An effortless way to improve your memory

March 9th, 2018

The remarkable memory-boosting benefits of undisturbed rest were first documented in 1900 by the German psychologist Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker:

In one of their many experiments on memory consolidation, Muller and Pilzecker first asked their participants to learn a list of meaningless syllables. Following a short study period, half the group were immediately given a second list to learn — while the rest were given a six-minute break before continuing.

When tested one-and-a-half-hours later, the two groups showed strikingly different patterns of recall. The participants given the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to an average of 28% for the group who had been given no time to recharge their mental batteries. The finding suggested that our memory for new information is especially fragile just after it has first been encoded, making it more susceptible to interference from new information.

Although a handful of other psychologists occasionally returned to the finding, it was only in the early 2000s that the broader implications of it started to become known, with a pioneering study by Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri.

The team was interested in discovering whether reduced interference might improve the memories of people who had suffered a neurological injury, such as a stroke. Using a similar set-up to Muller and Pilzecker’s original study, they presented their participants with lists of 15 words and tested them 10 minutes later. In some trials, the participants remained busy with some standard cognitive tests; in others, they were asked to lie in a darkened room and avoid falling asleep.

The impact of the small intervention was more profound than anyone might have believed. Although the two most severely amnesic patients showed no benefit, the others tripled the number of words they could remember — from 14% to 49%, placing them almost within the range of healthy people with no neurological damage.

The next results were even more impressive. The participants were asked to listen to some stories and answer questions an hour later. Without the chance to rest, they could recall just 7% of the facts in the story; with the rest, this jumped to 79% — an astronomical 11-fold increase in the information they retained. The researchers also found a similar, though less pronounced, benefit for healthy participants in each case, boosting recall between 10 and 30%.

Della Sala and Cowan’s former student, Michaela Dewar at Heriot-Watt University, has now led several follow-up studies, replicating the finding in many different contexts. In healthy participants, they have found that these short periods of rest can also improve our spatial memories, for instance — helping participants to recall the location of different landmarks in a virtual reality environment. Crucially, this advantage lingers a week after the original learning task, and it seems to benefit young and old people alike. And besides the stroke survivors, they have also found similar benefits for people in the earlier, milder stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

On my way to where the air is sweet

March 7th, 2018

Freakonomics Radio looks at an early education intervention that taught poor parents in Chicago Heights how to teach their own preschool-age children cogntivie and non-cognitive skills:

LIST: So, a first thing to note is we have huge differences across kids. Now, what I mean by that is that our program really, really helps Hispanic and white students and it doesn’t help blacks at all.

DUBNER: How disappointing was it to see that Hispanics and whites moved a lot and blacks didn’t?

LIST: Yeah, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think that when we started down this research agenda, part of our mission was, first of all, to learn about the racial achievement gap and learn about how we can lower that gap. Most of the time we lump Hispanic and African-American kids together, and we say, “What is the solution for minorities in public education?”


LEVITT: And to be honest, we have no real theory for why that is. The two sets of parents were equally engaged in the program and we can control for all sorts of background characteristics and nothing really explains it. So to me that’s really a puzzle, and a puzzle that I don’t have an answer for.


LEVITT: Upon entry into the program, we tested kids to see where they stood in terms of their cognitive skills — how well they could, you know, do the alphabet and math and whatnot — and also their non-cognitive skills, about how well they could sit still and keep things in memory. And what was incredibly interesting to me in our findings is that for the kids who were below average on these non-cognitive skills — the ability to concentrate, to remember things, to kind of think their way through problems — the below-average kids made no progress in our program. So if you started behind, in terms of how ready you were to learn in some sense, then you got nothing out of our program. And that was true whether you scored high on the cognitive scores or not. So, kids could be really high achievers in terms of math and reading but gain nothing from our program if they didn’t have these sort of sit-still skills. But on the other hand if you were above average on these non-cognitive skills, you got huge benefits from our program.

A different intervention seemed to work better at closing the gap:

KEARNEY: We find that kids who were pre-school age in places where they could watch Sesame Street were 14 percent less likely to fall behind when they got to elementary school. If we try and make a comparison of that number to what we see in the literature studying, for example, the Head Start program, our nation’s publicly funded pre-school program, the estimated effects on school performance are very similar.


KEARNEY: This costs $5 a year per kid to produce [vs. $8,000 for Head Start].


KEARNEY: And in fact, that effect is entirely driven by kids who grew up in counties with higher levels of economic disadvantage. So, I mean places that had higher levels of high school drop-out, had a higher rate of single-parent households, had lower household income on average — these were the kids that really saw a relative improvement in their school performance. The effect is largest for boys and African-Americans.

People who want to do anything except confront evil men

March 6th, 2018

A law-enforcement veteran with 20 years’ experience shares his thoughts on contemporary policing:

This really is a matter of chickens coming home to roost. There has been a tension since the 60’s about what we want police to do. We no longer have fit men with a strong capacity for violence occupying the majority of patrol cars in this country. What we have been slipping towards for decades are a mass of armed social workers with a small force of violent proficient SWAT guys who are supposed to save the day when bad things really, really need to happen but are never there when you really need them.

Two forces seem to be driving this. First, the massive expansion of the police’s job in this country. Cops no longer just enforce the law and arrest bad guys — we expect them to do everything from run after-school athletic leagues to treat drug overdoses. When a group’s mission is this broad and diverse something, or a lot of things, are not going to be done well. Also, when a mission is this broad, you will bring people into the organization who are better suited for these non-enforcement jobs but they all end up wearing the same uniform and vested with the same trust. Many people familiar with the field would go so far as to argue that for decades we have been deliberately recruiting people for police jobs who want to do anything except confront evil men.

Second, we as a nation have become increasingly uncomfortable with violence, regardless of who does it or why. There is no use of force by police, no matter how legally and morally right that looks “pretty.” For those raised on movies and TV, violence is sanitary and sterile with none of the realities, such as reaction time, that are dealt with in the real world. The simple, ugly, unpopular truth is that one of the jobs police do is to shoot and beat people into submission. Now, we want them to shoot and beat the right people within a well-defined legal context but the reality remains that the effective police officer is an applied violence specialist — or should be.

Recently, there has been a tremendous focus placed on police use of force. We have been told that the police deliberately target minorities and seem to take perverse pleasure in shooting unarmed ethnic minorities. We are asked to ignore the fact that on average 15% of officers murdered are murdered with “personal weapons” (aka hands and feet) and we are supposed to be shocked when the police perceive a threat from someone who doesn’t have a weapon.


Second, we need to recruit people for their ability to control themselves under stress and their mental fitness to do necessary harm to others. A lot of agencies deliberately hire folks with no capacity for violence in hopes it will solve their use of force problems. This never works as these folks end up overreacting since they are scared. Police officers should have an immense capacity for violence — a capacity exceeded only by their ability to control it and apply it in a lawful and moral context. (There are agencies which refuse to hire anyone with an interest in firearms — this is the exact wrong approach)


Finally, our society needs to adjust its attitudes towards violence. There is the recently coined term “pro-social violence” which is used to describe “lawful, moral violence in the service of good.” We need to restore the idea that when violent things happen to bad people, it’s OK and society is better as a whole.

You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

March 5th, 2018

Robin Hanson discusses signaling and self deception in the latest of Professor Cowen’s Conversations with Tyler:

TYLER COWEN: Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, we have my colleague Robin Hanson. With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?

ROBIN HANSON: As you know, in my new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we have a whole chapter on conversation, which I expect you have perused.

The claim we make in there is that, although we like to talk about conversation as if it was about imparting information and finding out useful things, more plausibly it’s about showing off your backpack of tools and skills in context.

COWEN: So what am I trying to signal with the first question in the podcast?

HANSON: [laughs] You are showing your versatility here; you are showing lots of things. You’re showing how well you know me, and that this is the sort of question I like and can engage. You’re showing the audience that you have an unusual perspective on things.

As usual, apparently, people like your conversations because you have some magic sauce, some special way that you can show that you get to people in a way that other people can’t.

COWEN: In your wonderful new book, The Elephant in the Brain, you outline a theory of human behavior where signaling has a great deal of explanatory power. If you had to, in as crude or blunt terms as possible, how much of human behavior ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signaling? What’s your short, quick, and dirty answer?

HANSON: In a rich society like ours, well over 90 percent.


HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain‘s main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes — they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

In a world where, say, we’re all showing what strong, virile men we are by fighting battles every day, physical battles, we may each enjoy that until the day we die at 25. [laughs] But from a larger social point of view, there’s a huge loss.

The focus here is on the coordination failure, on the equilibrium being inefficient because we have these huge negative externalities. It’s the negative externalities that are the problem and the fault with the signaling, not so much the fact that you like to show off. You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

Media and the consequences of fear

March 4th, 2018

Alex Tabarrok shares some thoughts on school shootings, media, and the consequences of fear:

“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern.

School shootings are actually down since the 1990s (with a lot of variability). Fewer students are carrying weapons to school and fewer students report having easy access to guns (data here).

It’s been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past. Does anyone not know about Parkland? Contrary to common wisdom, mass shootings also occur in European countries and the US is not a notable outlier in this regard. I suspect, however, that the Finnish media don’t cover German shootings as frequently as shootings in Florida are covered in Nebraska — as a result the larger the media-market the greater the extent of availability bias. In other words, the larger the media market the greater the over-estimation of rare but vivid events. (Someone should test this theory.)

I worry about turning schools into prisons and what kinds of citizens this will create. My letter to my son’s high school principal was sent before the recent shootings but I stand by it now more than ever:

Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report

March 3rd, 2018

If you haven’t yet watched Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report, now’s your chance:

Belief is an instrument to do things

March 2nd, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses how to be rational about rationality:

Rory Sutherland claims that the real function for swimming pools is allowing the middle class to sit around in bathing suits without looking ridiculous. Same with New York restaurants: you think their mission is to feed people, but that’s not what they do. They are in the business of selling you overpriced liquor or Great Tuscan wines by the glass, yet get you into the door by serving you your low-carb (or low-something) dishes at breakeven cost. (This business model, of course, fails to work in Saudi Arabia).

So when we look at religion and, to some extent ancestral superstitions, we should consider what purpose they serve, rather than focusing on the notion of “belief”, epistemic belief in its strict scientific definition. In science, belief is literal belief; it is right or wrong, never metaphorical. In real life, belief is an instrument to do things, not the end product. This is similar to vision: the purpose of your eyes is to orient you in the best possible way, and get you out of trouble when needed, or help you find a prey at distance. Your eyes are not sensors aimed at getting the electromagnetic spectrum of reality. Their job description is not to produce the most accurate scientific representation of reality; rather the most useful one for survival.

Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious

March 1st, 2018

Kelefa Sanneh’s New Yorker piece looks at Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity — which is not how I’d characterize it:

Like many conversion stories, Peterson’s begins with a crisis of faith — a series of them, in fact. He was raised Protestant, and as a boy he was sent to confirmation class, where he asked the teacher to defend the literal truth of Biblical creation stories. The teacher’s response was convincing neither to Peterson nor, Peterson suspected, to the teacher himself. In “Maps of Meaning,” he remembered his reaction. “Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious,” he wrote. “I stopped attending church, and joined the modern world.” He turned first to socialism and then to political science, seeking an explanation for “the general social and political insanity and evil of the world,” and each time finding himself unsatisfied. (This was the Cold War era, and Peterson was preoccupied by the possibility of nuclear annihilation.) The question was, he decided, a psychological one, so he sought psychological answers, and eventually earned a Ph.D. from McGill University, having written a thesis examining the heritability of alcoholism.

All the while, Peterson was also pursuing a grander, stranger project. He had fallen under the sway of Carl Jung, the mystical Swiss psychology pioneer who interpreted modern life as an endless drama, haunted by ancient myths. (Peterson calls Jung “ever-terrifying,” which is a very Jungian sort of compliment.) In “Maps of Meaning,” Peterson drew from Jung, and from evolutionary psychology: he wanted to show that modern culture is “natural,” having evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to reflect and meet our human needs. Then, rather audaciously, he sought to explain exactly how our minds work, illustrating his theory with elaborate geometric diagrams (“The Constituent Elements of Experience as Personality, Territory, and Process”) that seemed to have been created for the purpose of torturing undergraduates.

The new book replaces charts with cheerful drawings of Peterson’s children acting out his advice.

You can’t have Denmark without Danes

February 28th, 2018

You can’t have Denmark without Danes, Megan McArdle notes:

On my first day of interviews, I met with Lars Hvidberg, who works as a speechwriter at the culture ministry. Hvidberg has lived in the U.S., so he seemed well qualified to speculate about the differences between the two countries.

“There are basically four stories about Denmark,” he said. Here’s a breakdown:

The social liberal story: Free education, free speech and democratic government have created social trust and the ability of people to take responsibility and to act for themselves.

The social democracy story: Benefits are high and the taxes are high, which creates equality and trust and enables people to plan for the long term without fear of destitution.

The market liberal story: The real reason Denmark is so successful is that compared to other countries, it’s actually very classically liberal. It has free trade, low regulation, almost no corruption, and makes it easy to start a company.

The nationalist version: The reason Denmark has a well-functioning society is that it’s homogeneous, with a lot of people who think the same, and who place a high value on things like work and honesty and trust toward strangers. In other words, Denmark works so well because it’s full of Danes.

A little apologetically, he said, “I believe all of these stories are true.”

Ironically, New Yorker Megan McArdle got her phone stolen in Copenhagen:

I learned a lot about Danish culture by the reaction to the theft of my phone. I discovered the loss the day after it happened, just as I was about to leave my hotel for a few last interviews. Suddenly, I had to my name only a few Danish kroner — too few even for a round-trip bus ride. I briefly debated canceling the interviews and spending the afternoon trying to round up some cash and a way to get to the airport the following day. Instead, throwing caution to the winds, I borrowed a bike from the hotel and set off, arriving bedraggled and half-an-hour late. Then I climbed four flights of stairs and nearly passed out.

The man I was interviewing responded by leaving to fetch me an enormous bottle of sparkling water, which I greedily consumed. (Maybe an American would have done the same.) The next man I interviewed, the think-tank scholar Agerup, offered to lend me whatever money I needed to get home. (Maybe an American stranger would have done the same, or maybe not.)

Later, I informed the staff at the Copenhagen Island Hotel that all my credit cards needed to be canceled, meaning that I would be unable to pay the considerable bill the next day. Also, that I had no cash and no way to eat for the next 24 hours. The clerk commiserated. Then he mobilized what seemed like the whole staff to make sure that it would be all right.

The hotel people pre-charged both dinner and breakfast to my room, figured out how to give the airport taxi service a hotel voucher and then closed out my entire bill a day early, right before I canceled my credit card. They did this all for a stranger they had no reason to trust.

It was exactly what I’d been hearing about Danish businesses and government all week — the individual initiative of relatively low-level employees, the pragmatism, the adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of rules.

I don’t mean to imply that my own company would have left me stranded in Denmark if it hadn’t been for the hotel — as soon as the U.S. woke up, I also had my own team of Bloomberg people trying to make sure I got home safely. The point is that I didn’t need much help, because the marvelously efficient and flexible Danes had already taken care of the problem.

Two weeks later, after I’d canceled my credit cards and replaced my phone, I got a package in the mail covered in foreign stamps. The Danish police had thoughtfully mailed my phone case back to me, at their own expense — sans phone, alas, but with driver’s license and credit cards and various wallet detritus intact. It saved me a trip to the DMV to replace my license, and gave me a warm feeling for the Danes who had, apparently as a matter of course, extended themselves to help a stranger.

Read the whole thing.

A fountain pen is not a screwdriver

February 27th, 2018

Willis McNelly’s interview with Frank Herbert had a number of interesting tidbits I thought I’d quote (or paraphrase):

  • Ecology is the science of understanding consequences.
  • The name of the game is power.
  • There is a law of supply and demand as long as you only have one form of exchange, but once you start getting other media of exchange, such as force, then the law of supply and demand gets different beats on it, different rhythms.
  • Western man has assumed that if you have enough power, there is no problem which won’t submit to this approach, even the problem of our own ignorance.
  • It’s my contention that feudalism is a natural condition of human beings…not that it is the only condition or not that it is the right condition…that it is just a way we have of falling into organisations. I like to use the example of the Berlin Museum Beavers. Before World War II there were a number of families of beaver in the Berlin Museum. They were European beaver. They had been there, raised in captivity for something on the order of seventy beaver generations, in cages. World War II came along and a bomb freed some of them into the countryside. What did they do? They went out and they started building dams.
  • Campbell turned down the sequel. Now his argument was that I had created an anti-hero in Paul in the sequel, and he has built his magazine on the hero. But Galaxy snapped it right up and paid Campbell’s rates.
  • Virginia Heinlein says that every time that Bob wanders away she says, “Cut to the chase.”
  • As my wife is fond of telling my children, a fountain pen is not a screwdriver.
  • So there was a light from back in there and so she could see the cards, and she said, see if you can predict the cards. And she had been shuffling them, so she picked up the first card, and I closed my eyes, and I saw that card. And so I told her…that was it. She put it down. That was the card. I swear to you, Will, I went through that entire deck, predicting every card that she was going to see, and there wasn’t a failure at all. I told her every card. I did it the same every time.
  • Well, one of the threads in the story is to trace a possible way a messiah is created in our society, and I hope I was successful in making it believable. Here we have the entire process, or at least the large and some of the subtle elements of the construction of this, both from the individual standpoint, and from the way society demands this of you. It’s the references in there, you know, that the man must recognize the myth he is living in, because the creation of an avatar is a myth-making process. We’ve done it in our…in recent times. Look at what’s happening to John F. Kennedy.

Diversity is the reigning social and political ideal of our age

February 26th, 2018

Diversity is the reigning social and political ideal of our age, and it got its start with a “scattered” Supreme Court ruling:

In 1974 California resident Allan Bakke brought suit against the University of California, Davis for twice rejecting his application to its medical school. Despite his having test scores well above average for the school’s applicant pool in addition to four years service in the Marine Corps and a seven month tour in Vietnam, UC-Davis refused Bakke admission. The School of Medicine justified this in part because of his age — such discrimination being perfectly legal at the time — and in part because of the manner in which he blamed his first rejection on the School’s affirmative action policy. Beginning shortly after its founding in 1968, the Davis medical school operated a quota system for racial minorities in which around 15 percent of its admission slots were reserved for non-white students. Although Congress believed its Civil Rights Act banned quotas in employment and the Department of Labor under President Nixon clearly forbade them, colleges and universities had been using various types of admissions quotas for decades and were committed to continuing them.

In 1978, four years after Bakke’s original suit, the Supreme Court issued its famously scattered ruling. The nine justices issued six separate opinions, none gathering a majority. Justice Lewis Powell’s idiosyncratic opinion, however, garnered enough partial support in places that it stood as the judgment of the Court. In a victory for affirmative action opponents, it ordered Bakke to be admitted to the Davis School of Medicine and barred the use of racial quotas. Yet in a victory for affirmative action supporters, the Court also agreed that some alternative system of racial preferences could pass constitutional muster. It is precisely here that the ideology of diversity entered mainstream American thought and practice.

Justice Powell argued that “a diverse student body” was a worthy goal of any university which allowed the consideration of race in admissions. He justified this neither on the grounds of racial justice nor the amelioration of past or present discrimination, but on the grounds of diversity. Powell claimed that racial and ethnic diversity advanced the core intellectual mission of American higher education, namely “speculation, experiment and creation,” “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views,” and an encounter of differing “ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” This claim hardly originated with Powell, of course. He was simply repeating the collective views of Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania as stated in their joint brief to the Court in defense of affirmative action. According to the country’s most elite private universities, diversity in all its forms — race, region, social class, field of interest, occupational life plan (although not sex, as Harvard College was male-only until 1977 as was Columbia College until 1983) — is a precondition for the best educational experience possible.

Powell’s endorsement of the so-called ‘Harvard plan’ as a constitutionally permissible and even preferable equal opportunity practice spread diversity throughout American higher education and the elite business sector. Equal opportunity officers and consultants morphed into diversity officers and consultants. New diversity categories expanded older affirmative action mission statements. Diversity training replaced race relations workshops. Culture audits burst onto the scene. By the early 1990s, diversity had conquered Corporate America.

I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions

February 25th, 2018

Arnold Kling found Russ Roberts’ recent interview with Bryan Caplan to be one of his favorite EconTalk episodes, “because Russ pushes back so hard and of course Bryan debates effectively.” I also enjoyed both the Caplan quotes he cited:

I would say if there is no designable test that can show that people learn something, then they haven’t learned it. You might say the test is bad, in which case I would say, ‘Fine. Design a better test, and then show it to me.’ But, if you want to say that people have been transformed but it’s a way that no one can actually show, no matter how hard they try, then I’m going to say, ‘No. That just sounds like wishful thinking.’


I’m weird in this way, in that when I read something that seems true to me, like I just feel this incredible, this weight on the world: ‘I must repent. I can’t keep living the way I used to live anymore. I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions, day after day. And, I’m a sinner if I don’t.’ But even that is such a weird response to a book. Most people read Tetlock’s Superforecasting and say, ‘Oh, yeah. So interesting. Some people are really great at this stuff. Yeah. Right.’ And then they go back and live their normal lives.

How Star Wars was saved in the edit

February 24th, 2018

I wasn’t aware of how Star Wars was saved in the edit:

I actually like the idea of Luke looking up through his macrobinoculars (or theodolite) at the battle above Tatooine.

(Hat tip to Morlock Publishing.)

There are other reasons why stories are remembered

February 23rd, 2018

I recently shared an interview with Frank Herbert, where he and Professor McNelly discuss, among other things, why stories are remembered:

Willis McNelly: I have said this to my classes that, in many ways as satisfying as “Dune” is, I find it unsatisfying because there are so many unanswered questions; you don’t tie up the loose ends of, say, Paul’s sister, unless you read…what is it?.. a “Huntress of a Thousand Worlds” (Laughter)…that marvellous little…little footnote of Princess Alia. But… or several other things. The whole question of the Spacing Guild itself and how it got to be the way it was is handled very…you know…

Frank Herbert: Well, let’s…let’s examine something, as far as fiction in general is concerned…

WM: All right.

FH: Now there are other reasons why stories are remembered, and I’m talking about story in the classic sense of the knights who goes from castle to castle to earn his meal.

WM: All right.

FH: Entertainment…

WM: Sure.

FH: The stories that are remembered are the ones that strike sparks from your mind, one way or another. It’s like a grinding wheel. They touch you and sparks fly.

WM: Would this be something like the Miller’s tale of Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if you please?

FH: Yes, indeed.

WM: Or, well, we could adduce thousands of other examples up to, say, Treasure Island or what you will. There’s sparks there.


WM: I understand your term.

FH: Now we all have stories that we go on with after we finish reading them. As children, we can remember playing Treasure Island…

WM: Or playing Tom Sawyer…

FH: Or Tom Sawyer…any of these. We remember playing these. The story stayed with us…the characters and their conflicts, their joys, their play all stayed with us.

WM: And it enkindled sparks in our own imagination, so that we were then active in creative play.

FH: That’s exactly right! We went on and told the story ourself…

WM: Yes.

FH: Now, I deliberately did this in “Dune” for that purpose. I want the person to go on and construct for himself all of these marvellous flights of fantasy and imagination. I want him to…you see, you haven’t had the Spacing Guild explained completely…just enough so that you know its existence. Now with lots of people, they’ve got to complete this.

WM: Yes.

FH: So they build it up in their own minds. Now this is right out of the story, though, you see…

WM: Yes. Or the whole…

FH: The sparks have flown.

I found this almost ironic, since I had just watched the first episode of Netflix’s The Toys that Made Us, about the original Star Wars toys, which no major toy manufacturer was willing to produce. Only Kenner was willing to take on the project, because Bernard Loomis recognized how toyetic the new film would be. Millions of kids would go on to play out their own versions of Star Wars, never knowing how heavily it borrowed from Dune.

Is the education system really a waste of time and money?

February 22nd, 2018

Is the education system really a waste of time and money, Bryan Caplan asks, as his new book claims right on the cover? This is a strange topic to debate with Eric Hanushek, he explains:

Why? Because if Hanushek had absolute power to fix the education system, education might actually be worth every penny. Hanushek is famous for focusing on what schools teach rather than what they spend — and documenting the vast disconnect between the two. If you haven’t already read his dissection of “input-based education policies,” you really ought to. Hanushek, more than any other economist, has taught us that measured literacy and numeracy are socially valuable — but just making kids spend long years in well-funded schools is not.

Tragically, however, Hanushek is not our education czar. Instead, all levels of our education system are extremely wasteful and ineffective. After spending more than a decade in class and burning up over $100,000 in taxpayer money, most Americans know shockingly little. About a third of adults are barely literate or numerate. Average adult knowledge of the other standard academic requirements — history, social studies, science, foreign languages — is near-zero. The average adult with a B.A. has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average high school graduate. The average high school graduate has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average drop-out. This is the fruit of a trillion taxpayer dollars a year.

For economists, however, there’s a powerful objection to this condemnation. If students really learn so little, why on earth is education so lucrative in the labor market? Why do high school grads outearn dropouts by 30%? Why do college grads outearn high school grads by 73%? Explain that! Employers want profit and they aren’t dumb. They wouldn’t pay exorbitant premia unless education dramatically improved worker productivity, right?

Wrong. There are TWO solid business reasons to pay extra for educated workers. One is that education teaches useful skills, transforming unskilled students into skilled workers. This is the standard “human capital” story. The other reason, though, is that education certifies useful skills, helping employers distinguish skilled workers from imposters. This is the “signaling” story. In the real world, naturally, it’s a continuum. But since Hanushek is not the education czar, signaling explains most of education’s financial reward.

How can we know this? We should start with the massive gap between learning and earning, combined with the fact that even the most irrelevant subjects and majors yield decent financial rewards. If human capital were the whole story, why on earth would employers care if about whether you’ve studied Shakespeare, Latin, or trigonometry? Think about all the classroom materials you haven’t used since the final exam.

If that doesn’t fully convince you, many other facts that every student knows cut in the same direction. Such as:

1. It’s easy to unofficially attend college classes without enrolling or paying tuition, but almost no one bothers. Why not? Because after four years of guerilla education, there’s one thing you won’t have: a diploma. The central signal of our society.

2. Students’ focus on grades over learning, best seen in their tireless search for “easy A’s.” Signaling has a simple explanation: If a professor gives you a high grade for minimal work, you get a nice seal of approval without suffering for it.

3. Students routinely cram for final exams, then calmly forget everything they learn. Signaling provides a clean explanation: Learning, then forgetting, sends a much better signal than failing.

In The Case Against Education, I also review multiple major bodies of academic research to help pin down the true human capital/signaling breakdown. In the end, my best estimate is that signaling explains 80% of the payoff. Key pieces of evidence:

1. Most of the payoff for school comes from graduation, not mere years of study. This is a doozy for human capital theory to explain; do schools withhold useful skills until senior year? But it makes perfect sense if graduation is a focal signal of conformity to social norms.

2. There has been massive credential inflation since 1940. The education you need to do a job hasn’t changed much, but the education you need to get any given job has risen about three years. Hence, the fact that waiter, bartender, security guard, and cashier are all now common jobs for college grads.

3. Though every data set yields different estimates, the effect of national education on national income is much smaller than the effect of personal education on personal income. How is this possible? Signaling! Give everyone more useful skills, and you enrich the whole nation. Give everyone more stickers on their foreheads, and you fritter away valuable time and tax money.

If you’ve been wondering, “What does signaling have to do with wasteful education?,” I hope you’re starting to see the link. Sure, it’s useful to rank workers. But once they’re ranked, prolonging the ranking game is a socially destructive rat race. When education levels skyrocket, the main result isn’t good jobs for every graduate, but credential inflation: The more education the average worker has, the more education the average worker needs to be employable. And while sending fancy signals is a great way for an individual to enrich himself, it’s a terrible way to enrich society.

Given Hanushek’s work, I’m optimistic that he’ll agree with much of what I’ve said. It’s our remedies that starkly diverge. My primary solution for these ills is cutting education spending. In a word, austerity. Austerity: It’s word I love. It’s a word I believe in. If Hanushek’s bleak assessment of input-based education policies is right, austerity will save tons of time and money with little effect on worker skill.