Nobel prize winners are very unlikely to be religious

This page on Wikipedia claims rather surprisingly that:

This list comprises laureates of the Nobel Prize who self-identified as atheist, agnostic, freethinker or otherwise nonreligious at some point in their lives.[2] Many of these laureates were identified with a religion earlier in life. By one estimate, between 1901-2000 about 10.5% of all laureates, and 35% of those in literature, fall in this category.[3] According to the same estimate between 1901-2000 atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers have won 8.9% of the prizes in medicine, 7.1% in chemistry, 5.2% in economics, 4.7% in physics, and 3.6% in peace.[3] Alfred Nobel himself was an atheist later in his life.[4]

Of course, we are very surprised by this because we know that atheism correlates with intelligence and education. Moreover, we have good surveys of lots of scientists that are in extreme contrast to these figures.

(There’s more of these kinds of results, but you get the point.)

So, while it is possibly that this trend reverses even further out the extreme right tail of science eminence, this is highly doubtful.

Wikipedia gets the numbers from a single source:

  • Shalev, Baruch Aba (2003). “Religion of Nobel prize winners”. 100 years of Nobel prizes. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors. pp. 57–59. ISBN 9788126902781.

This book is rather obscure, has only 1 review on for instance. Smells fishy. It has 19 citations on Google Scholar as of writing, but the numbers are quite widespread online, probably as a function of the Wikipedia page. The author seems to be a pretty unknown Israeli geneticist, but quite obscure as well. The book wasn’t even on on libgen, but a copy was obtained.

So, we look at the relevant pages, and:

A review of the Nobel awards between 1901 and 2000 reveals that 654 Laureates belong to 28 different religions. Most (65.4%) have identified Christianity in its various forms as their religious preference. While separating Roman Catholic from Protestants among Christians proved difficult in some cases, available information suggests that more Protestants were involved in the scientific categories and more Catholics were involved in the Literature and Peace categories.

Atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers comprise 10.5% of total Nobel Prize winners; but in the category of Literature, these preferences rise sharply to about 35%. It can be speculated that the latter have a greater urge to be totally free of any formal religious attachments so that they can better express universal ideas.

A striking fact involving religion is the high number of Laureates of the Jewish faith-over 20% of total Nobel Prizes (138); including: 17% in Chemistry, 26% in Medicine and Physics, 40% in Economics and 11 % in Peace and Literature each. The numbers are especially startling in light of the fact that only some 13 million people (0.2% of the world’s population) are Jewish. By contrast, only 5 Nobel Laureates have been of the Muslim faith-0.8% of total number of Nobel prizes awarded-from a population base of about 1.2 billion (20% of the world’s population) (see Tables 21 A, 21 B, 21 C and Fig. 8).

How can such a few number of Jews produce so many Nobel prize winners? One explanation may be the effect of being a minority without a homeland producing an extraordinary desire to excel. Jewish people were not allowed to settle down as farmers for hundreds of years in Europe; they were only permitted to participate in commerce and education. As a result, doctors serving important people could save themselves from deportation. The same tradition continues to the present day.

Another additional explanation of the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Laureates is related to persecution of Jews over the years, culminating during World War II. The Holocaust, alone, claimed nearly half of the Jewish nation. Given the evidence of the brain migration, it can be argued that Darwin’s principle of the survival of only the fittest may have been at work. In other words, pogroms and the Holocaust forced a genetic selection for the better fit, which was much more drastic than for any other faith.

It should also be noted that the Jewish population in Israel, representing nearly half of the world’s Jewish population, has not produced any Nobel Laureates in any of the scientific categories. It is thought that the reason has to do with the importance of financial aid for basic scientific research. Israel is still engaged in wars and security problems and cannot afford to invest the sums required to develop all that is required to compete in basic scientific research. On the other hand, a country such as Israel is prone to stick to more practical aspects of research, e.g., Israel holds the second place in the world in high-tech industry.

A few tables and figures accompanies this text:

The text above is the only thing about the method in the book, which is also only ~120 pages or something. The list is awfully detailed for having no sources at all.

Furthermore, getting people to say they are atheists was historically difficult and is still difficult in some countries due to stigma about atheists. This is usually illustrated by the US president index:

Atheist is the 2nd largest target of suspicion in the country that contributes the most Nobel prize winners. Besides, it doesn’t appear that anyone has surveyed the winners using anonymous surveys, and the awards do not record the religiousness of the winners as the book seems to claim, and neither do most winners talk openly about it. We searched the Nobel site for keywords like “atheism” “protestant” and didn’t find anything remotely useful, mostly a bunch of irrelevant mentions. Curiously, the times religion was mentioned, it was typically by winners of the peace prizes which are frequently dissenters from low tier countries. For instance, Albert John Lutuli, an African from South Africa.

So we call bullshit on this one.

ETA 2018 June 7

Gwern has written a lengthy review of the book here. Fair to say he doesn’t disagree with me.

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