If you have glimpsed social scientists alone in their offices with hands clasped in prayer, you might have assumed that they were fearing Armageddon for their discipline in an era of high tuition fees.
But, according to a new paper, the real explanation may be that social scientists are of “lower average intelligence” than their scientific colleagues – at least at elite universities.
“Intelligence and religious and political differences among members of the US academic elite”, published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, draws primarily on a 1967 study of 148 male academics at the University of Cambridge to demonstrate that the scientists at top institutions are more intelligent than the social scientists.
It then cites a 2007 study of academic religiosity at top US universities as evidence of the greater godliness of social scientists.
The difference is statistically significant only for physics and political science. But the paper’s co-author, Edward Dutton, adjunct professor (docent) in anthropology at the University of Oulu in Finland, said that the smaller differences between other subjects “went the same way”, while physics’ high mathematical content made it “the most scientific of the sciences”.
The paper also argues that scientists’ higher intelligence accounts for their political moderation. In a 2005 survey of 1,643 US academics, larger proportions of physicists and engineers than social scientists described themselves as moderate – although smaller proportions of biology, maths and chemistry academics did so.
The paper’s other co-author, Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, has previously published controversial studies linking intelligence differences to race and sex. In 2008 he argued that scholars’ lower religiosity compared with the general public was explained by their greater intelligence.
Robert Dingwall, a freelance sociologist, criticised the latest paper’s use of “a hodge-podge of studies” to find “some weak correlations”.
He said: “I may be mainly a qualitative social scientist, but even I know enough to question an unsystematic review that does not consider the difference between statistical significance and scientific significance.”
Dr Dutton admitted that a “niggle” of doubt remained, which required replication with a larger sample to eliminate. However, many data problems that he had anticipated “didn’t seem to be that problematic” when the paper was peer-reviewed.
He said that he could imagine some academics saying the paper is “specious and doesn’t make any sense”. But, he added, “you really need [a month] to consider it”.