No savant has ever been known to become a “Big-C creator,” who changed their field

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

When we know the rules and answers, and they don’t change over time — chess, golf, playing classical music — an argument can be made for savant-like hyperspecialized practice from day one, David Epstein argues (in Range), but those are poor models of most things humans want to learn:

Chris Argyris, who helped create the Yale School of Management, noted the danger of treating the wicked world as if it is kind. He studied high-powered consultants from top business schools for fifteen years, and saw that they did really well on business school problems that were well defined and quickly assessed. But they employed what Argyris called single-loop learning, the kind that favors the first familiar solution that comes to mind. Whenever those solutions went wrong, the consultant usually got defensive. Argyris found their “brittle personalities” particularly surprising given that “the essence of their job is to teach others how to do things differently.”

[...]

Psychologist Barry Schwartz demonstrated a similar, learned inflexibility among experienced practitioners when he gave college students a logic puzzle that involved hitting switches to turn light bulbs on and off in sequence, and that they could play over and over. It could be solved in seventy different ways, with a tiny money reward for each success. The students were not given any rules, and so had to proceed by trial and error.* If a student found a solution, they repeated it over and over to get more money, even if they had no idea why it worked. Later on, new students were added, and all were now asked to discover the general rule of all solutions. Incredibly, every student who was brand-new to the puzzle discovered the rule for all seventy solutions, while only one of the students who had been getting rewarded for a single solution did. The subtitle of Schwartz’s paper: “How Not to Teach People to Discover Rules”—that is, by providing rewards for repetitive short-term success with a narrow range of solutions.

[...]

As psychologist Ellen Winner, one of the foremost authorities on gifted children, noted, no savant has ever been known to become a “Big-C creator,” who changed their field.

[...]

When experienced accountants were asked in a study to use a new tax law for deductions that replaced a previous one, they did worse than novices.

Cheerleaders are their number-one worshipers, high priestesses to the cult

Saturday, December 7th, 2019

American schools are uniquely focused on athletics, sociologist Randall Collins notes:

Murray Milner (University of Virginia sociologist) did a massive study of prestige hierarachies at high schools across the country. He went on to develop an explanation of why jocks and cheerleaders are at the top, and serious students near the bottom. Games by a school team are the one activity where everyone is assembled, focusing attention on a group of token individuals who represent themselves. Games also have drama, plot tension, and emotion, thus fitting the ingredients for a successful interaction ritual. Predictably, they create feelings of solidarity and identity; and they give prestige to the individuals who are in the center of attention. Jocks are the school’s heroes (especially when they are winning). Cheerleaders are their number-one worshipers, high priestesses to the cult, sharing the stage or at least the edge of it. And they are chosen to represent the top of the sexual attractiveness hierarchy, hence centers of the partying-celebration part of school life — out of the purview of adult teachers, administrators, and parents.

In contrast, outstanding students perform mostly alone. They are not the center of an audience gathered to watch them show off their skills. There are no big interaction rituals focusing attention on them. Their achievement is for themselves; they do not represent the school body, certainly not in any way that involves contagious emotional excitement. The jocks-&-partying channeling of attention in schools devalues the intellectuals. When it comes to a contest between the two, the athletic-centered sphere always dominates, at least in the public places where the action is. The social networks of intellectual students are backstage, even underground.

I wouldn’t disagree with that, but we should admit that being athletic is naturally more attractive than being studious.

I think he really misses the boat here, though:

This is why the average scores on American students in international comparisons of skills in reading, math, and other subjects tend to be at the bottom, far below countries in east Asia and in Europe. It is not a matter of talent, and certainly not a deficiency in school facilities, but a problem of social motivation.

European-Americans do about as well as Europeans, and Asian-Americans do about as well as Asians.

It frequently bred confidence but not skill

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein notes that many different kinds of specialists make high-stakes decisions under time pressure:

Psychologist Gary Klein is a pioneer of the “naturalistic decision making” (NDM) model of expertise; NDM researchers observe expert performers in their natural course of work to learn how they make high-stakes decisions under time pressure.

[...]

Kasparov said he would bet that grandmasters usually make the move that springs to mind in the first few seconds of thought.

Klein studied firefighting commanders and estimated that around 80 percent of their decisions are also made instinctively and in seconds.

[...]

When he studied nonwartime naval commanders who were trying to avoid disasters, like mistaking a commercial flight for an enemy and shooting it down, he saw that they very quickly discerned potential threats. Ninety-five percent of the time, the commanders recognized a common pattern and chose a common course of action that was the first to come to mind.

One of Klein’s colleagues, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, studied human decision making from the “heuristics and biases” model of human judgment. His findings could hardly have been more different from Klein’s. When Kahneman probed the judgments of highly trained experts, he often found that experience had not helped at all. Even worse, it frequently bred confidence but not skill.

Kahneman included himself in that critique. He first began to doubt the link between experience and expertise in 1955, as a young lieutenant in the psychology unit of the Israel Defense Forces. One of his duties was to assess officer candidates through tests adapted from the British army. In one exercise, teams of eight had to get themselves and a length of telephone pole over a six-foot wall without letting the pole touch the ground, and without any of the soldiers or the pole touching the wall.* The difference in individuals’ performances were so stark, with clear leaders, followers, braggarts, and wimps naturally emerging under the stress of the task, that Kahneman and his fellow evaluators grew confident they could analyze the candidates’ leadership qualities and identify how they would perform in officer training and in combat. They were completely mistaken. Every few months, they had a “statistics day” where they got feedback on how accurate their predictions had been. Every time, they learned they had done barely better than blind guessing. Every time, they gained experience and gave confident judgments. And every time, they did not improve. Kahneman marveled at the “complete lack of connection between the statistical information and the compelling experience of insight.”

[...]

In those domains, which involved human behavior and where patterns did not clearly repeat, repetition did not cause learning. Chess, golf, and firefighting are exceptions, not the rule.

[...]

Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.

The domains Klein studied, in which instinctive pattern recognition worked powerfully, are what psychologist Robin Hogarth termed “kind” learning environments. Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid.

[...]

Kahneman was focused on the flip side of kind learning environments; Hogarth called them “wicked.”

In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.

In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.

Hogarth noted a famous New York City physician renowned for his skill as a diagnostician. The man’s particular specialty was typhoid fever, and he examined patients for it by feeling around their tongues with his hands. Again and again, his testing yielded a positive diagnosis before the patient displayed a single symptom. And over and over, his diagnosis turned out to be correct. As another physician later pointed out, “He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary.”

[...]

Expert firefighters, when faced with a new situation, like a fire in a skyscraper, can find themselves suddenly deprived of the intuition formed in years of house fires, and prone to poor decisions.

A concerned citizen is largely helpless

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

In Loserthink Scott Adams cites a celebrity’s global warming climate change tweet as an example of a bright person talking about something without training in economics or business:

Now let’s say you had experience in economics and business, as I do. In those domains, anyone telling you they can predict the future in ten years with their complicated multivariate models is automatically considered a fraud.

[...]

You might be debating me in your mind right now and thinking that, unlike the field of finance, the scientific process drives out bias over time. Studies are peer reviewed, and experiments that can’t be reproduced are discarded.

Is that what is happening?

Here I draw upon my sixteen years working in corporate America. If my job involved reviewing a complicated paper from a peer, how much checking of the data and the math would I do when I am already overworked? Would I travel to the original measuring instruments all over the world and check their calibrations? Would I compare the raw data to the “adjusted” data that is used in the paper? Would I do a deep dive on the math and reasoning, or would I skim it for obvious mistakes? Unless scientists are a different kind of human being than the rest of us, they would intelligently cut corners whenever they think they could get away with it, just like everyone else. Assuming scientists are human, you would expect lots of peer-reviewed studies to be flawed. And that turns out to be the situation. As the New York Times reported in 2018, the peer review process is defective to the point of being laughable.

[...]

My point is that a concerned citizen is largely helpless in trying to understand how settled the science of climate change really is. But that doesn’t stop us from having firm opinions on the topic.

[...]

Whenever you have a lot of money in play, combined with the ability to hide misbehavior behind complexity, you should expect widespread fraud to happen. Take, for example, the 2019 Duke University settlement in which the university agreed to pay $112.5 million for repeatedly submitting research grant requests with falsified data. Duke had a lot of grant money at stake, and lots of complexity in which to hide bad behavior. Fraud was nearly guaranteed.

If you have been on this planet for a long time, as I have, and you pay attention to science, you know that the consensus of scientists on the topic of nutrition was wrong for decades.

[...]

Over time, it became painfully obvious to me that nutrition science wasn’t science at all. It was some unholy marriage of industry influence, junk science, and government. Any one of those things is bad, but when you put those three forces together, people die. That isn’t hyperbole. Bad nutrition science has probably killed a lot of people in the past few decades.

Naming things can weaponize them

Thursday, November 28th, 2019

Scott Adams has some fun introducing his latest book, Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America:

I know from experience that many of you will give this book as a gift to the unproductive thinkers in your lives, and I wanted to create a complete picture for them, if not for you, O wise book-giver.

[...]

We humans give greater weight to things that have names. And giving loserthink its name creates a shorthand way of mocking people who practice unproductive thinking. Mockery gets a bad rap, but I think we can agree it can be useful when intelligently applied. For example, mocking people for lying probably helps to reduce future lies and make the world a better place, whereas mocking people for things they can’t change is just being a jerk.

[...]

Naming things can weaponize them.

[...]

The risk of mockery changes behavior. I would go so far as to say it is one of history’s most powerful forces.

[...]

Before I introduced the term loserthink, what word would you have used to describe a smart person who has a mental blind spot caused by a lack of exposure across different fields?

[...]

You would probably default to the closest word in your vocabulary, which might be stupid, dumb, idiot, and the like. I don’t have to tell you it’s hard to change someone’s mind after you call him an idiot. And if you take the high road and the intellectual path, describing a person’s mental blind spots with terms such as confirmation bias or cognitive dissonance, your target will claim you are actually the one suffering from those cognitive errors, and the discussion goes nowhere.

(The audiobook seems to be on sale right now.)

If they don’t turn up to school, it doesn’t make the slightest difference

Friday, November 15th, 2019

You often hear people lament that children should be allowed to roam free. Ed West’s radical proposal is that child labour should be reintroduced:

But it only sounds radical because we associate child labour with past times of extreme poverty and poor working conditions. For my generation it’s Rik from The Young Ones castigating an elderly woman about the “good old days” when you had “four-year-old kiddies digging coal”. And those days were indeed awful. Dan Jackson’s brilliant recent book The Northumbrians recalled the heart-breaking tragedy of the 1862 Hartley Mining Disaster where the bodies of young boys were found with their tiny arms around their brothers.

Not even an ironic reactionary like me would lament the decline of infant mortality and workplace fatalities brought about by health and safety legislation. We obviously wouldn’t allow children to do dangerous work in factories today, and many of the most horrific roles once done by kids are obsolete anyway.

[...]

But for children a bit older, the working environment allows them to interact with adults, adopt adult social norms and learn skills when their brain is rapidly absorbing information. They could also earn money at a time in life they really want it.

I suspect that a lot of teenage crime in London exists because boys reach an age when they want disposable income but there’s no way for them to legally earn it. They’re also mentally and physically under-stimulated by schoolwork they know brings them little tangible benefit. (This is arguably more acute among boys because they’re generally more goal-driven, respond when stakes are high, and easily give up when they’re not). Instead, during those crucial developmental years, they often learn negative behaviour through frustration and drift, so that by the time they’re finally allowed to enter the labour force, they’re already unsuited to it.

At the moment, almost half a million people aged 16-24 are unemployed, but many might not be, if they’d been allowed to start work a bit earlier — with a lower minimum wage. Experience would make them more attractive to employers; it would also get them in the habit of work, so they’d be more likely to adjust to working quickly and stick to it.

Prolonged education also cuts adolescents off from wider society. One of the worst aspects of British society — and where it contrasts poorly with Catholic cultures like Italy or Ireland (still, just about) — is that we have a great deal of generational separation. Young people benefit from working and socialising among those older than them, not only because they’re a calming influence but because they can subtly instruct them on how to behave.

Working young helps insulate children from one of the biggest pitfalls of modern life: extended or even permanent adolescence, which happens when people learn responsibility too late. It also helps a person form a place in a society. Not having enough money is pretty much the worst thing in the world — and reducing poverty should be the central “social justice” aim of governments — but not having a role or purpose is almost as bad.

Teenage boys like to feel needed. This really hit me a few years back when during an unexpected snowfall — there hadn’t been snow in London for well over a decade — all the cars in our area were stuck, and the drivers, many of them mothers with children, stranded. It was obvious that the boys on their way home from the nearby secondary school loved all this — for once, wider society actually needed them.

Having a job, going to an office and earning money — and with it the opportunity to work, and earn, even more — gives teenagers a role. If they don’t turn up for work, the company suffers; if they don’t turn up to school, it doesn’t make the slightest difference except for the purpose of government statistics.

Start with a big blatant neglected fact

Friday, November 8th, 2019

How does Bryan Caplan pick book topics?

How do I pick book topics? On reflection, I usually start with what appears to be a big blatant neglected fact. Then I try to discover whether anything in the universe is big enough to explain this alleged fact away. If a laborious search uncovers nothing sufficient, I am left with the seed of a book: One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts.

Thus, my Myth of the Rational Voter starts with what appears to be a big blatant neglected fact: the typical voter seems highly irrational. He uses deeply flawed intellectual methods, and holds a wide range of absurd views. Twist and turn the issue as you please, and this big blatant neglected fact remains.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, similarly, begins with a rather different big blatant neglected alleged fact: Modern parenting is obsessed with “investing” in kids’ long-run outcomes, yet twin and adoption researchers consistently conclude that the long-run effect of nurture is grossly overrated. Yes, the latter fact is only “blatant” after you read the research, but once you read it, you can’t unread it.

What’s the One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts in The Case Against Education? This: education is highly lucrative even though the curriculum is highly irrelevant in the real world. Yes, it takes a book to investigate the many efforts to explain this One Big Fact away (“learning how to learn,” anyone?). But without One Big Fact, there’d be no book.

Finally, the big motivated fact behind Open Borders is that simply letting a foreigner move to the First World vastly multiplies his labor earnings overnight. A Haitian really can make twenty times as much money in Miami the week after he leaves Port-au-Prince – and the reason is clearly that the Haitian is vastly more productive in the U.S. Which really makes you wonder: Why would anyone want to stop another human being from escaping poverty by enriching the world? Giving this starting point, anti-immigration arguments are largely attempts to explain this big blatant neglected fact away. Given what restrictionist arguments are up against, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t measure up.

On reflection, my current book project, Poverty: Who To Blame doesn’t seem to fit this formula. The book will rest on three or four big blatant neglected facts rather than one. Yet perhaps as I write, One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts will come into focus…

Half of Americans read a book in the last year

Sunday, October 13th, 2019

The size of the American reading public varies depending on one’s definition of reading:

In 2017, about 53 percent of American adults (roughly 125 million people) read at least one book not for school or for work in the previous 12 months, according to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Five years earlier, the NEA ran a more detailed survey, and found that 23 percent of American adults were “light” readers (finishing one to five titles per year), 10 percent were “moderate” (six to 11 titles), 13 percent were “frequent” (12 to 49 titles), and a dedicated 5 percent were “avid” (50 books and up).

The College Board has been criticized for this so-called excellence gap

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

Learning in the Fast Lane is both a history and a defense of the Advanced Placement program:

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush nearly 20 years ago, and the Race to the Top initiative, championed by President Obama, weren’t overly concerned with students who occupied the loftiest parts of the achievement spectrum. Schools were rewarded “for helping struggling kids meet proficiency standards but not for dealing with those already well beyond proficiency,” Mr. Finn said. Education policy makers respond to incentives like everyone else.

One bright spot is the Advanced Placement program, which got its start during the Eisenhower administration. Spooked by Sputnik, the government worried about the intellectual rigor of our schools. The country was trying to win a Cold War against communism, and the thinking was that a better-educated public would help ensure victory. After World War II, states made high school mandatory, and the GI Bill gave returning soldiers access to college. The goal was to locate and then nurture the nation’s best and brightest.

The AP program initially was funded by the Ford Foundation but today is run by the College Board, the same nonprofit entity that administers the SAT. Early on, fewer than a dozen AP courses existed, mainly in private schools or affluent suburban districts. By 2018, nearly 40 subjects were available to some 2.8 million students enrolled in more than 22,000 high schools. Students who complete the courses take a final exam, which is graded on a 5-point scale. Those who score 3 or higher are often eligible for college credit.

The downside of this expansion is that many low-income and minority students who complete the courses don’t score well enough on the exams to receive college credit. The College Board has been criticized for this so-called excellence gap, but Mr. Finn hopes that the outreach continues.

He said the proper response to underwhelming test scores is better preparation for disadvantaged students who enroll, and he commends the AP program for maintaining high standards.

The growth in high school enrollment tracks the growth in teen suicides

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Michael Strong suggests evolutionary mismatch as a causal factor in adolescent dysfunction and mental illness:

Human beings evolved over many millions of years in diverse physical environments. But with respect to social structure, until the dawn of agriculture and empire, almost all adolescents:

1. Lived in a small tribal community of a few dozen to a few hundred with few interactions with other tribal groups.

2. These tribes would have shared one language, one belief system, one set of norms, one morality, and more generally a social and cultural homogeneity that is unimaginable for us today.

3. They would have been immersed in a community with a full range of ages present, from child to elder.

4. From childhood they would have been engaged in the work of the community, typically hunting and gathering, with full adult responsibilities typically being associated with puberty.

5. Their mating and status competitions would have mostly been within their tribe or occasionally with nearby groups, most of which would have been highly similar to themselves.

Contemporary adolescents in developed nations, by contrast:

1. Are often exposed to hundreds or thousands of age peers directly in addition to thousands of adults and thousands of electronic representations of diverse human beings (both social media and entertainment media).

2. Are exposed to many languages, belief systems, norms, moralities, and social and cultural diversity.

3. Are largely isolated with a very narrow range of age peers through schooling.

4. Have little or no opportunities for meaningful work in their community and no adult responsibilities until 18 or even into their 20s.

5. They are competing for mates and status with hundreds or thousands directly and with many thousands via electronic representations (both social media and entertainment media).

We do not know for certain exactly which of these differences between our environment of evolutionary adaptation and contemporary adolescence in developed nations result in which manifestations of mental illnesses and to what extent. But it would be surprising if these rather dramatic changes in the social and cultural environment did not have some impact.

[...]

Might the growth in teen suicides from 1950 to 1980 be a result of an increased evolutionary mismatch during that period?

We don’t know why, exactly, teen suicide increased 3x during that period. That said, the correlation with schooling is intriguing. For instance, white students completing high school increased from about 30% to about 70% from 1950 to 1980. “Black and other” students increased from about 10% completing high school in 1950 to about 60% in 1980.

If we look at suicide rates age 15–19, white males increase from 3.7 per 100,000 in 1950 to 15.0 per 100,000 in 1980, more than 4x. Black and other males increase from 2.2 per 100,000 in 1950 to 7.5 per 100,000 in 1980, more than 3.4x. Female rates did not increase at the same rate: White females age 15–19 went from 1.9 per 100,000 in 1950 to 3.3 in 1980, 1.7x. Black and other females increased from 1.5 per 100,000 in 1950 to a peace of 3.0 in 1970 before coming back down to 1.8 per 100,000 in 1980, 2x at the peak, 1.2x by 1980.

For males, at least, the growth in high school enrollment tracks the growth in teen suicides.

When he’s beaten, something chemical happens

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

I was recently reminded of a story I first heard maybe 17 years ago, which NPR describes as why we need grandpas and grandmas, but which I always thought of as why young men need gym teachers and drill sergeants:

Our tale begins in Kruger National Park, a giant game reserve on the plains of South Africa, one of the world’s most famous and visited nature preserves. Kruger is home to 8,000 elephants — or, rather, 8,000 is the optimum population for the park. But the elephants, unaware of this, have a tendency to make more elephants, and the population keeps swelling, which upsets the natural balance, and so for years, park rangers have had to “cull” the surplus, which they did by darting the older animals from the air, and then shooting them to death on the ground, often in front of younger members of the herd.

Gamekeepers, I’m sure, couldn’t have liked this part of their job. So it was decided, back in 1994, to round up some of the surplus animals and ship them to other parks — to sort of spread the elephants around rather than eliminating them.

And that is why, in the 1990s, about 40 young elephants were taken a few hundred miles closer to Johannesburg, to a newly constructed nature reserve called Pilanesberg National Park, where they were to establish a new herd. Time passed, and after about ten years, rangers and biologists began reporting what science writer J.B. MacKinnon calls a “novel situation.”

The male elephants that had been transferred became unusually violent. They were attacking each other much more frequently, sometimes attacking people, pushing cars off the road (which, in a tourist center, is more than a little concerning), but most of all, rebuffed by older females, they were going after female white rhinos, the largest available pachyderm in the neighborhood, and raping them. Then killing them.

The New York Times reported that in one month in Pilanesberg Park, officials “shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles.”

Park biologists tried to figure out what was going on, and while some scientists believe this is a case of youngsters permanently changed by watching their parents “culled,” others have decided something simpler is going on.

When young male elephants approach sexual maturity, they go through a phase called “musth,” where testosterone floods in at up to 60 times the usual levels, making them highly aggressive, irritable and dangerous. This usually lasts a short time — but not for the Pilanesberg Park males: They entered musth earlier and stayed in it longer, much, much longer. Instead of weeks, their frenzies lasted months — in one case for “as many as five months,” reports J.B. MacKinnon. Why were these episodes happening for so long? Why weren’t they un-happening?

That’s when elephant scientists had a suggestion. In ordinary herds — where there are lots of big, older, respected male bull elephants around — when a teenager goes through his wild phase, he will get slapped down by a larger, older male. The younger male will attack, and when he’s beaten … something chemical happens …

Says J.B.MacKinnon: “After standing down to a dominant bull, the rush of hormones in the younger male stops, in some cases in a matter of minutes.” The cue to turn off the testosterone comes from getting bonked. So biologists suggested reintroducing a group of elders into Pilanesberg.

Six older elephants arrived, did what oldsters do to rambunctious youngsters, and not long thereafter, says MacKinnon, “the killing of rhinoceroses stopped.” The verdict: The young elephants went wild mostly because there were no older elephants around to keep them in check.

I remember having the same thought when I was just out of college, and some high school kid would puff up to fill the aisle at Tower Records, rather than step aside. He’s practically demanding to be smacked down, and it seems biological, unconscious, but modern society doesn’t let us smack him down.

That’s when self-hatred starts

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

The black critique of Brown v. Board of Education starts with some of the psychological research, Malcolm Gladwell explains:

Well, the great book on this is Daryl Scott’s Contempt and Pity. He’s a very good black historian at Howard [University], I believe. Yes, he’s the chair of history at Howard. And he has much to say, so I got quite taken when I was doing this season of my podcast with the black critique of Brown [v. Board of Education]. And the black critique of Brown starts with some of that psychological research because the psychological research is profoundly problematic on many levels.

So what Clark was showing, and what so moved the court in the Warren decision, was this research where you would take the black and the white doll, and you show that to the black kid. And you would say, “Which is the good doll?” And the black kid points to the white doll. “And which doll do you associate with yourself?” And they don’t want to answer the question. And the court said, “This is the damage done by segregation.”

Scott points out that if you actually look at the research that Clark did, the black children who were most likely to have these deeply problematic responses in the doll test were those from the North, who were in integrated schools. The southern kids in segregated schools did not regard the black doll as problematic. They were like, “That’s me. Fine.”

That result, that it was black kids, minority kids from integrated schools, who had the most adverse reactions to their own representation in a doll, is consistent with all of the previous literature on self-hatred, which starts with Jews. That literature begins with, where does Jewish self-hatred come from? Jewish self-hatred does not come from Eastern Europe and the ghettos. It comes from when Jewish immigrants confront and come into close conflict and contact with majority white culture. That’s when self-hatred starts, when you start measuring yourself at close quarters against the other, and the other seems so much more free and glamorous and what have you.

So, in other words, the Warren Court picks the wrong research. There are all kinds of problems caused by segregation. This happens to be not one of them. So why does the Warren Court do that? Because they are trafficking — this is Scott’s argument — they are trafficking in an uncomfortable and unfortunate trope about black Americans, which is that black American culture is psychologically damaged. That the problem with black people is not that they’re denied power, or that doors are closed to them, or that . . . no, it’s because that something at their core, their family life and their psyches, have, in some way, been crushed or distorted or harmed by their history.

It personalizes the struggle. By personalizing the struggle, what the Warren Court is trying to do is to manufacture an argument against segregation that will be acceptable to white people, particularly Southern white people. And so, what they’re saying is, “Look, it’s not you that’s the problem. It’s black people. They’re harmed in their hearts, and we have to usher them into the mainstream.”

They’re not making the correct argument, which was, “You guys have been messing with these people for 200 years! Stop!” They can’t make that argument because Warren desperately wants a majority. He wants a nine-nothing majority on the court. So, instead, they construct this, in retrospect, deeply offensive argument, about how it’s all about black people carrying this . . . and using social science in a way that’s actually quite deeply problematic. It’s not what the social science said.

An Odyssean education would focus on humans’ biggest and most important problems

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Dominic Cummings was Michael Gove’s main adviser when he compiled some thoughts on education and political priorities:

Although we understand some systems well enough to make precise or statistical predictions, most interesting systems — whether physical, mental, cultural, or virtual — are complex, nonlinear, and have properties that emerge from feedback between many interactions. Exhaustive searches of all possibilities are impossible. Unfathomable and unintended consequences dominate. Problems cascade. Complex systems are hard to understand, predict and control.

A growing fraction of the world has made a partial transition from a) small, relatively simple, hierarchical, primitive, zero-sum hunter-gatherer tribes based on superstition (almost total ignorance of complex systems), shared aims, personal exchange and widespread violence, to b) large, relatively complex, decentralised, technological, nonzero-sum market-based cultures based on science (increasingly accurate predictions and control in some fields), diverse aims, impersonal exchange, trade, private property, and (roughly) equal protection under the law. Humans have made transitions from numerology to mathematics, from astrology to astronomy, from alchemy to chemistry, from witchcraft to neuroscience, from tallies to quantum computation. However, while our ancestor chiefs understood bows, horses, and agriculture, our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors. The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre. In England, few are well-trained in the basics of extended writing or mathematical and scientific modelling and problem-solving. Less than 10 percent per year leave school with formal training in basics such as exponential functions, ‘normal distributions’ (‘the bell curve’), and conditional probability. Less than one percent are well educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation. Only a small subset of that <1% then study trans-disciplinary issues concerning complex systems. This number has approximately zero overlap with powerful decision-makers. Generally, they are badly (or narrowly) educated and trained (even elite universities offer courses that are thought to prepare future political decision-makers but are clearly inadequate and in some ways damaging). They also usually operate in institutions that have vastly more ambitious formal goals than the dysfunctional management could possibly achieve, and which generally select for the worst aspects of chimp politics and against those skills seen in rare successful organisations (e.g the ability to simplify, focus, and admit errors). Most politicians, officials, and advisers operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgement), and little experience in well-managed complex organisations. The skills, and approach to problems, of our best mathematicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs are almost totally shut out of vital decisions. We do not have a problem with ‘too much cynicism’ — we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much.

The consequences are increasingly dangerous as markets, science and technology disrupt all existing institutions and traditions, and enhance the dangerous potential of our evolved nature to inflict huge physical destruction and to manipulate the feelings and ideas of many people (including, sometimes particularly, the best educated) through ‘information operations’. Our fragile civilisation is vulnerable to large shocks and a continuation of traditional human politics as it was during 6 million years of hominid evolution – an attempt to secure in-group cohesion, prosperity and strength in order to dominate or destroy nearby out-groups in competition for scarce resources — could kill billions. We need big changes to schools, universities, and political and other institutions for their own sake and to help us limit harm done by those who, entangled with trends described below, pursue dreams of military glory, ‘that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.’

Some ideas are presented, aimed mainly at 15-25 year-olds, for what physicist Murray Gell Mann described as an ‘Odyssean’ education synthesising a) maths and the natural sciences, b) the social sciences, and c) the humanities and arts, into crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking. This should combine courses like The Big History Project, Berkeley’s ‘Physics for Future Presidents’ (or Professor Timothy Gowers’ planned equivalent for maths) with the best of the humanities; add new skills such as coding; and give training in managing complex projects and using modern tools (e.g agent-based models, ABMs). Universities should develop alternatives to Politics, Philosophy, and Economics such as Ancient and Modern History, Physics for Future Presidents, and Programming. We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling, who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project. An Odyssean education would focus on humans’ biggest and most important problems and explain connections between them to train synthesisers. An approach is suggested here based on seven broad fields with some big, broad goals.

  1. Maths and complexity. Solve the Millennium Problems, better prediction of complex networks.
  2. Energy and space. Ubiquitous cheap energy and opening space for science and commerce.
  3. Physics and computation. Exploration beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, better materials and computers, digital fabrication, and quantum computation.
  4. Biological engineering. Understanding the biological basis of personality and cognition, personalised medicine, and computational and synthetic biology.
  5. Mind and machine. Quantitative models of the mind and machine intelligence applications.
  6. The scientific method, education, training and decisions. Nielsen’s vision of decentralised coordination of expertise and data-driven intelligence (‘a scientific social web that directs scientists’ attention where it is most valuable’); more ambitious and scientifically tested personalised education; training and tools that measurably improve decisions (e.g. ABMs).
  7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes. Replacements for failed economic ideas and traditional political philosophies; new institutions (e.g. new civil service systems and international institutions, a UK DARPA and TALPIOT (non-military), decentralised health services).

Such an education and training might develop synthesisers who have 1) a crude but useful grasp of connections between the biggest challenges based on trans-disciplinary thinking about complex systems; 2) a cool Thucydidean courage to face reality including their own errors and motives; 3) the ability to take better decisions and adapt fast to failures; 4) an evolutionary perspective on complex systems and institutional design (rather than the typical Cartesian ‘chief of the tribe’ perspective); and 5) an ability to shape new institutions operating like an immune system that will bring better chances to avoid, survive, and limit damage done by inevitable disasters.

Focus is hard to hold in politics. After 1945, Dean Acheson quipped that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role. It is suggested here that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science: Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’, we could be the school of the world. Who knows what would happen to a political culture if a party embraced education and science as its defining mission and therefore changed the nature of the people running it and the way they make decisions and priorities. We already have a head start; we lack focus. Large improvements in education and training are easier to achieve than solving many other big problems and will contribute to their solution. Progress could encourage non-zerosum institutions and global cooperation — alternatives to traditional politics and destruction of competitors. However, the spread of knowledge and education is itself a danger and cannot eliminate gaps in wealth and power created partly by unequally distributed heritable characteristics.

He favors a motorcentric view of the brain

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara has written an entire book In Praise of Walking:

He favours what he calls a “motor-centric” view of the brain — that it evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well.

This is neatly illustrated by the life cycle of the humble sea squirt which, in its adult form, is a marine invertebrate found clinging to rocks or boat hulls. It has no brain because it has eaten it. During its larval stage, it had a backbone, a single eye and a basic brain to enable it to swim about hunting like “a small, water-dwelling, vertebrate cyclops”, as O’Mara puts it. The larval sea squirt knew when it was hungry and how to move about, and it could tell up from down. But, when it fused on to a rock to start its new vegetative existence, it consumed its redundant eye, brain and spinal cord. Certain species of jellyfish, conversely, start out as brainless polyps on rocks, only developing complicated nerves that might be considered semi-brains as they become swimmers.

[...]

“Our sensory systems work at their best when they’re moving about the world,” says O’Mara. He cites a 2018 study that tracked participants’ activity levels and personality traits over 20 years, and found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness. There is substantial data showing that walkers have lower rates of depression, too. And we know, says O’Mara, “from the scientific literature, that getting people to engage in physical activity before they engage in a creative act is very powerful. My notion — and we need to test this — is that the activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater almost as an accident of walking demanding lots of neural resources.”

O’Mara’s enthusiasm for walking ties in with both of his main interests as a professor of experimental brain research: stress, depression and anxiety; and learning, memory and cognition. “It turns out that the brain systems that support learning, memory and cognition are the same ones that are very badly affected by stress and depression,” he says. “And by a quirk of evolution, these brain systems also support functions such as cognitive mapping,” by which he means our internal GPS system. But these aren’t the only overlaps between movement and mental and cognitive health that neuroscience has identified.

I witnessed the brain-healing effects of walking when my partner was recovering from an acute brain injury. His mind was often unsettled, but during our evening strolls through east London, things started to make more sense and conversation flowed easily. O’Mara nods knowingly. “You’re walking rhythmically together,” he says, “and there are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting. One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”

From the scant data available on walking and brain injury, says O’Mara, “it is reasonable to surmise that supervised walking may help with acquired brain injury, depending on the nature, type and extent of injury — perhaps by promoting blood flow, and perhaps also through the effect of entraining various electrical rhythms in the brain. And perhaps by engaging in systematic dual tasking, such as talking and walking.”

One such rhythm, he says, is that of theta brainwaves. Theta is a pulse or frequency (seven to eight hertz, to be precise) which, says O’Mara, “you can detect all over the brain during the course of movement, and it has all sorts of wonderful effects in terms of assisting learning and memory, and those kinds of things”. Theta cranks up when we move around because it is needed for spatial learning, and O’Mara suspects that walking is the best movement for such learning. “The timescales that walking affords us are the ones we evolved with,” he writes, “and in which information pickup from the environment most easily occurs.”

Essential brain-nourishing molecules are produced by aerobically demanding activity, too. You’ll get raised levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which, writes O’Mara, “could be thought of as a kind of a molecular fertiliser produced within the brain because it supports structural remodelling and growth of synapses after learning … BDNF increases resilience to ageing, and damage caused by trauma or infection.” Then there’s vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which helps to grow the network of blood vessels carrying oxygen and nutrients to brain cells.

Bloom was on to something

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

José Luis Ricón presents a systematic review of the effectiveness of mastery learning, tutoring, and direct instruction and draws these conclusions about Bloom’s two-sigma problem:

Bloom noted that mastery learning had an effect size of around 1 (one sigma); while tutoring leads to d=2. This is mostly an outlier case.

Nonetheless, Bloom was on to something: Tutoring and mastery learning do have a degree of experimental support, and fortunately it seems that carefully designed software systems can completely replace the instructional side of traditional teaching, achieving better results, on par with one to one tutoring. However, designing them is a hard endeavour, and there is a motivational component of teachers that may not be as easily replicable purely by software.

Overall, it’s good news that the effects are present for younger and older students, and across subjects, but the effect sizes of tutoring, mastery learning or DI are not as good as they would seem from Bloom’s paper. That said, it is true that tutoring does have large effect sizes, and that properly designed software does as well. The DARPA case study shows what is possible with software tutoring, in the case the effect sizes went even beyond Bloom’s paper.

Also, other approaches to education also have shown large effect sizes, and so one shouldn’t privilege DI/ML here. The principles behind DI/ML (clarity in what is taught, constant testing, feedback, remediation) are sound, and they do seem more clearly effective for disadvantaged children, so for them they are worth trying. For gifted children, or in general intelligent individuals, the principles of the approaches do still make sense, but how much of an effect do they have? In this review I have not looked at this question, but suffice to say that I haven’t found numerous mentions of work targeting the gifted.

That aside, if what one has in mind is raising the average societal skill-level by improving education, that’s a different matter, and that’s where the evidence from the DI literature is less compelling, the effects that do seem to emerge are weaker, perhaps of a quarter of a standard deviation at best. ML does fare better in the general student population, and for college students too.

As for the effect of diverse variables on the effects, studies tend to find that the effects of DI/ML fade over time — but don’t fully disappear — and that less skilled students benefit more than highly capable ones, and the effects vary greatly on what is being tested. Mastery learning, it seems, works by overfitting to a test, and the chances that those skills do not generalise are nontrivial. As in Direct Instruction, if what is desired is mastery of a few key core concepts, especially with children with learning disabilities, it may be well suited for them. But it is yet unclear if DI are useful for average kids. For high SES kids, it seems unlikely that they would benefit.

(Hat tip to Gwern.)