Is science more difficult to understand than other subjects? You might think so, given the sad quality of our national dialogue on scientific subjects.
Is there a hierarchy of “hardness” among the sciences? Well, maybe, at least if you’ve seen physicists expressing their vast superiority over chemists, and chemists retaliating by looking down their noses at biologists, and biologists in turn dissing social scientists.
Providing a reliable scale by which to measure how difficult a subject is proves to be more challenging than the mere assertion of supremacy. But a trio of psychologists (they of the lowly social-science caste) has taken up the task in a recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (139 , 1–15).
Since one can’t really measure how “hard” a subject is, the only available test is one of intuitive perception rather than any assessment of objective reality.
The results surprise: adults recognize no difference in difficulty among physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and economics. Young people, though, find the natural sciences and economics more challenging than psychology. The authors mercifully remain silent on the implications for their chosen profession.
The best news about this study (there is a lot more to it, and it is surely worth reading) is that the perceived relative difficulty of the sciences by children diminishes with time. Perhaps there really is something to be said for getting an education….