[IMPORTANT UPDATE: Just How Smart are Philosophy Graduate Students]
I’ve come across some archived posts by Half Sigma concerning Obama’s intelligence. See here, here, here, and here. These posts have me thinking about the intelligence of undergraduates in various disciplines, including philosophy, the sciences, and law. I’m going to first talk about philosophy and the sciences, leaving law to a future post. I should be upfront that I was a philosophy undergrad and I have a vested interest; but I aim to be as unbiased as possible.
Few of us that have had dealings with analytic philosophers in universities would say that philosophers are dim-witted; indeed, most will agree on the fact that professional, analytic philosophers are bright, regardless of the wacky views that some appear to propound. Yet, I’m interested in any quantified evidence of their smarts relative to other disciplines. It would be wonderful if we could round up the ivy-league universities and have the philosophy, mathematics, physics, economics, law, and medicine departments take a high-range IQ test. We could then simply look at the data. However, nothing to my knowledge has been done. So we must look elsewhere.
We do have a decent amount of evidence of the intelligence of undergraduate majors: from the GRE and LSAT. I shall argue that (undergraduate) philosophers are among the brightest; they approximately match the intelligence of those typically thought to be the elite—mathematics and physics undergraduates.
Let’s take each standardized test in turn beginning with the GRE. I shall only focus on the GRE that existed from May, 1994 to September, 2001. It had three sections that tested verbal, mathematical, and reasoning ability. This GRE is a good approximation of intelligence because of its g loading. In fact, Mensa accepted this GRE as qualification for entrance into their program; you need a total score of 1875 to be admitted (each section is scored out of a possible 800). The new version with the analytical writing section isn’t accepted, which suggests that Mensa found, like the newer (post 1995) SAT, the test to not correlate well with other IQ tests.
Thus, the older GRE is the best one to use in score comparison. ETS, the creators of the test, found that this version quantified three real abilities, which made it superior to its previous two-ability version (it tested only verbal and mathematical ability). See here for details.
Let us, therefore, look at how undergraduate philosophers did on the GRE. I found a chart here. They did well but not well enough. Physics majors came first with an 1899 total; Mathematics majors came second with an 1877 total. Economics majors did well coming in fourth with an 1857 total; but philosophy majors came in ninth with an 1803 total.
Yet, I have the hunch that the GRE score total shouldn’t be used in assessing who’s smartest, because the mathematical ability section is a poor indicator of real intelligence or intellectual ability. It turns out that my hunch isn’t so far off the mark. General intelligence manifests itself through lower-stratum abilities depending on what one’s intelligence is being applied to. See here for more details. We have fluid, crystalized, and other manifestations of general intelligence; we also have an even lower-stratum of abilities such as verbal, mathematical, and reasoning. For example, g could manifest itself through the context of a large body of knowledge. So we want to assess a person’s crystalized intelligence in this context. But to assess a person’s crystalized intelligence, we might want to assess their verbal, mathematical, and reasoning abilities. Yet, it turns out that some abilities have greater g-loading than others. Grady M. Towers explains:
All seven factors correlate highly with the general factor, but some correlate more highly than others. The two with the highest g loadings are the verbal and reasoning factors. Psychometricians sometimes make use of this by constructing their tests from verbal and reasoning items to the exclusion of other types of items. This can both shorten and improve a test. Those tests that load highly on the verbal factor are said to be culture loaded, and those that make use of reasoning items to the exclusion of verbal items are said to be culture reduced. (This is an oversimplification, but will have to do for now. ) The Concept Mastery Test is a good example of a highly verbal, culture loaded test, and the Raven Progressive Matrices is a good example of a culture reduced test that loads highly on the reasoning factor alone. A test like the Cattell III, which Mensa uses as an entrance examination, is almost evenly divided between these two kinds of factors.
He speaks about factors where I am speaking about abilities. I’m doing some fudging here, but clarifying the differences between “factors” and “abilities” involves discussing different stratum-theories of intelligence such as the the Cattell-Horn-Carroll CHC theory and its competitors. However, the general point that Towers makes, which I shall now utilize, doesn’t depend on the minutiae of the g-stratum theories debate. The point is that the verbal and analytical reasoning GRE sections have much greater g-loading than the mathematical ability section. Indeed, Towers goes on to say:
The only really successful efforts to make use of part scores appear to be in the SAT and the GRE, where both a verbal and a quantitative score are given. The quantitative score was thought to be a better predictor in the physical sciences and engineering, and the verbal score to be a better predictor in the arts and humanities. The latest evidence tends to show that this is an oversimplification. The current findings indicate that quantitative ability is a good indicator of choice of field, but that verbal ability is a better predictor of grades, even in highly mathematical subjects.
So we should really be focusing on the verbal GRE section in assessing who’s smartest. We should also include the reasoning GRE section since it is highly g-loaded, and furthermore, the math-heavy disciplines do just a well as in the mathematical ability section. (I should stop here before moving on to quickly note that commenters, Tim and Chevo, from this post explain that the means and standard deviations on the individual sections are very different in the GRE. The verbal ability section has a much lower average and smaller deviation than the mathematical section. Taking this into account will alter the score placements.)
Let’s combine the verbal and reasoning scores from the above chart. Physics majors have a total of 1180; Math majors have a total of 1163; Economics majors have a total of 1159; computer science majors have a total of 1150; however, philosophy majors have a total of 1206, which places them first among the brightest.
Now, one could rejoin by pointing out that the verbal section, though it is highly g-loaded, will hide a score depression regarding international students (e.g., Asians) who only have a working knowledge of English; and physics, mathematics, economics, and other math-heavy disciplines have a sizable proportion of internationals. Thus, the rejoinder will be that if we take this hidden score depression into account, then we will find that the math-heavy disciplines will surpass philosophy majors in smarts.
Is there data available that takes the hidden score depression into account? Not that I know of for the GRE, but we do have data for a very similar standardized test: the LSAT. The LSAT, for all intensive purposes, is a lengthier combination of the verbal and reasoning GRE sections. It has the analogies, reading comprehension, and the other wonderful bits from the verbal GRE section; and it has the exact same type of analytical, reasoning questions from the reasoning GRE section. I think that the LSAT is superior to the GRE for evaluating the smarts of philosophy majors relative to physics and mathematics majors, simply for the following reason: it’s reasonable to believe that the LSAT is self-selective for those physics and mathematics majors that are strong with the English language. So we don’t need to worry about a hidden score depression because internationals that only have a working knowledge of English will simply not bother with law school and the LSAT. Instead, they will go on to math-heavy graduate program. Those physics and mathematics majors that are strong in English have the same talent as the internationals (these disciplines are generally self-selective, only the strong survive), but might pursue Law for other reasons.
An economist actually has data concerning the average LSAT scores for 29 undergraduate majors, including physics, math, economics, and philosophy. Physics and mathematics are combined (there are few of these majors that have the desire to go into law school) for a first place average of 157.6 (the LSAT is scored out of a possible 180; the average score is roughly 150). Philosophy and religion are combined (I don’t know why) for a second place average of 156. Economics comes third with 155.3 average. The standard deviation for the LSAT is roughly 10, so these majors all average half a standard deviation above the mean.
Judging from the previous chart on GRE scores, philosophy majors frankly outclass theology/religion majors in both the verbal and reasoning sections. This tells me that if we separated the philosophy majors from the religion majors for the LSAT average, then we would find that philosophy majors match the physics/math average, or at least come very close to it. Furthermore, by sheer numbers of test takers, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a large number of philosopher majors that match the number of the best and brightest physics and mathematics majors.
I’m open to any thoughts about this, certainly if there is data that confirms or denies what I have argued for in this post.