run higher-ed institutions more like entrepreneurs. One of their less obvious tasks is to recruit and retain a sizable student body for financial or “political” reasons. At the same time many of our lovely American students are simply not college ready, and they have to gravitate towards easier subjects (e.g., sociology) to graduate (and we need them to too). When economists/psychologists are arguing about whether they should go with Bayesian or frequentist, we are still swamped with infighting between qualitative vs. quantitative (is there any department immune from such laughable factions?). So whom else to blame? This is not to say that humanities (and sociology) or arts are easy subjects, just that their standards could be manipulated to be low enough so that we can have graduates and still survive as a discipline. So my conclusion: the university and us are part of the problem. Unlike the observation that fabio has, my impression is that sociology is probably at the bottom. It is usually the case that students start their shopping around from “hot” majors (usually math-intensive ones like pre-med, business, and math/computer science, physics, chemistry for those who really love these subjects) to psychology/political science/education/criminology, and then gravitate towards sociology. I am not sure what’ next in the food chain. Again, I am talking about these using participant observation. Don’t blame me if what I just said bears no statistical power. Ooops, am I using the term right?


    July 13, 2012 at 2:06 am

  6. when i decided to be a soc major and then go to grad school for sociology, my mom, an indian immigrant, told me sociology was for duffers, stupid people who couldn’t get into science courses. (i was also a psych major, another program for duffers — there and here also.) the average american science students are probably not just smarter but overall better people than social science/humanities students and will win out as Darwin probably predicted. to go further, in other countries where you have to test in more directly into a program, where it’s more centralized, this is even more the case. in india for instance, a much much smaller percentage of bright people go into sociology/humanities than here (probably). if you have ability you go for medicine, computer science, etc. nobody buys sweetmeats or garlands for the sociology graduate.


    July 13, 2012 at 2:55 am

  7. I think we’re missing a few important pieces to the debate about why you find higher SAT/GRE-scoring students in STEM programs: namely, differential admissions standards and self-selection as a response to those standards, and weed-out courses.

    In relation to the differential admissions, many institutions have given STEM departments the ability to increase the bar for admission. So not only is it a competitive game not only to get into the institution, but then into the desired department. Thus, higher SAT/GRE scores are required to be considered for one program, and not the other. This can lead to the obvious higher-scoring student average in some departments than others over time once the admissions has run its course for several years. Then, in response to this, many time students take themselves out the competition to enter these departments and may choose to go into another department without such a high standard for consideration of admission. Just as a side note, this doesn’t mean students cannot actually enter those departments. In many institutions, there are ways for students to transfer into one of these departments through “proving themselves” in non-major intro courses and prerequisite courses for the major. I’ve met several students over the years at my university who have somewhat went around the higher admissions standards to get into the desired departments once they were at the university. It’s not the norm, but it can happen…

    The other factor to consider is the weed-out course that is present in many STEM fields. If you get in and perform poorly in such courses, you can be taken out of the program, and this can many times improve the average SAT/GRE scores of such programs.

    Both of these factors have developed with the overall trends in higher education of institutions trying to increase the number of “highly-ranked” programs at an institution, to flaunt your low admissions rate, to attempt to raise the prestige by using specific admissions standards such as higher test scores for consideration, and the list goes on…all increasing the level of competition into and even within a college.


    July 13, 2012 at 3:36 am

  8. I think we’re conflating two separate phenomenon here.

    There has been, on the one hand, a huge influx of students into colleges who maybe shouldn’t be there and yes, in response, some disciplines, like sociology, have decreased academic standards in order to facilitate graduation. This is a tragedy, but is really a question of how American educational institutions/standards should operate.

    That social fact is distinct from the question that I believe you are trying to answer which is whether sociology students have less intellectual aptitude than their natural science peers on average. This comparison quickly breaks down if you for a moment consider the possibility that different forms of intellect exist.

    The humanities and social sciences demand a “generalism” that is distinct from the natural scientists. While both natural scientists and social scientists tend to specialize, great social scientists are still foxes. Put another way, I doubt Weber would have gotten a wonderful SAT score. A “stellar” natural science student who is very good at completing her problem set on time cannot be meaningfully compared to a social science student who produces a long paper, one that will likely demand some creativity, reflexivity, perhaps hours spent massaging interpersonal relationships and interviews, or pouring over archives, evaluating difficulty texts, or mastering foreign tongues. I simply cannot understand how you can think that these two types of intellectual could be meaningfully compared in any way.

    The humanities and social sciences are a very different beast. There is no meaningful way to test for the qualities of great social scientists (perhaps an intellectual curiosity measurement? A standardized test to evaluate how quickly you can conduct an ethnography or do a complete regression analysis? Maybe the AJS should decide publication by GRE scores in the future and be done with this bullshit qualitative peer review business.)


    July 13, 2012 at 5:07 am

  9. So, you have shown that people in standardized sciences where standardized abilities are required, to better on standardized tests….wow. I hope you do realize that you stated the ****** obvious.
    When an employeer is about to hire someone, he doesn’t just look at those standardized tests for a reason. Creativity, social skills etc are also important – try to standardize those!


    July 13, 2012 at 7:20 am

  10. @hillbillysociologists: let’s not forget about the fact that math-heavy departments tend to offer majors that are more marketable than humanities and social sciences in general (probably less so for most business majors except finance). Second, it is not that non-STEM departments don’t or can’t offer weed-out courses. Simply we can’t. Personally, I can easily offer a stats class that uses the standards I consider to be rigorous. But, let me tell you, I can’t (or the department can’t). If I do, then at least half of the students would fail and drop out of the program.

    @sosc122: I do not disagree with you that there are multiple dimensions of intellect, and I do appreciate a lot of humanity subjects and various forms of arts. But what fabio pointed out is a de facto statistic on an average level. In my classes, there are usually two kinds of majors, excellent (who really love sociology but unfortunately comprise the very small fraction) or horrible (most of them). It occurs to me that good students tend to be good at most subjects/things, and only a small proportion are kind of unbalanced (who happen to be really talented in some areas). Maybe there is a high correlation among different dimensions of intellect, isn’t there? But that’s my observation….


    July 13, 2012 at 10:33 am

  11. @Jon, I agree with the marketability of particular majors. This ties directly with the competition factor and ability to set different bars for admissions in departments now. I also agree that weed-out classes in non-STEM programs is a difficult aspect of a program to establish or keep up, but the organizational culture between two general groups of majors has developed in a way where those courses are difficult to establish in the social sciences and humanities. In terms of students failing and/or dropping out of the program if a rigorous stats course is required, I tutor stats for students who need it, and I have to remind them that many people can “get” stats in the social sciences, but many times its the teaching that is subpar…not the student’s abilities. (No knock towards you, of course, but there have been several instances over the years talking with students and colleagues at other places where it has come up that they feel the method of teaching stats to social science students is highly ineffective.)


    July 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm

  12. @hillbillysociologist: I agree with you that the teaching of stats classes in social science disciplines (especially sociology) are subpar (it would be more convincing if you could provide some data). There could be few possible causes (or more). One is teaching effectiveness, a second would be curricular design, and another is the preparedness on the students’ side. In economics and political science, most reputable programs have some kind of math boot camp. In sociology, it is usually taken in the third or even fourth year, and before that students usually had zero exposure to some basic college math. Sociology is a major that many undergraduates mistakenly perceive as one of those many subjects that won’t involve math so they can take shelter in. On one hand, you can say that we need to adapt our pedagogy to social science students. Conversely, our students just aren’t ready for rigorous science training, ASSUMING that we all agree sociology is a social science discipline. With what has happened in sociology for the past two decades or or, actually I doubt I would still insist that it is part of social SCIENCE.


    July 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm

  13. I’ve never understood how anyone can claim that “sociology has lost its rigor”. Read a journal article from ASR from the 1970s and read one from 2012. The gap in quality is enormous. Sociology has continually improved and employed more robust statistical techniques, better data, more refined theory, etc. and we have amassed an enormous body of knowledge.
    It’s interesting that no one has mentioned other substantive issues like socioeconomic status, parental background and the like that may cause individuals to select into certain disciplines.
    It’s also not surprising that social scientists might perform worse, on average, than engineers or physicists on standardized math tests. I do not know for sure but I believe that ethnography is extremely rare is physics and very few engineers use qualitative techniques in their research. Given that a non-trivial portion of social scientists do not use quantitative methods it is not surprising that on average social scientists do worse on standardized math tests.
    Granted, some social sciences (e.g. economics and demography) are purely quant.
    A more rigorous approach would be to separate the quantitative social scientists and compare their standardized math scores to “natural” science majors and engineers. There probably is a gap but it is likely much smaller if someone were to use this approach.
    After that we can do another test were we send an engineer and a sociologist to do an urban ethnography and compare the results………

    Silly Wabbit

    July 13, 2012 at 4:38 pm

  14. At many institutions, particular majors can elect to implement minimum GPA requirements for students in those fields that are higher than the minimum GPA requirements for the institution at large. There are many reasons why departments might choose not to implement such requirements, chief among them either a concern for recruiting and retaining students or a commitment to second chances that stems from a deep understanding of the complex dynamics of students’ lives outside of academia, either one coupled with the desire to avoid grade inflation and the pressures to award Bs when minimum GPA requirements are implemented. I would be interested to find out if those majors that Fabio perceives as harder are more likely to have minimum GPA requirements.

    Alternatively, we could look at intro courses. It is well-documented that many STEM fields have particularly difficult intro course sequences in part due to the specific desire to “weed out” weak students; upper-level courses may be comparatively easy. I would argue that many social sciences and humanities majors have exactly the opposite pattern–quite easy intro courses followed by coursework of increasing complexity as students develop the skills and capacities necessary for success.


    July 13, 2012 at 5:02 pm

  15. On a related note since mmlarthur brought this up, I would like to add that our intro classes (especially the way it is taught and our textbooks) need to be re-designed too. If I were a freshman and read both psychology and sociology intro textbooks today, I would probably choose psychology over sociology. Note that we are still stuck with functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and feminism, none of which seem THAT pertinent (again, I am not saying they are not, but based on the way they were written in our textbooks) to students’ lives. I would cry out for a textbook that has more interesting, useful stuff (e.g., social network analysis, sociobiology, life course perspective, etc.). DC’s You May Ask Yourself is going in that direction, but not quite there yet. People (students) have to drift away if 1) it is not useful (cannot help find jobs), 2) it is not interesting, and 3) it is more speculative than scientific. Maybe it is time for us to go back to the fundamentals to think about/re-establish the core theories/methodologies of our discipline. When a discipline is/contains everything, then it is maybe nothing.


    July 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm

  16. @Silly Wabbit, My point is: Sociology is advancing as a discipline. Today using SEM or HLM is not a feat in sociology like it did 20 years ago. But when other disciplines are making quantum leaps, we are mincing forward as followers.


    July 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm

  17. I admire Fabio’s commitment to provoke discussion on the blog, even if it means deploying measures he knows to be problematic. There are enough cautions about making too much of SATs and GREs above to relieve me of the obligation of making the same points. But about this academic rigor and sociology gap, well, there’s something to discuss.
    Here at big state research university, we have some extraordinarily committed and accomplished students completing Sociology majors. In my classes, however, I see another group of considerably less committed and less accomplished students who are able to post passing grades without reading books or putting much effort into papers and tests. We get many students in Sociology who start as engineering or biology majors and then shift. Sometimes, it’s because they realize that social science questions are more interesting. Sometimes, it’s because they realize that navigating a Sociology major doesn’t feature roadblocks like Organic Chemistry that require lots of work to get through. I’d venture that the grading curve in undergraduate soc. classes is much more attractive than the one employed in Introduction to Biology. Let’s not pretend that this isn’t the case. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with what goes on in graduate school or the pages of the American Sociological Review.
    What about institutional incentives? At my university, departments gain resources in different ways. Here are the three I understand: 1) national recognition of research and status on a public list; 2) large undergraduate enrollments; 3) extensive extra-mural funding, preferably with overhead. Depending upon discipline, the availability of these strategies varies.
    Carrying a segment of less motivated students through to degree becomes a service to the university and a benefit to the department.
    Is it good for the students?

    David S. Meyer

    July 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm

  18. David says it well. I’d agree that the main issue of whether or not undergraduate sociology is difficult, easy, useful, useless, etc., has more to do with attempts to gain resources than whether or not the field is rigorous, quantitatively innovative, etc.

    If we take David’s three types of resource strategies and compare sociology (and perhaps most social sciences) to the natural sciences, we can probably all agree that the natural sciences are able to get large amounts of external funding more readily. National recognition is trickier, but may tilt towards natural sciences given the lack of Nobel Prizes, etc., in social science fields. But undergraduate enrollments… sure natural science departments might have large basic, service courses, but this is the main strategy available to a social science department. Particularly for a sociology program.

    In my department, we’re always talking about ways to increase enrollments and majors. In fact, some of the debate about having a required undergraduate thesis revolves around this point. Sure, this may dumb down the undergraduate version of the discipline, but I doubt it dumbs down the graduate/professional version. There is a pipeline, but look around at your colleagues and ask how many majored in sociology. The answer is probably surprisingly few.


    July 13, 2012 at 6:10 pm

  19. Over here (in the UK) Sociology is completely devoid of maths. The net result of this IMO is a lack of serious innovation in quantitative research. It’s no wonder that most of the best quantitative sociology is being done by economists, computer scientists and even physicists nowadays.

    Sociology is losing out precisely because it fails to give students the mathematical tools to do serious quantitative research.

    Sociology is disproportionately anchored towards qualitative research or ‘theory’ over here, the balance must be redressed.


    July 14, 2012 at 11:51 pm

  20. We saw the new Spiderman movie and I sent my wife links about STEVE DITKO, including the Wikipedia biography: Following his discharge, Ditko learned that his idol, Batman artist Jerry Robinson, was teaching at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later the School of Visual Arts) in New York City. Moving there in 1950, he enrolled in the art school under the G.I. Bill. When Vannevar Bush begged for federal funding of “everything” he probably was not thinking of cartoonists or their employment opportunities. Yet, here and now, in Austin, Texas, web designers command what engineers are paid. Who saw that coming?

    Michael Marotta

    July 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm

  21. people that think that social sciences are for the dumb,are the ones who really are.,though the sciences may be more marketable,humans are far more difficult to study than scientists have not just reached the peak and maybe,have not received adequate support.the world needs all of them to forge ahead……….

    verse .i.

    September 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm

  22. i look forward to seeing more leonardo da vincis in the nearest future.people should study courses that they enjoy studying,and are good at,not minding what the world thinks of them,when people are excellent at something,they tend to be happy……everything has its season!!!!!!!!!!!

    verse .i.

    September 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm

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