Toward a quantification of intellectual disciplines

As a mathematician, I often find myself taking the STEM side of the STEM-versus-liberal-arts-and-humanities debate—this should come as no surprise to readers of this blog—and my principal conceit, that of a general claim to marginal productivity, quite often (and surprisingly, to me) underwhelms my opponents. So, I’ve been thinking about how we might (objectively) quantify the value of a discipline. May we argue, if we can, that quantum mechanics is “more important” than, say, the study of Victorian-period literature? Is the philosophy of mind as essential as the macroeconomics of international trade? Are composers of dodecaphonic concert music as indispensable to the socioeconomic fabric as historians of WWII? Is it really possible to make such comparisons, and should we be making them at all? The main question becomes this: Are all intellectual pursuits equally justified? If so, why should that be the case, and if not, how can society differentiate among so many disparate modes of inquiry?

To that end, then, I’ve quickly drafted eleven basic categories that I believe might serve us well in quantifying an intellectual pursuit:


(I) Societal demand

This will perforce involve a (slippery) statistical calculation: average annual salary (scaled to cost-of-living expenses), the size of university departments, job-placement rates among graduates with the same terminal degree, or anything that betrays a clear supply-and-demand approach to practitioners of the discipline.

(II) Influence and range

How fertile is the (inter-field) progeny of research? How often are articles cited by other disciplines? Do the articles, conferences, and symposia affect a diverse collection of academic research in different fields with perhaps sweeping consequences, or does the intellectual offspring of an academic discipline rarely push beyond the limited confines of its field of interest?

(III) Difficulty

What is the effort required for mastery and original contribution? In general, we place a greater value on things that take increased effort to attain. It’s easier, for example, to eat a pizza than to acquire rock-hard abs. (As an aside, and apart from coeval psychosexual aspects of attraction—obesity was considered a desirable trait during the twelfth to fifteenth centuries because it signified wealth and power—being fit holds greater societal value because it, among other things, represents the more difficult, ascetic path, which suggests something of an evolutionary advantage.) Average time to graduation, the number of prerequisite courses for degree candidacy, and the rigor of standardized tests might also play a useful role here.


(IV) Applicability and usefulness

How practical is the discipline’s intellectual import? How much utility does it possess? Does it (at least, eventually) lead to a general increase in the quality of life for the general population (e.g., the creation of plastics), or is it limited in its scope and interest only to those persons with a direct relationship to its claims (e.g., non-commutative transformational symmetry in the development of a Mozart piano sonata)? Another way of evaluating this category is to ask the simple question: Who cares?

(V) Prize recognition

Disciplines and academic fields that enjoy major prizes (e.g., Nobel, Pulitzer, Fields, Abel, etc.) must often succumb to more rigorous scrutiny and peer-reviewed analysis than those whose metrics rely more heavily upon the opinion of a small cadre of informed peers and the publish-or-perish repositories of journals willing to print marginal material. This isn’t a rigid metric, of course; many economists now reject the Nobel-winning efficient-market hypothesis, and the LTCM debacle of the late 90s revealed the hidden perniciousness crouching behind the Black-Scholes equation, which also earned its creators a Nobel prize. (Perhaps these examples suggest something problematic about economics.) In general, though, winning a major international prize is a highly valued accomplishment that validates one’s work as enduring and important.

(VI) Objectivity

Are the propositions of an academic discipline provable, or are they largely based on subjective and rational or intuitive interpretation? Is it possible the value of one’s intellectual conceit could change if coeval opinion modulates to an alternate position? It seems logical to presume an objective truth is generally more valuable than subjective belief. 

math is purity

(VII) Projected value

What is the potential influence of the field’s unsolved problems? Do experts believe resolving those issues will eventually lead to significant breakthroughs (or possibly chaos!), or will the discipline’s elusive solutions effectuate only incremental and unnoticed progress when viewed through the widest available lens?

(VIII) Necessity

What are the long-range repercussions of eliminating the discipline? Would anyone beyond its members notice its absence? How essential is its intellectual currency to our current socioeconomic infrastructure? To one a generation or two removed from our own?

(IX) Ubiquity

How many colleges and universities offer formal, on-campus degrees in the field? Is its study limited to a national or even localized interest (e.g., agriculture), or is it embraced by a truly international, humanistic approach? The greater number of opportunities to study a subject, regardless of where you live, suggests a higher general value.

median earnings

(X) Labor mobility

Related to (9), is it difficult to find employment in different geographic areas of the country, or is employment restricted to a few isolated locations or even specific economies? Does an intellectual discipline provide a global reach or only, say, North American opportunities? Are there gender gaps or racial-bias issues to consider? How flexible is the discipline? Do the skills you learn allow you to be productive within a range of occupations and applications, or do they translate poorly to the labor market because graduates are pigeonholed into a singular intellectual activity? Can you find meaningful employment with lower terminal degrees, or must you finish a PhD in order to be gainfully employed? There are certain exceptions here: brain surgeons, for example, enjoy a very limited employment landscape and earning anything less than an M.D. degree means you can’t practice medicine, but these are examples of outliers that offer counterbalancing compensations within the global metric.

(XI) Probability of automation

What is the probability a discipline will be automated in the future? Can your field be easily replaced by a bot or a computer in the next 25 years? (Luddites beware.)


Not perfect, but it’s a pretty good start, I think. The list strikes a decent balance across disciplines and, taken as a whole, doesn’t necessarily privilege any particular field. A communications major, for example, might score toward the top in labor mobility, automation, and ubiquity but very low in difficulty and prize recognition (and likely most other categories, too). I also eliminated certain obvious categories—like historical import—because the history of our intellectual landscape has often been marked by hysteria, inaccuracy, and misinformation. To privilege music(ology) because of its membership to the quadrivium when most people believed part of its importance revolved around its ability to affect the four humors seems unhelpful. (It also seems unfair to penalize, say, risk analysts because the stock market didn’t exist in the sixth century.)

Specific quantifying methods might involve a function f : \text{R}^n\to \text{R} with a series of weightings (possibly via integration) where n is the total number of individual categories, c_i, but the total value of a discipline, v_j, might just as easily be calculated by a geometric mean, provided no category can have a value of zero: v_j = \left(\prod_{i=1}^n c_i\right)^{1/n}.

Comments and suggestions welcome.


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