A recent New York Times article perpetuates the notion that people who major in the humanities are more humanistic than those who major in science. The article's focus is the Humanities and Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, which every year admits up to 35 students who have skipped the three usual requirements: organic chemistry, physics and the MCATs.
Not only are the 35 students allowed to skip these requirement, in fact, they are required to go even further. They apply early on in their college careers-- in their sophomore or junior years--and must agree to choose their majors from within the humanities or social sciences. No physics or biology majors need apply, even if they have avoided organic chemistry and the MCATs. And forget computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
Following a recent study comparing Mount Sinai's humanitarians to other medical students, the program is being touted as one that produces equally capable doctors who are more well-rounded, more inquisitive, and better at relating to patients than traditional doctors are. The study, published in the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, was conducted by the program’s founder, Dr. Nathan Kase, and by Mount Sinai’s dean for medical education, Dr. David Muller. As the Times reports:
The peer-reviewed study compared outcomes for 85 students in the Humanities and Medicine Program with those of 606 traditionally prepared classmates from the graduating classes of 2004 through 2009, and found that their academic performance in medical school was equivalent.
They scored lower on Step 1 of the Medical Licensing Examination, taken after the second year of medical school, which generally correlates with scientific knowledge. But over all, they ranked about the same in honors grades and in the percentage in the top quarter of the class.
Weighing in on the humanitarian hypothesis, the Times states that:
For decades, the medical profession has debated whether pre-med courses and admission tests produce doctors who know their alkyl halides but lack the sense of mission and interpersonal skills to become well-rounded, caring, inquisitive healers.
The Times then quotes Dr. Kase on the traditional set of requirements:
"...it also diminishes; it makes science into an obstacle rather than something that is an insight into the biology of human disease.”
Doctors who are equally capable, but more empathetic and inquisitive than average. What more could you wish for? But is this really what's going on?
As far as academically capability goes, the article's fine print reveals that the admissions process still uses traditional gambits to ensure bright students with a strong foundation in science. Applicants must maintain a 3.5 grade-point average. If they are admitted, they must take basic biology and chemistry. Before attending Mount Sinai Medical School, they must enroll in its summer boot camp, which provides "abbreviated" organic chemistry and physics courses. And standardized test scores still help determine admissions, namely, high school SAT scores. Actual admissions, the Times reports, "heavily favor elite schools." Students accepted in 2009 had average math and verbal SAT scores of 1444, and G.P.A.s of 3.74.
So it doesn't really surprise me that these students do well as doctors. In fact, I've always questioned the usefulness of the large quantities of detailed knowledge that the MCATs require--given how much doctors later seem to forget. And I've often wondered how often doctors actually apply general principles from physics or inorganic chemistry. It seems to me that overall intelligence, combined with a basic foundation in science, is much more predictive than whether you know your alkyl halides, or your General Relativity, or your VSEPR Theory, much of which, I suspect, few doctors remember, let alone apply, by the time they practice medicine.
What about the idea that Mount Sinai's humanitarians are in fact more sensitive and inquisitive? Here's what the Times reports about actual empirical findings, as opposed to wishful assertions:
The study found that, by some measures, the humanities students made more sensitive doctors: they were more than twice as likely to train as psychiatrists (14 percent compared with 5.6 percent of their classmates) and somewhat more likely — though less so than Dr. Kase had expected — to go into primary care fields, like pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology (49 percent compared with 39 percent). Conversely, they avoid some fields, like surgical subspecialties and anesthesiology.
But what surprised the authors the most, they said, was that humanities students were significantly more likely than their peers to devote a year to scholarly research (28 percent compared with 14 percent).The idea that psychiatrists are better at interpersonal relations than specialty surgeons and anesthesiologists does not square with my personal experiences. Some of the nastiest, least inquisitive academics I'm familiar with, lacking the humility and openness to new ideas that comes from exacting standards of truth, are Critical Theorists, not physicists. The idea that humanities majors are more compassionate and broadly inquisitive than science majors is one of the biggest right-brain biases of our time.
As family physician Bertie Bregman writes in the New York Times Letters section:
It is tempting to believe that the study of humanities would naturally produce more humane physicians, as the research done at Mount Sinai School of Medicine seems to conclude. But while the humanities can provide a unique path to insight, that doesn’t necessarily translate into better, more sensitive doctors.A surprising observation? It shouldn't be.
Empathy and compassion in young doctors are as common in chemistry and biology majors as they are in classics majors.