Physicists vs. biologists - cognitive smackdown

Alex and PZ point me to this quote from one John Barrow:

When Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins challenged physicist John Barrow on his formulation of the constants of nature at last summer's Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship lectures, Barrow laughed and said, "You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you're not really a scientist. You're a biologist."

Ouch!!! Many physical scientists look down on life scientists. I had a friend, who shall remain nameless (who knows his own name) who was habitually contemptuous of the likes of life scientists. I was only a righteous pagan, besmirching my program of study in chemistry with that dreaded adjective, bio. Ah, how things change. Just a few months ago I was on Boston at a party stocked with the best and the brightest from the science departments of Cambridge's two top universities (the hostess even worked in a lab on Alex's side of the river from what I recall). My friend from my undergrad days was my chaperone, and he reintroduced me to vague acquaintances from years ago. It was a couple, a woman who was finishing up her grad work in biochemistry and a man who was a physical chemist. The woman was mentioning how everyone from her lab was being snapped up by Boston Consulting and what not, and the man jokingly sneered, "Ah, if you put bio in front your title are hot all of a sudden." This, from an individual who works in the laboratory of a recent Nobel winner! (he has a nice postdoc in the wings, don't cry for him)

My point is that one might sneer at biology, but it is the hot field of our century, it is arguably the new Queen of Sciences. We all know of the prestige attached to molecular biologists and all their sundry subdomains, biophysics, biochemistry, molecular genetics, etc. I would argue that the rise of genomics and yes, in silico methodologies, is going to revolutionize evolutionary biology, as the bedrock upon with theory and prediction are built upon becomes progressively firmer.

But why are biologists still so dumb?

Let me explain.

Here are the GRE scores for test takers by intended graduate field of study (source):

Verbal Mean:

Biological Sciences - 491

Chemistry - 487

Mathematical Sciences - 502

Physics & Astronomy - 534

Engineering - 467

Quantitative Mean:

Biological Sciences - 632

Chemistry - 682

Mathematical Sciences - 733

Physics & Astronomy - 738

Engineering - 720

Writing:

Biological Sciences - 4.4

Chemistry - 4.4

Mathematical Sciences - 4.4

Physics & Astronomy - 4.5

Engineering - 4.2

So there you have it. Not only do people intending to study physics give biology folks a smackdown quantitatively, they ream them one verbally too. And, they aren't subpar writers, at least in comparison with other fields (at 5.1 Philosophy has the highest writing score, with English at 4.9 right behind).

But there's more. These are people who intend to pursue a course of study, and biology is hot, you would assume more people who force their way into this field, which might make it less selective (eg., only those with a real passion might pursue physics, not because they want to impress their future interviewer for McKinsey).

So look at this table:



















































 Verb > 700 Quant > 700Writing 5.5 & 6NN Verb > 700 N Quant > 700N Writing 5.5 & 6
 
Biological Sciences3.1%32.5%16.5% 2091564867973451
Chemistry 3.3%52.7%16.5%43011422267 710
Mathematial Sciences5.6%76.6%18.6% 44682503422831
Physics and Astronomy 6.9%78.7%22.5%35922482827 808
 
Engineering2.8% 70.8%12.8%28577800202333658

As you see, the distribution is what you'd expect, a far higher % of physics people lay above the 700 threshold than biology people (actually, the overall verbal mean is rather low, so I should rescale it, but it doesn't really add much to my point so I won't bother). But look at the number of people going into each field, even though few of those intending to pursue biology proportionally make it above the cut off, there are so many biologists that in absolute numbers they still outnumber the physicists at the high ends.

Biology is a big field. Two of the population biologists who invented 20th century theoretical genetics, R.A. Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane were trained in mathematics, not biology (Sewall Wright was trained as a biologist, he picked up his mathematics later). Eminences of the field like Robert MacArthur and Richard Lewontin (M.S. Mathematical Statistics) are often very quantitatvely adept. It's a big pool out there, and there are all sorts. If you took the average IQ of a physicist vs. biologist (yes, for those who care, I think standardized tests do measure something important) I would still bet on the physicists...but, there are so many biologists out there today that there may simply be more high IQ biologists running around than high IQ physicists in absolute numbers (for a scientist, I assume high IQ would be north of 145, 3 standard deviations above the norm).

But back to the original quote which prompted this post. Are biologists just idiotic atheists who can't see the forest from the trees? They might be, but here are some numbers....

Prominent American Natural Scientists - N.A.S. members (1998, sample size ~ 250) and "eminent" scientists in 1914 & 1933
Source

Believe in personal God?
Discipline Yes No Not sure  
Physics 7.50% 79.0%    
Biology 5.50% 65.2%    

From a broader survey in 1996

The 1996 survey showed that scientists in mathematics are most inclined to hold belief in God (44.6 percent). While biologists showed the highest rates of disbelief/doubt in Leuba's day (69.5 percent), that ranking was given to physicists and astronomers this time around (77.9 percent).

So, I would hold that physicists are on average smarter than biologists, but, since there are more biologists than physicists there are still more smart biologists above any given cognitive threshold than smart physicists, while in both cases they aren't the most God-believing folk in any case so the dismissal of Dawkins as a unsophisticated biologist was neither here nor there since sophisticates seem to hold the same opinion as the unsophisticates by and large (it doesn't matter which tribe are the kings of the hill, they survey the same general landscape).

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I consider that physicists go too fundamental and revert back to biological applications.they mimic bio;ogical species.The recen OLED blubs or sheets are bio generated light with chemiluminisent chemicals organic molecules.

Even flights are mimicked.

Olypmpic runners eat the bee excreta to run faster.

Many medicines are made from organis waste of plants and animals as they are very good chromatogaphic filter systems.

Now they talk of nano. The very behaviour of replication is fundamentally selfish survival.If you say an articficial word like valency they understand.But such natural words like silfish affinity etc they cannot fathom.
Instrumentation can be intergrated with organic cells.Cn the physicists explain this bio-electicity and other phenomena.
There is more theory in physics than natural thought.And the direction is allied to biology.Still superiority is claimed.
I am a chemist I don't know what selfishness makes the plants to grow in conditions.

By V.Rajagopalan (not verified) on 13 Apr 2006 #permalink

I was only a righteous pagan, besmirching my program of study in chemistry with that dreaded adjective, bio.

Ooooh, now that's wincewothy. Likewise, I am contaiminated. The "bio-" prefix frequently tosses me into the biologist bin, a classification to which I take self-important umbrage. I reply with a slight sneer to the would be taxonomist, "I'm not a biologist. I am a biochemist." Still, who am I kidding? Many of my chemistry colleagues, upon first encountering me, gleefully slap on the biologist label. One chemist was amazed that I understood structure-activity relationships and organic synthesis & physical organic chem so well. Sigh.

I often quote one of the old guys on my thesis committee: "Biochemistry is three parts bio- and nine parts -chemistry." Don't ask me how he came up with base 12 for his formulation.

"I often quote one of the old guys on my thesis committee: "Biochemistry is three parts bio- and nine parts -chemistry." Don't ask me how he came up with base 12 for his formulation."

Well, assuming you're serious about coming up with the "base 12" bit, it would be because biochemistry has twelve letters in it. I'm sure we've all had worse "Argh, I'm dumb" moments.

By Mark Cook (not verified) on 14 Apr 2006 #permalink

You missed one point from your stats - compared to scientists, engineers are dumb as bricks.

By Urinated State… (not verified) on 14 Apr 2006 #permalink

I'm sure we've all had worse "Argh, I'm dumb" moments.

Although I wasn't serious regarding base 12, I am having an "Arrgggh, I'm going to ram a sharpened number 2 pencil in my ear" urge for the egregious stupidity.

"Biochemistry is three parts bio- and nine parts -chemistry."

For me, it was "A biophysicist is a biologist who can fix the equipment."

Seems to be true, actually.

I remember Per Bak was once giving an introductory comment at a conference on large-scale extinction events. Per was a great guy, but tended towards provocative statements. His point regarding the physicists' invasion of evolutionary biology (one he spearheaded, back then) was premised on, "Well, we're trained to deal with multi-body problems!"

I write this as a biologist who has moved on to become an engineer. Or who was an engineer all along.

Next I expect I will become a social scientist.

Eventually, I will be well-prepared for senility....

(also posted to Pharyngula; so sue me)
Damn, late to the party. So the Winner of the Templeton Prize was just kidding (he's a kidder; those physical constants and all)...but a Biologists vs. Physicists pissing contest? Must join that fray.
The physicist shows up armed (heh) with equations that will accurately predict pissing distance given the pressure gradient (P-sub-bladder minus P-sub-atmospheric), cross-sectional urethral radius, and angle of urethral inclination.
The biologist arrives with all that physical knowledge integrated with all of the properties that emerge at higher organizational levels: biochemistry, yes, but then detailed understanding of smooth-muscle cell function (actin/myosin interactions; regulatory phosphorylation of myosin light chains, stretch activation etc.), smooth-muscle tissue function (single-unit potential propagation through gap junctions, etc.), bladder function at the organ level (sphincter function, force production and mechanical constraints), physiological features of the rest of the urinary system (urethral smooth muscle, urine production by the kidney), integration with other organ systems at the organismal level (endocrine control of kidney function, autonomic nervous control of bladder function, voluntary skeletal muscle control of abdominal pressure, water absorption by the digestive system and delivery by the cardiovascular system, effects of diuretics, etc. etc.) PLUS the ultimate emergent property of organisms: behavior, and a taste for beer.
My money's on the biologist. Of course, I are one.

It's all about levels of analysis. In the scientific study of life, physicists can only inform about the very tiniest levels of the organizational hierarchy. Next biochemistry, on up the various levels of physiology detailed above, then ecology. As George Bartholomew taught, Phenomena at each level of the hierarchy find their causal explanations in lower levels (i.e. reductionism), and their significance in higher levels (holism and emergence).

-Captain Comparative Physiology

I'm a physicist. Engineers have told me that I would be a good engineer, but no biologist has ever told me that I would have been a good biologist. So what does that mean?

By Bob Hawkins (not verified) on 14 Apr 2006 #permalink

There's lots of money in biology. Think pharmacuticals. That's what hot means nowadays I suspect.

On the other hand, some of the very best biologists were trained as physicists. Crick comes to mind. Then there was Shroedingers uncanny guess about the structure of the genetic material, whatever it turned out to be, published in the 1930's (?): "an aperiodic crystal"

Sorry Razib, but I'm calling you on the "any given cognitive threshold" bit. It looks like there's an ~.5 SD spread between the two groups. Within high but humanly achievable levels of 'g' physicists should predominate. Quant thresholds of 700 just aren't high enough.
It's rather easy to list a dozen physicists who simply seem to have been smarter than any biologist, and the best biologists are shockingly frequently from physics.

By michael vassar (not verified) on 14 Apr 2006 #permalink

Sorry Razib, but I'm calling you on the "any given cognitive threshold" bit. It looks like there's an ~.5 SD spread between the two groups. Within high but humanly achievable levels of 'g' physicists should predominate. Quant thresholds of 700 just aren't high enough.

you are right :)

one might sneer at biology, but it is the hot field of our century

i think trained mathemticians like me get seduced by the robust elegant pragmatism of biology. Social network theory, genetic algorithms, evolutionary games theory-- that stuff is seductive because it works,
And look at Susskind's Landscape, where evolution and natural selection postulate an explanation for physics, the geometry of infinite universes. ;)

By matoko_ifriitah (not verified) on 15 Apr 2006 #permalink

The conclusion I draw is that Math, Physics, and Astronomy programs teach standardized test taking skills much better than Biology and Engineering programs. There a particular strategy for taking the GRE which is not necessarily a good indicator of either intelligence or creativity. I wouldn't gloat about GRE scores without a thorough understanding of what they measure. Although I will comment that students in the sciences and engineering should beef up their verbal skills. I mean, verbal scores which are 200 points lower than quantitative scores? Sheesh.

By Frumious B. (not verified) on 16 Apr 2006 #permalink

I mean, verbal scores which are 200 points lower than quantitative scores?

don't look at the raw scores, they don't instrinsically mean anything. the humanities ppl don't have scores that much higher.

I'm going to call bullshit on this analysis. 1) Does anyone here buy that physicists are generally more verbally adept than biologists (anyone who has spoken with one of each, I mean). 2) The numbers you cite are for people who INTEND to go into Biology v. INTEND to go into Physics. This is completely, utterly, fatuously irrelevant. What matters is the numbers for people who DO go into Biology v. those who DO go into Physics. In order to make the relevant comparison, you need to longitudinally study people who earn MS or PhD degrees in the respective fields.

I have no doubt that the average quant score for physicists is higher, because their training in college (i.e. lots of math) has them well suited to take a math test (even one on comparatively rudimentary math). I suspect the verbals will even out among the achievers relative to the intenders.

However, all that said, one of my biggest problems with training in Biology is the lack of math in many programs, and the math phobia and discomfort at all levels in Biology, up to and including professors at prestigious schools. Given how useful math skills are in modern biology, it is a real and pertinent issue. This post of yours is about 15 days late, though!

By Paul Orwin (not verified) on 16 Apr 2006 #permalink

This is completely, utterly, fatuously irrelevant.

no, i don't think so. the general thrust of your point is correct, there's a reason i italicized intended.

I know you did that, but I can't see a justification for presenting the data. In other words, so what? Aside from proving that lots of people who do worse on these tests want to go into biology, you haven't shown anything about anything.

By paul orwin (not verified) on 16 Apr 2006 #permalink

Aside from proving that lots of people who do worse on these tests want to go into biology, you haven't shown anything about anything.

i thought about looking at the # of biology grad students vs. physics grad students, but i don't have the time right now. mebee later.

The "intended" vs. "actual" course of study is, I think, an important distinction that can't be overemphasized. I was a graduate student and biology TA at a state university that typically had 600 undergraduate biology majors at any given time (far more than in chemistry or physics). Only a fraction of these students would go on to advanced work in biology or medicine.

I suspect there's some "biophilia" at work in most humans; I think a lot of frosh choose a biology major because they associate biology with cute animals and very little math. (I saw a few such worldviews crumble when challenged with the Hardy-Weinberg equation, the t-test, and a comparative invertebrate anatomy lab.) If anything, that expectation that biology was going to be "easier" than physics is likely to be cultural. (Quick show of hands: How many people here were decent or better at math, and still kept being told by other people how "hard" math was?)

It might be interesting to compare standardized test scores of Ph.D.s from across all scientific disciplines. Then again, that might just tell you that the people most inclined towards mathematics tend to take a more theoretical approach to their subjects, biological sciences included.

(Tozier again: I was an engineering major and became a biologist. A conservation law at work, perhaps?) :-)

I saw a few such worldviews crumble when challenged with the Hardy-Weinberg equation

The Hardy-Weinberg equation was a challenge?!?

I took the GREs some time ago, and I don't recall there being a section on the life sciences. I wonder how well the typical physicist/mathematician/engineer would do in such a section?

don't look at the raw scores, they don't instrinsically mean anything.

You seem to have thought they meant something when they showed that potential physicists do better than potential biologists.

the humanities ppl don't have scores that much higher.

Data, please.

There may be a gender factor at work in the score differential between potential biologists and potential physicists. There is a much higher percentage of women in biology than in physics, so there is probably a higher female:male ratio among the test takers expressing an intention to go into biology. Women do not perform as well as men do on standardized tests such as the GRE (source: http://www.aps.org/apsnews/0796/11538.cfm).

By frumious b (not verified) on 19 Apr 2006 #permalink

the humanities ppl don't have scores that much higher.

asshole, follow the links. i don't tolerate presumptuous laziness.

Gracious. Do you call all your reviewers assholes? The burden of proof is on the claimant. It's not up to me to research your claims.

By frumious b (not verified) on 20 Apr 2006 #permalink

Gracious. Do you call all your reviewers assholes? The burden of proof is on the claimant. It's not up to me to research your claims.

the lazy ones, yeah. there is no burden on me, you don't pay to read this weblog. you get what you pay for, i don't take critiques from people too lazy to follow the links that i provided dipshit. i'm not here to convince anyone. in any case, i'm not making an complex analytic claim, i'm making a pure factual one easily confirmable by clicking the source i offered (ETS). if you were interested in the topic as opposed to offering a snarky critique you would have followed the link and seen the data for yourself.

so yeah, that's how things are run around here, unless you want to pay me by the hour i'm not your one-man-fact-checking squad when i provide links that can confirm my empirical assertions. don't let the door hit you on your way out.

One of the reasons for the "sneer" as you put it could be that there could somehow be a false perception that "scientists" need to be doing numbers and figuring out complex formulae...life science students, I guess, try to solve problems that are far more complex sometimes than the pure engineering sciences, but well, that's how life is...

It might be a good idea to get some of those "real scientists" to work on a few tough problems in life sciences, and then perhaps we can have a hearty laugh!

Vic, Plant Oils A-Z

A lot of physicists I know are unable to comunicate their ideas to "normal" individuals. They tend to seperate themselves from society, only talking to other individuals they deem "worthy" of communicating with them, and cannot partake in anything other than an "intellectual" conversation.

Honestly, all the sciences are important. Yes, the world certainly needs the math geniuses who tend to major in physics related subjects, whether it be pure science or engineering; however, I do find it much more interesting to talk to a chemist or biologist. Personality wise, biologists tend to be more emotionally inclined, probably due to the fact that many of them understand the connections between the different systems of the body and man's interaction with nature and other animals. They tend to be willing to SHARE their ideas because they want to share their opinions and findings with the world. It really depends who you are. I personally enjoy hanging around with people who can hold a decent conversation that doesn't involve finding the limit of my patience as x approaches me snapping on them.

As far as religion goes, in general, most intellectuals don't simply accept what they cannot see. Me, and many of the biologists I know, don't necessary follow an organized religion, but a great deal of biologists do believe that there is some sort of force (some may call that force God, others many seperate that force into multiple gods, others call it Buddha, and some others call it the flying spaghetti monster).

Anyway, I do believe your opinion is quite biased, but you have a right to that opinion as I have a right to mine.