Tracking the popularity of the sciences

I was thinking recently about the popularity of various sciences. Off the top of my head I believed that the social sciences were usually less popular than the natural/hard sciences. I also guessed that sociology or anthropology would be less popular than psychology, among the social sciences.

The natural sciences get a lot of publicity from television programs such as Nova or Nature. I don’t believe there is very much coverage of the social sciences at all on television.

Books and print media are a harder case to consider. I would guess that natural sciences would still be more popular even in these media.

The question is how to test any of these suppositions. One easy method is to look at Google Ngrams, the online tool that searches for words or phrases across the corpus of books digitized by Google. You can explore the ngram viewer I used for yourself or see the picture below.

A Google Ngram of the Sciences

Notice that most of my guesses are correct for much of time period covered by this graph.

  • Chemistry has a long-period of domination through much of the 19th century.
  • Biology has been growing steadily for the past century and by 2000 is tied for third and looks likely to continue to grow.
  • Among the social sciences psychology experiences very rapid growth until about 1930, falls off for a decade, and then bounces back to a steady-state.
  • Sociology has a curious flourish in the 1970s that I have no idea how to explain.

The early dominance of chemistry supports the idea that chemistry drove much of the industrial revolution. Biology only really comes into its own after the Darwinian revolution. Psychology exploded after Freud and continued to grow rapidly for three decades.

I’d like do something similar for newspapers and magazine coverage. Perhaps using a search in Lexis/Nexis.

View the full graph via the link.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.