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Apr. 21 2010 - 1:42 am | 508 views | 0 recommendations | 18 comments

Are math majors better at reading than English majors?

Well, math majors do have the highest Reading SAT scores of any major, according to this study Kevin Drum pointed to yesterday. And this really isn’t surprising. That’s because, of all the majors in the study, math is the most selective on cognitive ability. In other words, basically anyone who can get into college can major in “soft” subjects like English or…economics. (Heh. It’s true; look at the data. Also, philosophy majors have slightly higher Math SATs than economics majors.) But just to do the coursework in math or physics, you have to have extremely high SAT scores, in both math and reading. In the researchers’ terms, math and physics seem to have a “cognitive threshold”: even if you’re very hard-working, without high SAT scores, you can’t “achieve mastery”, i.e. maintain a GPA above 3.5 and have a shot at getting into grad school:

To reiterate, SATM ≈ 600 seems to be the lowest score at which even a very motivated student has a chance for mastery. From the data one might guess that only for SATM well above 700 do students have more than a 50 percent chance of obtaining GPA > 3.5. That is, a student with average motivation or conscientiousness probably needs SATM well above 700 to have a high probability of obtaining mastery.

We were unable to find any similar threshold (either in SATR or SATM ) in other majors, including economics, sociology, history, philosophy, biology, chemistry, etc.

It’s amusing to note that math majors have higher English SATs than English majors, but it’s kind of a linguistic trick. The point is that math is simply the most cognitively selective major. Math majors also have higher Math SATs than physics majors, which isn’t particularly predictable and doesn’t tell us anything obvious about math or physics as disciplines. This is basically all selection effect. If you’re wondering whether studying more math will get your kid to read better…well, that’s entirely possible, but it requires a different study.


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  1. collapse expand

    I’m here to tell you, econ majors can be dumb as dirt. But they sound smart on blogs, don’t they? I mean “heteroskedasticity?” “GDI?” Jump back!

  2. collapse expand

    Now that this site is getting spammed, I wonder if the comments are improved.

  3. collapse expand

    Doing word problems in math requires very careful reading to parse essential elements and extract data.
    Reading for English majors is not about data extraction.

    • collapse expand

      Allow me to append that comment by proposing that English majors read novels, novels, and short stories thematically, or for emotional or introspective purposes (somewhat synonymous with B.S.).

      Math majors read short paragraphs for informational purposes….standardized tests ask you to read short paragraphs for informational purposes.

      English majors are probably good at reading novels, but math majors are very good at reading test questions. One skill is far more valuable than the other if you are going to be measured by standardized test scores.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Selection effect, indeed. Most of the math-major types I spar with on line act astonished whenever I refer to a dictionary for a word definition–they seem to regard this as cheating. That gives you some clue as to their degree of friendliness, as a group, with words and word combinations (the stuff of reading, in my experience). They also lack linear tracking ability when it comes to following a sentence from first word to last, especially if there are clauses along the way.

    Math and engineering types are the most astonishing inept readers I’ve ever encountered, short of people who simply can’t read. Writing-wise, they tend to use “big” words for effect and blow a temple vein whenever one of their four-syllable adjectives turns out to be mean something else.

    I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, but they seem to walk softly in cyberspace.

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    I've reported from Vietnam since 2003. I'm now the Hanoi correspondent for the German-based, English-language wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was previously a Hanoi-based stringer for the Boston Globe and for Voice of America. Before that I reported from West Africa, and before that from the Netherlands; my articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times. I've got a thing for languages, and have picked up Russian, French, Dutch and Vietnamese. I used to write scripts for the children's cartoon shows "Arthur", "Doug", and a few others. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications back when most people had never sent an email. In April 1991 I predicted the USSR would collapse into its constituent republics and that Boris Yeltsin would become president of Russia. Since then most of my predictions have been rather less accurate, so it was probably a fluke.

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