Does Religious Literature Make You Less Intelligent? January 25, 2008

Does Religious Literature Make You Less Intelligent?

Virgil Griffith, a student at Caltech, had a cool idea for an experiment.

Using Facebook, look at all the students who attend a particular university. Figure out the top ten most popular books that are read by those students.

Then, find out the average SAT scores of students admitted to that college (which is usually available on the schools’ websites).

Put that data together and you have a rough estimate of which books correlate with “more intelligent” students.

(In the image below, which you can click to see close up, the various colors represent different genres, the vertical axis means nothing, and the horizontal length of the boxes represent the average SAT score a certain book corresponds to along with the margin of error for that score)


I was drawn to the religious books (obviously). A lot of interesting things stand out:

The Bible ranks higher than The Holy Bible. (These count as two separate books on Facebook.)

“I don’t read” ranks higher than The Holy Bible.

Pastor Rick Warren‘s The Purpose Driven Life ranks relatively low on the overall list while C.S. LewisMere Christianity ranks relatively high among religious books (though the latter is almost smack dab in the middle of the entire spectrum).

Griffith also points out a couple other things:

At least among college students, Harry Potter is, like the Beatles, indeed bigger than Jesus.

The smartest religious book is “The Book of Mormon”. The dumbest religious book is “The Holy Bible”. I’m sure this pleases the Mormons immensely.

Not a single school above the mean (1071) has “The Holy Bible” on their list.

Regarding that last one, it should be pointed out that students of the top schools do have “The Bible” on their list.

After all this, the big question comes up:

Do certain books make you dumber or do dumber people read certain books?

More specifically, do religious books make you less intelligent do people with less intelligence read those books?

Obviously, correlation does not equal causation. That is, this graph doesn’t answer the question in any meaningful way.

But it’s sure as hell fun to speculate about why the results came out the way they did…

And before you jump to any conclusions, consider which books on the list you enjoy.

My favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t ranked very high. And the highest ranked book I’ve read is Freakonomics, which didn’t crack the top three.

(via Kottke)

[tags]atheist, atheism, Christian, religion, God[/tags]

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  • Mriana

    What if you took the ACT? I didn’t take the SAT. Didn’t need to for this uni. I don’t know what the equivalents are for the ACT and SAT. 🙁

  • I looked at a few of the lowest-scored colleges, and found that some of them have less than ten books on the top-ten list. This implies that only a handful of people in the entire network are even listing books. Sad. I guess enthusiasm for reading and high SAT scores go together.

    I wonder where Douglas Adams goes?

  • Samuel Skinner

    What if you’ve read 31 of the books? Do you average or take the highest score?

  • Mriana

    I’ve only read 12 of the books listed all in the middle, most classics, but some in other areas. I was reading Jackie Collins when I was 14 or 15 y.o. as well as Love Story, Oliver’s Story, Barabas, North and South, mythology, Star Trek (lots of Star Trek) 😆 That’s not including the text books I’ve had to read or biographies. Not a lot of religious books though. Never had much interest in them. I hated Lord of the Flies. 🙁

    Here’s a question: Why are all the African American books listed on the left?

  • Sounds like a post hoc, ergo propter hoc thing.

    All you can really claim from this graph is that people who are less academic are more likely to be drawn to religious texts. Considering the difference in mindset- academics requires fact-based thinking versus faith-based- I’m not really surprised.

  • E(Liz)a(Beth)

    I find the classifications interesting. I wouldn’t call Lolita erotica. And why is Chronicles of Narnia Sci Fi/Fantasy rather than a children’s book? Tuesday’s With Morrie could be biography instead of philosophy, no? And Addicted (Range: ~870 – 890) is written by Zane (Range: ~820-840). So what does that say about the rest of Zane’s books??

  • Interesting, if nothing else. Not surprised to see Catch 22 towards the high end, it’s one of the few books I’ve never finished; then again I was quite young when I tried to read it.

  • I think that we have to be careful linking these readings directly to intelligence. The controversial assertion would be to make something similar to James Watson’s mistake and say that the strongest correlation between schools with lower average test scores and book grouping are the African American books, and making direct correlations between race and intelligence ignores all kinds of cultural and societal factors. I think the same could be said for religion and intelligence.

    That said, it’s fun to speculate what correlations may exist in this study. And if I’m inspired by this list and go and read Nabokov and Marquez and Ayn Rand, will that skew the numbers for my university? 😛

  • Given that we’re looking at entire colleges, not people, I’m betting the data is best explained in terms of whole school cultures, not individuals. The low score for the Bible may well be thanks to little, self-proclaimed “Bible colleges” that people go to for ideology rather than academic standards.

  • Miko

    Interesting idea, but I don’t think it worked. Notice that most of the books are clustered near the mean. We can’t say for sure why this is without raw data, but I’d guess that it means they appeal to a broad spectrum equally and thus aren’t good indicators. SAT scores are normally distributed with mean 1000 and standard deviation 200. I think it’s fair to say that anything within one standard deviation is there solely based on wide popularity (68% of the population should, if it’s normal as it appears to be, making it very unlikely that we’d find statistically significant evidence that the placement isn’t random; and the fact that “The Bible” and “The Holy Bible” differ by about 150 points seems consistent with a more random distribution) and so the only interesting results would be those with average SAT scores less than 800 or greater than 1200. There are precisely no books with average below 800 (due to admissions standards, I’m sure), so the hypothesis of certain books making you dumber doesn’t seem well supported. There are a few books with average above 1200, which is slightly more interesting. However, I still wouldn’t correlate it to intelligence (since SAT scores aren’t); cultural factors at individual schools seems more likely and since there are few schools with higher average SAT’s random factors could skew this as well.

    Overall, the data suggests to me that it’d be more fruitful to focus on what books aren’t being read at the low end than on what books are being read there. id est, reading “good” books may make you smarter; but, reading “bad” books probably doesn’t have much of an effect period. On the other hand, if we could get data from those who don’t/didn’t go to college to compare it to, we might find some much stronger trends in both directions.

    Oh yeah, and how did Pride and Prejudice end up as “chick lit” rather than as a “classic”? For that matter, why is “chick lit” even a category?

  • Miko

    Just noticed that individual book data is available. For example, “The Bible” is on 800 school lists with a std. err. of 3.8, so I’m much more willing to believe its placement is meaningful than, say, “The Book of Mormon” which was only on 9 lists with std. err. 35.5.

    Let’s look at the top 10 books in terms of low std. err., in terms of largest number of schools, and in terms of “total weight”: in each case, all of them correspond to average SAT scores between 1018 and 1136. The mean SAT among the colleges is 1071, giving z-scores between -0.265 and 0.325 (assuming that it’s normal about 1071 and std. dev. is still 200). All in all, leads me to continue to believe that placement has more to do with random variation for unpopular books and guaranteed centrality for popular ones. So I like the idea, but I think that trying to find “patterns” in the data is just anomaly hunting.

  • What I find strange is that the people at the very highest echelons have read so little compared to the “more average” person, who is better read. This flies in the face of the notion that more educated and intelligent people tend to read more. However, it leads me to suspect that what is being correlated here is not intelligence and literacy, but rather diligence at studying for the SAT and literacy. After all, the SAT is only a test at how good you are at taking the SAT, and on top of that it does best at measuring technical aspects of verbal and mathematical skills. It could be that those possessing less technical acuity but more creative ability tend to score more in the 950-1100 range and read a larger selection of fiction. I think what is more likely, however, is that the people who scored highest on the SAT prepared very well, and grew up in a culture where they were introduced to a select company of books that were considered “the greatest” in philosophy and literature. Those who were capable SAT testers but who focused on more than academic achievement were more likely to read more fiction and other books.

    Interestingly, my score on the SAT was around 1300-1350, and I’ve read none of the books most closely associated with my score. Lord of the Rings, Farenheit 451 and Ender’s Game are among my favorites. Most odd.

    EDIT: Correction, my SAT score was around 1420, though I’d have to check on that to be sure. Is this using the old SAT scale? I thought the maximum combined score would be 1600.

  • moebius2778


    I suspect, although my statistical knowledge isn’t quite good enough to really determine if it is the case, that it would be fairly difficult to determine how many books are read by people falling into any particular SAT score from the chart.

    1) This is a list of the 100 most popular books – I *think* this is calculated by the number of colleges that have the book in their top ten list. If a particular book shows up on a limited number of top ten lists (based on the list books, 9 was the cut off point), then it doesn’t show up on the chart. So if a college has a book that has a frequency of less than 9, it doesn’t show up in the chart.

    2) It appears that the bars are centered at the mean SAT score and extend one standard error in each direction. Basically, for any particular bar, you can assume that the mean is somewhere in the bar – but there doesn’t appear to be any depiction of the standard deviation for the book. So for example, the Harry Potter books might be read in a wide variety of SAT ranges, but the bar is small, because it’s really widely read. Since there are a lot of samples, it’s very likely that the calculated mean is the actual mean – hence, the small bar.

    3) This is based on the top ten list from each college. That is to say, each college should (as far as I can tell) have identical contributions, regardless of how much reading is done by the college’s students. The large number of books around the middle band should be indicative of a larger number of colleges with SAT scores around the middle band, not of a larger amount of reading going on at those colleges.

  • Vincent

    Highest ranked I’ve read:Catch 22

    I’m surprised Farenheit 451 ranked so low.

  • I like tea

    I think that we have to be careful linking these readings directly to intelligence.

    Certainly. I would hope that nobody here thinks SAT scores are a direct indicator of intelligence. Furthermore, I think it’s important to note that the placement of a book on the chart does not indicate the average SAT scores of the people reading it – it only indicates the average SAT score of the college they go to. In some cases, there may not be much difference. In the case of the “African-American” books, it’s easy to see why there might be a difference, because black colleges are naturally going to have lower average SAT scores.

    That’s not because there are any racial differences in intelligence, obviously, but because far more black Americans than white ones live in poverty and go to shitty schools. That’s a situation which we should be working in earnest to improve, but while it’s not exactly the point of this discussion, it may be the only solid fact we can take away from that silly chart.

  • Rod

    Careful what kind of generalizations you make based on this list. You’ll notice that there are 6 “African-American” books and all six are about as low as you can get.

    If you were to draw any kind of conclusions about religious people from this list, you’d have to conclude that Black people are stupid.

    If you refuse to draw such a racist conclusion, then you have no choice but to dismiss the validity of this study.

  • Karen

    I think it’s interesting just to see what college students are reading. So many classics! It’s nice to see them enduring the test of time. With a few exceptions, this could have been much the same list as when I went to college in the 80s.

  • Cindy

    Why is Little Women considered Chick lit instead of Children’s?….and Wrinkle in Time is borderline Sci-Fi/Fantasy, not children’s, imho……

  • Milena

    Hey, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favourite books too. The highest I’ve read is Life of Pi, while my lowest is Hamlet.

  • Mriana said,

    What if you took the ACT? I didn’t take the SAT. Didn’t need to for this uni. I don’t know what the equivalents are for the ACT and SAT. 🙁

    I was going to ask the exact same question! Although I wouldn’t say my school is a prestigious one, there are an awful lot of school that use the ACT, and like Mriana, I never took the SAT.
    Also, the problem with facebook is that you can never really be sure if people are telling the truth. I’d be willing to bet that people going to “better” schools are more likely to lie and say they’ve read books that everyone else at the school says they’ve read (and then wikipedia it to get the plot points). And about the classics in the list – people might be reading these for class. Often, it’s a book they wouldn’t choose for themselves but then end up liking, and then they can say it’s a favorite (I guess that still counts, but it messes up the argument that “smarter” people are just more motivated to read
    Also – what about those with private profiles? Most people I know don’t leave their profile unlocked and public, so does that change the results? Do only the really slow and the biggest show-offs leave their profiles public?
    Basically, I wouldn’t trust college students to tell the truth. It’s kind of a crapshoot. Besides, some of us are just so busy reading voraciously that we don’t have time to list all the awesome books we’re reading.
    …I just looked and he does also have average ACT scores listed. Not sure if he used those or SATS, though. Many of the schools listed don’t even have an average SAT score, and if they do, and generally take more ACT scores, wouldn’t that be a smaller pool of people that the average SAT score comes from?
    I have officially spent too much time on this.
    For the record, my favorite book is probably “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood.

  • Bad

    A lot of this list seems to reflect what kids are made to read in school vs. would have to have sought out on their own. Fahrenheit 451, for instance, is a pretty common reading assignment book, and so is the Color Purple. Atlas Shrugged and Lolita almost never appear in a high school or college curriculum, on the other hand.

  • cautious

    For those folks in ACT land (if I had stayed in Illinois, I woulda been part of that exclusive club), google sat act conversion.

    For the record, the books I have on my Facebook as favourites that are on this list are Brave New World, Animal Farm, Fight Club, 1984, The Lord of the Rings, and Dune. So make your guesses what my SAT score was, based on the data!

    I do find the points raised above to be pretty valid, I think the scientific utility of this is pretty …non-existant. But hey it makes for a neat graph. According to the graph the mean student at my undergrad reads Freakonomics, 100 Years of Solitude, Lolita and Crimes and Punishment. Good for them. Too bad some of those folks who slacked off on the SAT read Atlas Shrugged.

    This makes my undergrad look good, as compared to the undergrads at my current institution, who are apparently above the mean if they read the Bible.

    Oh wait did this study make any distinction between different levels of education, or are PhD and BA students all lumped together as students of a college/university?

    All criticism aside, I’d like to congratulate a Caltech student on collecting data from 1352 schools. Way to carry on the Caltech tradition of being a geek.

  • Kate

    Other people have pointed out the glaringly painful “methodological flaws” in this study — Hemant, shame on you for calling it an experiment, which requires random assignment and an experimental manipulation, among other things — though I hesitate to even call it a study.

    It’s not even correlation, because there are no data. It’s just a chart. Correlation is the linear relationship between two continuous variables. So not only can causation not be drawn, it’s not even a correlation!

    A Caltech student, really? One would think that a student at a school like that would have more important things to do than conduct an observational study that a second grader could critique.

  • I wonder if another problem with this might be that people spell out their books differently. When you enter your favourite books, if you don’t separate them with commas they count as just one book. Also, I have added the author in brackets after each of my books, and I don’t think “The Selfish Gene” and “The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins)” is counted as the same book by the facebook engine, just as “The Bible” and “The Holy Bible” are separate. So unless these people actually went and looked at people’s profiles, they haven’t seen the actual data, only the data from the people who’ve filled in their favourite books in a certain way.

    (Sorry if this is disjointed, I have a fever. :P)

  • cautious

    I was going to write something more serious about this, but I realized eventually that it’s not supposed to be taken seriously. If this was an assignment for a class, I hope he didn’t try to say anything scientific with this graph.

  • Chaim Krause

    What?!? No Battlefield Earth?!?

  • This is interesting, but certainly should not be taken as even remotely scientific. I know too many people that list Crime & Punishment or Lolita as their “favorite book” only because it makes them look smart, or because they’re the only books they’ve read (by the force of their high school English teacher).

  • cautious

    I wrote way too much about this on my Facebook quasi-blog, so I’ll just copy and paste from there.

    Lolita ranks the highest. Like, wow, you must be going to a really good school if students at your school like Lolita. But when you look at the data, of the 1352 schools which were included in this analysis, how many of them, do ya think, had Lolita among their students’ favourite books?


    Yale, Princeton, Brown, Williams College, Columbia, Reed, NYU, Wellesley, St. John’s College. Schools with realllllly bright students.

    Smith College, Bennington, Marlboro, ok, still kinda good students.

    School of the Museum of Fine Arts and CUNY: Queens College, well, at least you went to a college.

    So, if Lolita is read, and loved, by a lot of students at your school, it could be one of the best schools in this country. Or a pretty good one. Or an average one.

    The author of the page reminds us that correlation != causation, but there doesn’t even seem to be any correlation going on with this data.

  • I find it a little bizarre that Little Women and PRide and Prejudice are chucked under “Chick Lit” instead of being under ‘Classics”.

    Tells you a little bit about the biases of the author of the study.

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