Home / General / An iterative algorithm is implemented to make this say what we all know to be true.

An iterative algorithm is implemented to make this say what we all know to be true.


According to the always reliable John J. Miller, “[a] study says that black students take easier courses than white students at Duke University.” He offers the following as his pull-quote:

Although black and white students enter college with similar academic interests, 68 percent of black students eventually chose to study humanities and social sciences. According to the study, this is because “natural science, engineering, and economics courses are more difficult, associated with higher study times, and are more harshly graded than their humanities and social science counterparts.”

The pull-quote is fairly incendiary, I admit, but not nearly as offensive as Miller’s summary of the study with its implication of genteel agreement. Miller’s sentence suggests that this study informs his audience of what it already knows, i.e. that their prejudices are informed by science. But the real problem with Miller’s post is right there in the citation from the study: “natural science, engineering, and economics courses are more difficult … than their humanities and social science counterparts.”

I know what you’re thinking: “But Scott, isn’t economics a social science?” It is. But it occupies its own special space next to the hard sciences because it does. Two of the study’s authors (Peter Arcidiacono and Esteban Aucejo) are economists, but the other (Ken Spenner) is a sociologist. Which means that if the special dispensation of economics is revoked, all three of the authors of this study are as dumb as black students.

Such is the logic of Miller’s implied argument.

But that’s not the logic he intended to use. He wanted to wink at Charles Murray and nudge his fellow-travelers. Miller certainly didn’t want people reading the actual study, either, which indicates that there’s another group of students just as dumb as the black ones:

Legacies at Duke start out behind their white non-legacy counterparts (though not as far back as blacks) with 65% of the gap removed by the end of the senior year. Similar major-switching patterns occur for legacies as well, with large shifts away from the natural sciences, engineering, and economics towards humanities and social sciences. The divergent grading standards across courses legacies and blacks take, coupled with the tighter variances on the grade distributions of upper year courses, accounts for their catch up to their white non-legacy counterparts.

I wonder why Miller didn’t include that in his pithy remark about black students? It’s almost as if the claim “a study says that black students and most of my colleagues at the National Review take easier courses than white students at Duke University” wouldn’t have been well-received at the National Review.

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  • Linnaeus

    I happen to know that Miller didn’t major in natural science or engineering when he was in college.

  • Dirk Gently

    Gotta love the unbelievable ignorance/arrogance in assuming social sciences and humanities are “easier.” They are different and require different skills–including a level of writing and reading comprehension that (and this is from personal experience) many of the natural science and economics folks simply do not possess.

    I will concede, though, that typically social sciences and humanities grades are easier to get–precisely because of their debasement by folks like these, there is tremendous pressure not to fail kids out of “unimportant” classes, especially if they take them as electives.

    Still, I’m awfully curious what the authors’ colleagues have to say to them about this study.

    • SEK

      As someone who teaches predominantly hard science majors, I can attest to this. The classes may be easier to well-read folks like Miller, but to an engineering major, I teach one of the most difficult courses on campus.

      • DrDick

        My father, the engineer, used to routinely complain about how poorly read and unable to write his colleagues were.

        • DocAmazing

          I possibly cannot understand, where this false impression, you got it from, at.

        • Bill Murray

          It is certainly true that many engineers prefer to tinker rather than read. I assume they all could write, although many do not write well. Having to break things down so that a Duke legacy business major can understand does destroy one’s greater ambitions

    • Joshua

      I’m not a genius, but I got my degree in math and took as many high-level social science/humanities classes as I could fit into my schedule. I just liked the courses (I knew a lot of people on my side of campus who didn’t).

      Yea, they were easier. A lot easier. There’s nothing wrong with the classes, though, or the people taking them. Maybe my brain is just wired that way. I don’t know.

    • DrDick

      I routinely give Cs to or even flunk physical science students in my intro level anthropology classes. It is a very different way of understanding the world and a very different subject matter than they are used to.

      • Njorl

        It took me a long time to process “worldview” into something other than “they believe wrong things”. I think I would have done much better in my anthropology class if I had taken it about 6 years after graduating, despite not learning any anthropology in the interim.

    • Warren Terra

      Without wanting to appear to support this nincompoop, while I would never say that the social sciences and humanities are “easier” than the “hard sciences”, I would suggest that the humanities classes are often easier, or at least easier to pass – because it is my impression that at least any large college contains a significant proportion of bad or lazy students who just want to graduate with a degree of some sort, and by consensus the humanities seem to be the ones left to deal with them. I know for example from friends and family of the tremendous scholarship, instruction, and resources within English Literature at the university I attended; I also know from personal experience that the mid-level Literature classes I took (though not the mid-level history classes I took) were chock full of the most regrettable sort of seat-filler in a way that my mid-level “hard sciences” classes were not.

      • SEK

        I know for example from friends and family of the tremendous scholarship, instruction, and resources within English Literature at the university I attended; I also know from personal experience that the mid-level Literature classes I took (though not the mid-level history classes I took) were chock full of the most regrettable sort of seat-filler in a way that my mid-level “hard sciences” classes were not.

        That’s a difficult thing to judge. The most difficult classes I took — and I say this as someone who studied Latin, Linguistics and Geology, as well as took some Statistics courses because he’s a baseball dork — were all in the English department, and they were difficult because pleasing an English professor whose default assumption is that his or her students are illiterate ain’t easy. (The next most difficult class was on generative grammar, but that was difficult for all sorts of different reasons relating to that-not-being-how-the-brain-was-meant-to-interact-with-language.)

        • Njorl

          The most difficult course I ever took was linear algebra, but that was primarily because of the powerful soporific effects. An observer could have mistaken it for a class in comparitive coffee and cola tasting.

      • Njorl

        There’s probably a lot to that. I also think something less nefarious is at work.

        There should be easy courses available, predominantly in the humanities. I was a physics major, but I wanted to take classes in literature and history. I enjoyed them, but I did not want to put the same effort into them as I put into my core curriculum. I don’t think there is as much traffic in the other direction. Accessible science and math courses will just not be as popular as accessible humanities courses.

        I think that reflects cultural expectations. When we think of an educated person, we think of someone who recognizes a Shakespeare quote when he hears it, rather than someone who can explain why the sky is blue.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    Miller’s sentence suggests that this study informs his audience of what it already knows, i.e. that their prejudices are informed by science.

    Which prejudices would that be — lazy blacks or dumb blacks? It’s not clear from what you cite, and I’ll be damned if I’m getting out of the boat.

    • SEK

      You could always play it safe and assume both.

  • Andrew R.

    For a short piece, it’s an impressive twofer: Black people are stupid and lazy and the humanities are basically worthless! It’s everything the right holds to in a compact and rancid package.

    • mark f

      It’s amazing how the two propositions prove each other too!

    • Linnaeus

      Interestingly, many of the leading conservative intellectuals back in the 1950s and 1960s were ardent defenders of humanistic studies and tended to identify science, engineering and social sciences with liberalism and socialism.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Leo Strauss and his students, for example.

        I love how today’s wingnut higher ed reformers still evoke the ghost of Allan Bloom while arguing for market-based “solutions” to campus problems that deprecate the humanities and treat students as customers who are always right.

        Say what you will about Allan Bloom (and I’m no great fan), but this is not what he had in mind.

      • Hogan

        Yes, but humanistic studies in those days were REAL humanistic studies–dead white males as far as the eye could see. Now they just teach fluff like Zora Neale Hurston and Derek Walcott with the hiphop and the pants hanging down and the [foam at the mouth, fall over backwards]

      • nonunique

        As I understand the current conservative fixation, engineering and pharmacy is good. Scienticians are evil, though.

        • commie atheist

          Yes, like the so-called “sciences” of evolution and climate change, which everyone knows are just evidence-free fraudulent boondoggles pushed by anti-religion bigots who just want to get paid millions to do pseudo-scientific research.

          • asdfsdf

            And physics, too. I mean, what do physicists do, really? They think the world is made of twine. I read it in an email! And don’t get me started on this relativity stuff. Can’t trust it, all tied up with moral relativity and atheism.

    • Spud

      For a short piece, it’s an impressive twofer: Black people are stupid and lazy and the humanities are basically worthless! It’s everything the right holds to in a compact and rancid package.

      With the added, “We will ignore how stupid rich kids with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement are (After all, we work for them)”

      • Andrew R.

        It really is impressive how much awful he manages to fit into so small a space, isn’t it?

        • SEK

          I’m almost tempted to revise my original opinion and just marvel at Miller’s ability to condense so much horrible into so few sentences.

          • Andrew R.

            You know, I’m only half joking when I suggest that the next time you teach Intro to Rhetoric you should use this as an example of how to make one’s (terrible) point concisely.

  • CNU

    Those Duke legacies must not be very bright given the grade inflation at that university.

  • DrDick

    Even better is this from one of the authors of the study:

    “People have written that my study says black students are taking the easy way out and have a poor work ethic,” he said. “The paper says nothing close to that.”

    Arcidiacono explained that while it is true that black students are much less likely to persist in certain majors, these differences disappear once the researchers distinguished students based on their academic background.

    “What we were excited about is that there are no racial differences in behavior once preparation for Duke is taken into account,” he said.

    • Warren Terra

      Well, sure, if you’re determined to form your conclusions based on the data

      • TT

        Or, as George Will calls it, “data”.

    • In other words, students who were better prepped for Duke overall were better prepped for hard academic work!

      Wow. What a revelation! Arcidiacono ought to be ashamed for publishing such a rancid summary of obvious data.

  • Malaclypse

    I suppose that now would be the wrong time to point out that McMegan has a BA in English Literature.

    • DrDick

      Which is rather remarkable given her demonstrable level of (il)literacy.

    • Linnaeus

      As does Miller.

    • Hogan

      Economics is hard. Let’s go shopping!

      • DrDick

        For overpriced kitchen appliances that no sane human would ever use.

      • Furious Jorge

        Let’s bake cookies for the boys!

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      As does Amity Shlaes, reviver of outdated rightwing lies about the New Deal and Senior Fellow in Economic History at the Council on Foreign Relations.

      • firefall

        A BA in english lit? so … not economics and not history. How the hell does she qualify, other than being willing to tell egregious and bald-faced lies?

        • SEK

          If she had an emphasis in rhetoric, she’d be the perfect candidate.

        • Bill Murray

          there are qualifications for wingnut welfare other than willingness to tell egregious and bald-face lies?

    • SEK

      I suppose that now would be the wrong time to point out that McMegan has a BA in English Literature.

      As do I. And Hitler? He employed a bunch of engineers and rocket scientists.

      • Warren Terra

        He probably employed very few people with degrees in English Literature.

        • Spud

          Anthropology mostly. Like Josef Mengele.

          Plus all those archaologists in the late 30’s for those failed efforts to unearth the Lost Ark and the Holy Grail.

          • Warren Terra

            (It was a joke about their being German, not their being unlikely to have studied Literature; I’m sure many did study Literature, just because many people have studied Literature)

            • Malaclypse

              Are you saying they did not read either Shakespeare or the Bible in the original German?

              • Warren Terra

                I’ve heard it claimed that Shakespeare is better in Goethe’s translations …

              • DrDick

                Silly Mal, everyone knows that the original Bible was written in Elizbethan English.

            • Spud

              Due to the deficiencies in “soft science” programs at major German universities before the war, the secret archaeological programs had to be farmed out to a Frenchman in 1936 and an Austrian in 1938.

  • R Johnston

    Far and away the easiest class I took in college was an introductory level economics class. At an Ivy League institution, having taken no previous classes in economics, the class took about 20 minutes a week to breeze through problem sets and get perfect exam grades with no additional study time involved. If you’ve actually taken and understood calculus then any economics classes below the graduate level are, as far as I can tell, farcically easy.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      At least when I was in college, the easiest major at Harvard was non-honors Economics. All you had to do was write those problem sets. I knew Ec majors who completed Harvard ABs without ever writing a paper of longer than 5-7 pages.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        On the other hand, science majors clearly believed that their courses of study were simply harder than those of humanists and social scientists (part of the drama of Phi Beta Kappa elections was convicing the hard-science students not to scrap the humanists with stellar GPAs in favor of slightly less high-performing scientists).

        • R Johnston

          As someone who started life as a math major with some hard sciences on the side and flipped over to political science, I’d say that, at least outside of the lab, math and science were easier. If you understood underlying principles and application of logic then one thing flowed from another and there was very little chaff you had to separate from the wheat along the way. You didn’t have to deal with models that were routinely and necessarily so oversimplified that they were barely useful as anything other than thought exercises.

          I think it’s easier for people to fool themselves into believing that they understand what’s going on in humanities and softer sciences, but actual understanding is harder to come by. When your arguments are done primarily in natural language people look at the words and think they understand the words and therefore the argument, even if their understanding of argument is weak and even if the words are ambiguous or obscure. That’s one of the biggest problems, for example, with various originalism doctrines. Lawyers and judges are much better at fooling themselves into believing that they’re competent historians than they are at actually being historians and than they are at fooling themselves into believing they’re competent physicists. If you read a court opinion or a legal paper based in constitutional originalism of some sort you can bet you’re reading something that would more-likely-than-not flunk as a paper in an introductory level history class.

          Learning how to cope with irresolvable ambiguity and probabilistic arguments are much harder things for most people to do than learning how to parse an if-then statement or how to calculate the slope of a line.

    • Tcaalaw

      If you’ve actually taken and understood calculus

      And what percentage of the population falls into that category?

      • R Johnston

        It really, really should be pretty much 100% of people taking college level economics. Economics isn’t physics, where you can’t do anything worthwhile without calculus, but the worthwhile stuff you can do without the math really should just be folded into one of the introductory Poli Sci or Sociology classes and taken out of the economics department.

        Besides, you don’t even need in depth understanding of calculus at the introductory economics level, and the only thing preventing your average college student from fully understanding what a derivative is and how to take it is math phobia.

  • Ken

    “But Scott, isn’t economics a social science?” It is.

    Yes and no. There are economists who work as social scientists, but there are also ones who do mathematical modeling and get “hard” results. Unfortunately the “rational actors” that they model don’t describe how humans behave, as some of the “soft” studies have shown, so they’re more like pure mathematicians in a circumscribed domain than scientists. Or perhaps more like theologians.

    • Linnaeus

      Via The Guardian, a cautionary tale.

    • Furious Jorge

      As an occasionally-employed economics adjunct professor, let me applaud this comment, as the null hypothesis that it is incorrect can be rejected with a 98 percent confidence level.

  • Ohio Mom

    Every time I meet a high school student who is planning on studying engineering in college, I try to discourage him (the ones I come across are always guys; this past spring there were three of them).

    That’s because I’m the wife of a middle-aged engineer and as such, I know that while engineering is a fine career for a young man — there’s always a nice-paying job waiting for you when you graduate — it’s not a great career for anyone over 45.

    After that, the chances that you’ll be laid off increase an awful lot; a big project ends, there are cutbacks, and you’re out. And the next job can be very, very hard to find.

    I usually suggest to the young men I meet that they look into physical therapy or another health-affiliated field, pointing out that that type of job can’t be sent overseas. But I haven’t been able to sway anyone yet.

    • Bill Murray

      But do people want old physical therapists? I would think engineering is better for people over 50 than physical therapy

      • Anonymous

        I dunno, my aunt worked as an occupational therapist well into her seventies. None of her patients in the nursing home seem to care. My kid’s had a couple of 50+ speech-language pathologists who were fabulous. There are a lot of health-affiliated fields to choose from. PT is just one of them.

        An even if engineering is better for older workers, the fact remains that the job market for older engineers remains very tight. When I can’t convince a high-school student to drop the engineering dream, I usually end with advising them to think of engineering the way ballerinas think of dance: yes, have a good time but in the mean time, get ready for another career when you hit middle age and your sell-by date.

  • p.a.

    A graduate with a degree in the ‘hard sciences’ is considered, at the end of their undergraduate career, an engineer, chemist etc. Maybe novice engineers, but still… A history, sociology, semiotics graduate isn’t considered an historian etc. without a Phd. So which is harder?

    Remember The Onion article “National Academy of Science study finds science hard”?

    The plural of anecdote isn’t data, but a friend of mine at Brown, really brilliant premed student who became a wonderful pediatrician, thought his hardest undergrad course was a religious studies intro he took hoping for a breather course (a gut was the phrase at the time).

    • Warren Terra

      Is this true? Maybe for engineering, where (I’ve been told) graduate school is not necessarily the norm and doctoral studies are rare, but in Biology we’d never consider someone with a bachelor’s to be a Biologist, and I doubt it’s so in Chemistry or Physics.

      • Sheldon Cooper

        Biologists are mean.

      • Bill Murray

        engineers generally don’t need a graduate degree. In my field, metallurgy, (and going with data from my school) BS grads make $60,000-65,000 a year starting. An MS adds $5,000-10,000 to the BS and you often get jobs with more immediate responsibility. A PhD is quite variable, post-docing starts around $30,000-40,000 and new tenure track faculty start around where the BS grads start.

        and the BS people are considered engineers. They generally wouldn’t be considered professional engineers until they pass the Professional Engineer (PE) test, which is around 10 years after they graduate.

  • It’s worth a mention that Table 1 in the paper itself has an interesting demographic skew.

  • BigRome

    A quick google search reveals that one of the co-authors of the original study was singing a different tune back in 2002 with respect to the core assumption of the relative difficulty of Social Sciences:

    Duke’s Sociology Department chairman Ken Spenner bristles, “Is Sociology a puff program at Duke? We don’t think so.”


  • efgoldman

    Hey, I changed my major from musicology to theory and composition, to avoid the foreign language and piano class requirements. In those days there were no math or science requirements for music majors.
    But hey, it was the 60s, and I was too busy drinking and chasing girls. Never caught many, though.
    I am/was neither a minority nor a legacy.

  • wengler

    I find that subjects in which a student is interested in tend to be a lot easier.

    I think in the hard sciences the curriculum is harder for those that have no business being there in the first place. But I certainly remember studying for finals, and having engineering students bragging about how they were already done because their ‘final project’ which was basically the emphasis of the entire course was completed weeks ago.

    If you go to a school with any sort of academic reputation the upper level courses are always going to be hard. It’s always the fascists that demean anything that has no definable corporate value.

    • Bill Murray

      I think your first sentence is spot on.

      Undergraduate engineers do well at survey type humanities and social science classes, but struggle with trying to critically think about material they care about in their major, let alone outside their major. Most just want to know the equation and how to solve it.

      The projects being done before the end of the semester is mostly for laboratories and design classes. The design project needs to be done before the end of the semester to prevent an even bigger logjam at the end of the semester than occurs now.

    • Lab course make a huge difference. They are easy to pass, but suck up time

      • Lurker

        It depends. In the chemistry classes I took, there was a rather strict acceptance criterion for the analysis results. If you failed to get a result within the correct limit, you got a new sample to run tests on, ad infinitum. And when the time ran out, and you had not completed all the problems, it was “better luck next year”. In chemistry major, I think there were some six such lab courses, each lasting ca. two weeks of 40 hours work. (Unorganic lab, Organic labs I and II, polymer chemistry lab, Physical chemistry I and II. I did only the first two, as I was just minoring.)

  • As to why minorities and women leave engineering, well, engineering students are famed for their asocial skills

    • Ohio Mom

      I’m afraid it also doesn’t help that a lot of them are libertarians and ditto-heads, at least here in the mid-west.

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