Everyone is happy, and stakeholders might falsify records if the government demands higher standards

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2023

As someone who greatly benefited from school choice and ambitious curricula, Austin Vernon took years to accept the inconvenient lack of demand for higher-quality education:

My favored model is that schools have an iron triangle:

  1. Parents need someone to watch their kids while they work. They often don’t want to think about it, and they are usually content as long as their kids can reach the same status or skill levels they have.
  2. Most students prefer doing as little work as possible and focusing on fun activities like sports.
  3. Teachers don’t want to be bothered by disruptive students, nagging parents, or overbearing administrators.

Teachers provide the minimum instruction required to meet parental expectations. Students can avoid doing most work by showing up and behaving. Parents don’t bother teachers as long as their children come home intact. Teachers don’t bother parents as long as their kids behave. They also organize to limit administrator influence, often allying with students and parents. Honors programs provide a relief valve for teachers, parents, and students with more ambition or stronger tendencies to seek status. The most ambitious still need to seek outside tutoring.

Everyone is happy, and these stakeholders might falsify records if the government demands “higher standards.” They will fight hard against binding requirements or innovations like teaching scripts that challenge this compact.

This iron triangle collides with digital tools:

The number two pencil is one of the most critical tools for our iron triangle. Grade books need adjustments at the end of semesters to pass on underperforming students or raise a grade for an unhappy student (or parent). Sometimes state-mandated standardized tests need altering as well. Teachers can make these changes using an eraser or the keyboard on an unconnected spreadsheet without being charged with fraud.

Many education reformers dream of systems where students use personalized software. There are some schools where it works wonderfully. One of my high school mentors joined a non-profit education organization to assist rural schools wanting to adopt these systems. 5-10 districts adopted the program, but many encountered issues. Teachers, parents, and students revolted at one of the most successful implementations, forcing the district to revert to the old ways. Another became a crime scene because teachers didn’t realize that a central database tracked the changes they made to student grades at the end of the semester.


ChatGPT-for-schools must be compatible with a “Gentleman’s C” for widespread adoption. It could even be popular if it helps with classroom control, allows students to goof off, and lets parents believe their students have world-class teachers.

Britain engaged in a radical educational experiment

Friday, May 5th, 2023

Toward the end of the Second World War, George Francis explains, Britain engaged in a radical educational experiment:

The all-party war coalition produced the 1944 Education Act creating “grammar schools,” state-run selective schools to take in all children in the top 25% of academic ability at age 11. Twenty years later, the experiment would be over. The then Labour Government demanded that grammar schools be converted into “state comprehensives” with no selective admissions. In 1970, Education Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that no more conversions were necessary but that no more grammar schools could be built either. A small number of grammar schools have survived in limbo, mainly in Northern Ireland and the Home Counties of Southern England.


The meritocratic proponents of grammar schools believe that separating children by ability allows for a more tailored education, promoting social mobility and human flourishing. By contrast, the egalitarians believe the system is unfair, providing elite schooling to those already born lucky, whether by genetics or environment, at the expense of everyone else.


Grammar school grades in GCSE exams are around 1.2 standard deviations higher on average, equivalent to the scores of those in the 85th percentile. However, grammar schools also select the best students.


When the most rigorous statistical tests are used, moving into elite schooling does not seem to matter much for grades. It seems very unlikely that grammar schools, as they exist today, lead to better outcomes. This may not have always been the case. At least prior to 1964, grammar schools trained their students for a more thorough curriculum and tough examinations compared to what was taught in other government schools. However, so long as they are teaching the same curriculum, it is unlikely that the selective nature of grammar schools helps their students to learn much more.

Smart kids do better in school, but they don’t do even better at a selective school that teaches the same material at the same pace as the regular school.

Every other male is a potential ally

Saturday, April 15th, 2023

Helen Reddy’s 1971 anthem “I Am Woman” captured the spirit of feminism in that era, Arnold Kling notes:

The mood was optimistic, proud, and spirited. “Nothing can stop me,” the song seemed to say. Once doors were open to women, they would charge through and never look back.

Today, the mood of feminists seems much darker. On college campuses, some seethe with resentment. They look to university administrators to fend off “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture.” They allege that free speech causes harm. They insist that schools ban words and speakers. They want “safe spaces.” It seems as though “I am strong, I am invincible” has been replaced by “I am anxious, I am vulnerable.”


I would suggest that higher education, once dominated by men, used to cater to men’s warrior nature. Today, with female students the majority, colleges and universities cater much more to women’s worrier culture.

In her book [Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes], Benenson presents extensive empirical evidence for general differences in behavior and temperament between human males and females. These are differences that she and others have found in infants, toddlers, children, and adolescence. They are found in primitive cultures as well as in modern Western cultures. They are similar to traits found in other primates, including our chimpanzee relatives.


Benenson catalogues numerous differences in temperament and behavior between males and females. These include:

  • Boys are drawn to fight one another, and girls are not.
  • Boys are eager to play on their own, without the authority of teachers, and girls are not.
  • Girls enjoy play that involves acting out scenes of caring for a baby or a person in distress, and boys do not.
  • Women show higher levels of fear and anxiety and lower propensity to take risks than men do.
  • When evaluating same-sex individuals as potential friends or allies, men look for strength, courage, and useful skills. Women look for vulnerability and the absence of overt conflict.
  • Boys tend to have large groups of friends, with loose ties and shifting alliances. Girls tend to form tight cliques.
  • At recess, boys enjoy competitive team sports. They are concerned with formal rules and spend time negotiating such rules. I think of pickup softball games where there are only six players on a team. The rules might be “anything hit to right field is a foul ball,” or “batting team supplies pitcher, catcher, and first baseman” or some other ad hoc modification of normal baseball rules.
  • At recess, girls are less likely to choose competitive team sports, and they lose interest in team games relatively quickly.
  • Men value competition with prizes for those who demonstrate the most skill. Women prefer that no one stand out.


Benenson claims that what underlies these differences is that women pay more attention to their survival as individuals, while men pay more attention to survival in group competition. In terms of evolutionary psychology, a female needs to protect her own health in order to be able to bear children and to enable them to survive to adulthood. Benenson notes that until recently in human history, 40 percent of children died before the age of two. Increasing the chances of her baby’s survival had to be a major concern for women.


For men, the ability to pass their genes along is relatively less dependent on their individual survival. It is relatively more dependent on the ability of their group to out-compete other groups, especially in war.


For a female, every other female is a potential competitor. Women eliminate a competitor by ganging up on the unwanted woman and excluding her. The excluded woman may not have violated a formal rule, but she seems threatening for some reason.

For a male, every other male is a potential ally. You may fight a man one day, and the next day you may join with him to fight a common enemy. Men want to see non-cooperators punished, but subsequently the rule-breaker might be rehabilitated. Permanent exclusion would be a bad practice.

The ones who could solve the problem didn’t appear any “brighter” in conversation than the ones who couldn’t

Monday, March 27th, 2023

When OpenAI released GPT-2, S.R. Constantin remarked that it was disturbingly good:

The scary thing about GPT-2-generated text is that it flows very naturally if you’re just skimming, reading for writing style and key, evocative words.


If I just skim, without focusing, they all look totally normal. I would not have noticed they were machine-generated. I would not have noticed anything amiss about them at all.

But if I read with focus, I notice that they don’t make a lot of logical sense.


The point is, if you skim text, you miss obvious absurdities. The point is OpenAI HAS achieved the ability to pass the Turing test against humans on autopilot.

The point is, I know of a few people, acquaintances of mine, who, even when asked to try to find flaws, could not detect anything weird or mistaken in the GPT-2-generated samples.

There are probably a lot of people who would be completely taken in by literal “fake news”, as in, computer-generated fake articles and blog posts. This is pretty alarming. Even more alarming: unless I make a conscious effort to read carefully, I would be one of them.

Robin Hanson’s post Better Babblers is very relevant here. He claims, and I don’t think he’s exaggerating, that a lot of human speech is simply generated by “low order correlations”, that is, generating sentences or paragraphs that are statistically likely to come after previous sentences or paragraphs.


I’ve interviewed job applicants, and perceived them all as “bright and impressive”, but found that the vast majority of them could not solve a simple math problem. The ones who could solve the problem didn’t appear any “brighter” in conversation than the ones who couldn’t.

I’ve taught public school teachers, who were incredibly bad at formal mathematical reasoning (I know, because I graded their tests), to the point that I had not realized humans could be that bad at math — but it had no effect on how they came across in friendly conversation after hours. They didn’t seem “dopey” or “slow”, they were witty and engaging and warm.


Whatever ability IQ tests and math tests measure, I believe that lacking that ability doesn’t have any effect on one’s ability to make a good social impression or even to “seem smart” in conversation.

If “human intelligence” is about reasoning ability, the capacity to detect whether arguments make sense, then you simply do not need human intelligence to create a linguistic style or aesthetic that can fool our pattern-recognition apparatus if we don’t concentrate on parsing content.


The mental motion of “I didn’t really parse that paragraph, but sure, whatever, I’ll take the author’s word for it” is, in my introspective experience, absolutely identical to “I didn’t really parse that paragraph because it was bot-generated and didn’t make any sense so I couldn’t possibly have parsed it”, except that in the first case, I assume that the error lies with me rather than the text. This is not a safe assumption in a post-GPT2 world. Instead of “default to humility” (assume that when you don’t understand a passage, the passage is true and you’re just missing something) the ideal mental action in a world full of bots is “default to null” (if you don’t understand a passage, assume you’re in the same epistemic state as if you’d never read it at all.)

It actually is possible for a single person to understand most things

Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

People understand in the abstract that they can read a lot of books — that a book a week adds up to thousands over a lifetime — but they don’t seem to realize, Dwarkesh Patel suggests, what exactly it would mean to have read thousands of great books:

David Deutsch points out in The Fabric of Reality that contra conventional wisdom, it actually is possible for a single person to understand most things — not in the sense of memorizing the names of ant subspecies or the GDP of different Asian countries, but in the sense of appreciating the main explanatory theories in each field.

One consequence of living in The Great Stagnation is that there is relatively little turnover in these fundamental ideas. Quantum mechanics, that nascent branch of physics which elicits the sense of woo woo from popular culture, is about a hundred years old. So is the theory of computation. The neo-Darwinian synthesis is over 50 year old.

So you don’t have to be scouring through the newest papers on Arxiv in order to know the most important things. A dozen or so textbooks even from a few decades ago contain about 80% of legible scientific knowledge.

The creative mindset pairs a high need for certainty with a low need for competence

Wednesday, March 15th, 2023

The creative mindset pairs a high need for certainty with a low need for competence:

You find a problem that you really, really want to solve. At the same time, you work on developing a tolerance for not knowing the solution — yet. Both dispositions are necessary to move the creative process forward.


But this need for certainty, which is the engine that drives creativity, can easily propel us in the wrong direction. Say we have a high need for certainty and a high need for competence — for feeling like we know what we’re doing. Then, write Güss and his coauthors, we are likely “to engage in anything that could restore competence quickly, rather than in explorations of a new domain.” If we can’t deal with our temporary lack of competence, the need for certainty will drive us toward safety-seeking behaviors that make us feel competent again, right now in the moment — but that steer us away from creative solutions.


“Even when he worked in a new domain, such as flying, da Vinci could rely on his vast knowledge and skills. He had successfully created numerous inventions, drawings, and paintings and could rely on his successful strategy to divide a big problem into tiny problems that could be mastered. He had not only epistemic competence (i.e., enormous knowledge and skills) but also heuristic competence (i.e., trust and confidence in his own ability to master new situations and problems successfully).”

In other words, a sense of confidence about our global competence (“In general, I’m pretty good at this, and I know how to move toward getting this done”) allows us to tolerate the temporary feelings produced by situational incompetence—permitting us to remain open to new possibilities even as they take their time crystallizing into satisfying solutions.

The aim was to drive all private schools in the state out of business

Sunday, March 5th, 2023

In 1922, Oregon passed a law requiring every child to attend a local public school:

Supporters including the KKK admitted the aim was to drive all private schools in the state out of business. But before the law went into effect, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional.

Undeterred, the Klan continued pursuing its education agenda in the public sphere. Members bullied Catholic teachers and principals into vacating public school jobs. They made donations of (Protestant) Bibles and agitated for mandatory (Protestant) prayer and religion classes. And they lined up behind the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union, as it lobbied over more than a decade for the establishment of a federal Department of Education.

The groups wanted an Education Department that would provide funding to schools across the country, thereby promoting literacy and patriotism. An influx of immigrants had raised concerns that pockets of the country were not being assimilated into the American way of life. Compulsory education was meant to build national unity, ensuring the country’s future workers could speak the same language and preparing them to be productive members of society.

Supporters of this effort often portrayed it as a grand humanitarian crusade. “We must have a compulsory education system to reach and uplift every future citizen,” national Ku Klux Klan leader Hiram Evans said in 1924. If the campaign was successful, “all our humanity might live in harmony.”

The cruelly coercive nature of the proposals nevertheless was apparent. “We will be a homogeneous people,” Evans told a friendly audience in 1923. “We will grind out Americans like meat out of a grinder.” Or as an early Progressive education reformer chillingly put it in 1902, “The nation has a right to demand intelligence and virtue of every citizen, and to obtain these by force if necessary.”

As the NEA and KKK pushed to federalize education funding, they met opposition from Catholic institutions. The National Catholic Welfare Council, a U.S. body of Catholic bishops and staff, worked diligently to oppose bills that would have elevated an Interior Department bureau collecting education statistics into its own cabinet agency. America, a Jesuit magazine, editorialized against the legislative proposals as well. Fearing that federal funding of education would lead to federal control of education, Catholic leaders argued that parents must be allowed to determine what kind of schooling was right for their kids.

History was on the Catholics’ side. Education in America had always been a state and local issue. Although the Founders “wanted a nation of virtuous, informed citizens,” wrote Kevin Kosar, then of the R Street Institute, in 2015, “almost nobody saw educating them as the federal government’s job. The Constitution didn’t authorize the federal government to make schools policy.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, opponents were successful at preventing the establishment of a standalone cabinet agency. But the push for a centralized education authority didn’t go away even when the Klan did. Lawmakers in Washington began appropriating school funding in the decades that followed, and a federal Department of Education was officially created in 1979.

Reading taught us to sustain and logically develop ideas

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023

Reading as we know it is engaged in an epic battle it has all but lost, Doug Lemov argues:

No matter where you are, Device is there with you, stowed in your pocket, at your behest, chirping away pleasantly. Check in with a colleague or the kids? Play Candy Crush? Find a baseball score? All while in line at Target or sitting through the 10 a.m. strategy meeting? Of course, Master. It would be my pleasure.

Suddenly Device must always be with you. You check it 150 to 200 times a day, studies tell us. You switch media sources (for instance, from Web browser to email) 27 times an hour. Your average duration of sustained focus on any digital task is just over two minutes.

Clever Device! Once it was the servant; now it is the master.

Poor Dickens. Poor Toni Morrison. They cannot compete with that. So we read less and less. But more importantly, we read differently. This is the subject of Maryanne Wolf’s profound new book, Reader, Come Home.

On the digital screen we read fleetingly, flittingly. Our brains have what scientists call “novelty bias.” We are predisposed to attend to new information; from an evolutionary perspective, what’s new, bright, and flashing could contain survival information. It gets priority. Reading on screens sets up a cycle of expectation and gratification. We are repeatedly distracted by whatever pops up, rewarded for each distraction with a tiny surge of dopamine. This attraction to “the new” crowds out reflection, creative association, critical analysis, empathy—the keys to what Wolf calls the “deep reading process.” We read in a constant state of partial attention. And, Wolf points out, this is as much cause as effect. Human beings developed the capacity to read relatively recently, over the past 5,000 years or so. The brain has no reading center. Rather, when we learn to read, we call upon multiple areas of the brain, exhibiting a cognitive quality known as neuroplasticity.


We made ourselves modern via a collective rewiring when writing and later print emerged and spread across vast strata of society not so long ago. Reading taught us to sustain and logically develop ideas, to enter the minds and perspectives of others through their words. As societies, we became less impulsive, violent, and irrational. Wolf quotes Nicolo Machiavelli reflecting on how he lost himself in a book, conducting an inner dialogue with the author and reading for four hours without interruption. When was the last time you did that?

Name, Image, and Likeness

Monday, January 30th, 2023

The world of “amateur” college sports is going through its biggest change since the inception of the NCAA in 1905, thanks to NIL:

Since state laws and NCAA rule went into effect on July 1, 2021, student-athletes can profit off their Name, Image and Likeness for the first time in the history of college athletics.


Players can profit off endorsements, signing autographs, selling apparel, corporate partnerships, charitable appearances, teaching camps and starting their own businesses, among other things. They can also hire professional service providers for NIL activities.

The NCAA released updated NIL guidance in early May, stating collectives – groups of boosters and businesses – are not to be involved in the recruiting process or in the transfer portal. However, there are a number of states that have recently passed legislation that remove the prohibition of schools from directly or indirectly arranging for a third party to provide compensation to a student-athlete through NIL.

The origin of NIL traces back to the late 2000s when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and 19 others sued the NCAA, arguing the organization violated United States antitrust laws by not allowing athletes to make a share of the revenues generated from the use of their in broadcasts and video games. A judge later ordered the NCAA to pay $44.4 million in attorney fees along with another $1.5 million in costs to lawyers for the plaintiffs in O’ Bannon’s class-action lawsuit.

California then pushed the NCAA to make a move in 2019 when state legislators enacted the Fair Pay to Play Act. Similar legislation started to pop up in other states across the nation.

The Supreme Court of the United States unanimously upheld a district court’s rule on the NCAA v. Alston, delivering a major blow to amateurism in June 2020. The ruling stated the NCAA was violating antitrust law by placing limits on the education-related benefits schools can provide to athletes. The decision made it known NCAA restrictions — including on NIL activity — could face serious legal challenges in the future.

And in the summer of 2021, the NCAA’s Board of Directors adopted an interim rule opening the opportunity for NIL activity.

Players across college athletics have tapped into the potential to pocket cash off of their Name, Image and Likeness since last summer. There have also been plenty of untraditional deals made. The On3 NIL Deal Tracker lists all partnerships across the NCAA for college and high school athletes being reported by players, collectives, agents and media.

A protein bar company in Utah, which is a large supporter of BYU athletics, agreed to pay the tuition of all 36 football walk-ons. McKenzie Milton and D’Eriq King signed on as co-founders of Dreamfield, an NIL-based platform focusing on booking live events for student athletes.

Quinn Ewers enrolled at Ohio State a year early to land a deal with GT Sports Marketing worth $1.4 million because the state of Texas does not allow high school players to be compensated off NIL. LSU gymnast Oliva Dunne, who has over five million social media followers, inked a mid six-figure deal with activewear brand Vuori.

The role of NIL in college athletics has completely changed the transfer portal, especially with the one-time transfer rule. Following his commitment to Miami, Nijel Pack signed the largest LifeWallet NIL deal to date – a two-year deal worth $800,000 which includes a car. Isaiah Wong’s agent gave an ultimatum to Miami, threatening to enter the transfer portal if his NIL compensation was not increased. He ultimately decided to stay and walked back his agent’s comments.

And NIL has created major ramifications in recruiting. An unnamed five-star prospect in the Class of 2023 has signed a contract with an unnamed school’s collective that could pay him more than $8 million by his junior year of college. It’s widely believed that Tennessee quarterback commit Nico Iamaleava is the recruit.

There is also a multi-million market rate for blue-chip quarterback recruits since the deal, too.

If you glance at the On3 NIL 100, you’ll see that the fifth most valuable college athlete is a female gymnast named Livvy Dunne:

Olivia Dunne is known as the “most followed NCAA athlete on social media” with more than 9 million followers, including 330,000,000 likes on her TikTok account. Dunne is originally from Hillsdale (New Jersey) Abeka Academy and trained at Eastern National Academy of Paramus. She qualified for the 2020 Nastia Liukin Cup and competed at the 2016 and 2017 P&G Championship and 2017 U.S. Classic before arriving at LSU in 2021. During her freshman season at LSU, she earned All-America honors on the uneven bars, including a 9.90 score at the NCAA championships and a career-best 9.925 on the event. She is also quite successful on the NIL front with big sponsorships from Vuori Clothing, American Eagle, Plant Fuel, Bartleby and others.

They estimate her annual value at $3.2 million. Judging by her Instagram account, her appeal might not be purely athletic.

Gaps are much smaller and sometimes reversed among students with similar academic preparation

Sunday, January 29th, 2023

The Brookings Institution looks at college enrollment disparities by gender, race, and socioeconomic status among students with similar academic preparation — measured by student test scores, high school grades, and course-taking — and find — surprise! — that gaps are much smaller and sometimes reversed among students with similar academic preparation:

We use the restricted-use High School Longitudinal Survey (HSLS 2009), a nationally representative sample of 2009-10 ninth graders.

How do these families keep producing such talent, generation after generation?

Saturday, January 21st, 2023

Reading about Galton’s disappearance from collective memory reminded me of Scott Alexander’s piece on the secrets of the great families, which included this brief description of Galton’s great family:

Charles Darwin discovered the theory of evolution. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin also groped towards some kind of proto-evolutionary theory, made contributions in botany and pathology, and founded the influential Lunar Society of scientists. His other grandfather Josiah Wedgwood was a pottery tycoon who “pioneered direct mail, money back guarantees, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, and illustrated catalogues” and became “one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the 18th century”. Charles’ cousin Francis Galton invented the modern fields of psychometrics, meteorology, eugenics, and statistics (including standard deviation, correlation, and regression). Charles’ son Sir George Darwin, an astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and another Royal Society fellow. Charles’ other son Leonard Darwin, became a major in the army, a Member of Parliament, President of the Royal Geography Society, and a mentor and patron to Ronald Fisher, another pioneer of modern statistics. Charles’ grandson Charles Galton Darwin invented the Darwin-Fowler method in statistics, the Darwin Curve in diffraction physics, Darwin drift in fluid dynamics, and was the director of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (and vaguely involved in the Manhattan Project).

How, he asks, do these families keep producing such talent, generation after generation?

One obvious answer would be “privilege”. It’s not completely wrong; once the first talented individual makes a family rich and famous, it has a big leg up. And certainly once the actual talent in these families burns out, the next generation becomes semi-famous fashion designers and TV personalities and journalists, which seem like typical jobs for people who are well-connected and good at performing class, but don’t need to be amazingly bright. Sometimes they become politicians, another job which benefits from lots of name recognition.

But I’ve tried to avoid mentioning these careers, and focus on actually impressive achievements that are hard to fake. And also, none of these families except the Tagores were fantastically rich; there are thousands or millions of families richer than they are who don’t have any of their accomplishments. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s many descendants are famous only for being very rich and doing rich people things very well (one of them won a yachting prize; another was an art collector; a third was Anderson Cooper).

The other obvious answer is “genetics!” I think this one is right, but there are some mysteries here that make it less of a slam dunk.

First, don’t genetics dilute quickly? You only share 6.25% of your genes with your great-great-grandfather.


The answer to the first question is really impressive assortative mating and having vast litters of children.

Take Niels Bohr. He’s a genius, but if he marries a merely does-well-at-Harvard level woman, his son will be less of a genius. But in fact he married Margrethe Nørlund. It’s not really clear how smart she was — she was described as Bohr’s “sounding-board” and “editor”, and that can hide a wide variety of different levels of contribution. But her brother was Niels Nørlund, a famous mathematician who invented the Nørlund–Rice integral and apparently got a mountain range named after him. He may have been the most mathematically gifted person in Denmark who was not himself a member of the Bohr family — so marrying his sister is a pretty big score on the “keep the family genetically good at math” front.

The Darwins were even more selective: they mostly married incestuously among themselves. Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood; Charles’ sister Caroline Darwin married her cousin Josiah Wedgwood III; their second, cousin, Josiah Wedgwood IV, married his cousin, Ethel Bowen (and became a Baron!)

When the Darwins weren’t marrying each other, they were marrying others of their same intellectual caliber. There is at least one Darwin-Huxley marriage: that would be George Pember Darwin (a computer scientist, Charles’ great-grandson) and Angela Huxley (Thomas’ great-granddaughter) in 1964. But also, Margaret Darwin (Charles’ granddaughter) married Geoffrey Keynes (John Maynard Keynes’ brother, and himself no slacker — he pioneered blood transfusion in Britain). And John Maynard and Geoffrey’s sister, Margaret Keynes, married Archibald Hill, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. And let’s not forget Marie Curie’s daughter marrying a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

If you find yourself marrying John Maynard Keynes’ brother, or Niels Nørlund’s sister, or future Nobel laureates, you’re going way above the bar of “just as selective as Harvard or Oxford”. In retrospect, maybe it was stupid of me to think these people would settle so low.

But also, all these people had massive broods, or litters, or however you want to describe it. Charles Darwin had ten children (insert “Darwinian imperative” joke here); Tagore family patriarch Debendranath Tagore had fourteen.

I said before that if an IQ 150 person marries an IQ 130 person, on average their kids will have IQ 124. But I think most of these people are doing better than IQ 130. I don’t know if Charles Darwin can find someone exactly as intelligent as he is, but let’s say IQ 145. And let’s say that instead of having one kid, they have 10. Now the average kid is 129, but the smartest of ten is 147 — ie you’ve only lost three IQ points per generation. And if you’re marrying other people from very smart families — not just other very smart people — then they might have already chopped off the non-genetic portion of their intelligence and won’t regress. This is starting to look more do-able.


One last thing, which I have no evidence for. Eliezer Yudkowsky sometimes talks about the idea of a Hero License — ie, most people don’t accomplish great things, because they don’t try to accomplish great things, because they don’t think of themselves as the kind of person who could accomplish great things.


It seems weird to think of “genius” as a career you can aim for. But maybe if your dad is Charles Darwin, you don’t just go into science. You also start making lots of big theories, speculating about lots of stuff. The fact that something is an unsolved problem doesn’t scare you; trying to solve the biggest unsolved problems is just what normal people do. Maybe if your dad founded a religion, and everyone else you know is named Somethingdranath Tagore and has accomplished amazing things, you start trying to write poetry to set the collective soul of your nation on fire.

What are the skills that you really want out of a college graduate?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2023

Stephen Hsu was the most senior administrator who reviewed all the tenure and promotion cases at his university:

We have 50,000 students here. It’s one of the biggest universities in the United States. Each year, there are about 150 faculty who are coming up for promotion from associate professor to full professor or assistant to associate with tenure. And there are sometimes situations where you know what the system wants you to do with a particular person, but there’s a question of your personal integrity—whether you want to actually uphold the standards of the institution in those circumstances.

It’s funny, because the president who hired me actually wanted me to do that. She wanted someone who was very rigorous to control this process. But I knew I was gradually making enemies. Sometimes there’s a popular person, and maybe there’s some diversity goal or gender equality goal. So you have this person maybe who hasn’t done that well with their research, or hasn’t been well-funded with external grants, or maybe their teaching evaluations aren’t that great, but some people really want them promoted. And if you impose the regular standard and they don’t get promoted, you’ve made a lot of enemies.

So if I just thought to myself, “I’m not going to be at Michigan State 10 years from now—let them let them handle the problems if all these people who are not so good get promoted. Let them deal with it,” that would be the smart thing if I were a careerist or self-interested person. Don’t make waves, just put your finger in the wind and say: “Which way is the wind blowing? I’ll just go with that.” But I didn’t do that. Because I thought, “What’s the point of doing this job if you’re not going to do it right?” Now imagine how many congressmen are doing this, imagine how many have really deeply held principles that they’re trying to advance. Maybe it’s 10 percent? I don’t know, But it’s nowhere near 100 percent.

It’s the same in higher ed. There’s something called the College Learning Assessment. It’s a standardized test that was developed over the last 20 years. And it’s supposed to evaluate the skills that were learned by students during college. For less prestigious directional state universities this would be a very good tool, because the subset of graduates who did well on the CLA could get hired by General Motors or whatever with the same confidence as they were able to hire the kid from Harvard, University of Michigan, or anywhere else. So there was interest in building something like the CLA.

In order not to do it in a vacuum, the people who were developing it went to all these big corporations and said “Well, what are the skills that you really want out of a college graduate?” And not surprisingly, they wanted things like being able to read an article in The Economist and write a good summary. Or to look at graphs and make some inferences. Nothing ivory tower—it was all very reasonable, practical stuff. And so they commissioned this huge study by RAND. Twenty universities participated, including MIT, Michigan, some historically black colleges, some directional state universities—a huge spectrum covering all of American higher education.

They found that leaving students’ CLA score was very highly correlated to their incoming SAT score. Well, if you knew anything about psychometrics, it’s no surprise that the delta between your freshman year and your senior year on the CLA score is minimal. So what are kids buying when they go to college for four years? Are they getting skills that GM or McKinsey want, or are they just repackaging themselves?

I showed the results of this Rand CLA study to my colleagues, the senior administrators at Michigan State University, and I tried to get them to understand: “Guys, do you realize that maybe we’re not doing what we think we’re doing on this campus? You probably go out and tell alums and donors, moms and dads that we’re building skills for these kids at Michigan State, so they can be great employees of Ford Motor Company and Anderson Consulting when they get out. But the data doesn’t actually say that we do that.” I’m not talking about specialist majors like accounting or engineering, where we can see the kids are coming out with skills they didn’t enter with. I’m talking about generalist learning and “critical thinking” that schools say they teach, but the CLA says otherwise.

I have all my emails from when I was in that job, so I can tell you exactly how much intellectual curiosity and updating of priors there was among these vice presidents and higher at major Big 10 universities. Now, they could have come back and said, “Steve, I don’t believe this RAND study. My son Johnny learned a lot when he was at Illinois,” or something. They could have come back and contested the findings. Did any of them contest the findings with me? Zero.

Did any of them care about what was revealed about the business that we’re actually in, about what is actually going on our campus? One or two well-meaning VPs emailed me saying “Wow, that’s incredible. I never would have thought…” One of the women who emailed me back had a college-aged kid, and this actually impacted some decisions that were going on in her family at the time.

But there was overall very little concern about the findings, there was very little pushback even denying the findings. Those are the people running your institutions of higher education. I discussed these findings with lots of other top administrators at other universities and very few people care. They’ve got their career, they’re just doing their thing.

They are very, very careerist people

Monday, January 9th, 2023

Stephen Hsu worked for a time as a vice president of a university and notes that administrators are a different group:

The top level administrators at universities are usually drawn from the faculty, or from faculty at other universities. After being a top level administrator at a Big 10 university, and meeting provosts and presidents at the other top universities, I have a pretty good feel for this particular collection of people.

You can imagine what it is that makes someone who’s already a tenured professor in biochemistry decide they want to take on this huge amount of responsibility and maybe even shut down their own research program. They are very, very careerist people. And that is a huge problem, because incentives are heavily misaligned.

The incentive for me as a senior administrator is not to make waves and keep everything kind of calm. Calm down the crazy professor who’s doing stuff, assuage the students that are protesting, make the donors happy, make the board of trustees happy. I found that the people who were in the role so they could advance their career, versus those trying to advance the interests of the institution, were very different. There were times when I felt like I had to do something very dangerous for me career-wise, but it was absolutely essential for the mission of the university. I had to do that repeatedly.

And I told the president who hired me, “I don’t know how long I’m going to last in this job, because I’m going to do the right thing. If I do the right thing and I’m bounced out, that’s fine. I don’t care.” But most people are not like that.

In economics, there’s something called the principal-agent problem. Let’s say you hire a CEO to manage your company. Unless his compensation is completely determined by some long-dated stock options or something, his interests are not aligned with the long-term growth for your company. He can have a great quarter by shipping all your manufacturing off to China, have a great few quarters, and get a huge bonus. Even if, on a long timescale, it’s really bad for your bottom line.

So there’s a principal-agent problem here. Anytime you give centralized power to somebody, you have to be sure that their incentives — or their personal integrity — are aligned with what you want them to promote at the institution. And generally, it’s not well done in the universities right now.

It’s not like it used to be that, “Oh, if Joe or Jane is going to become university president, you can bet that their highest value is higher education and truth, that’s the American way.” It was probably never true. But they don’t claw back your compensation as a president of the university if it later turns out that you really screwed something up. You know, they don’t really even do that with CEOs.

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Russell Jacoby argued — in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, back in 1987 — that public intellectuals had ensconced themselves in the universities, where the politics of tenure loom larger than the politics of culture:

But my critics and I both missed something that might not have been obvious 30 years ago. By the late 1990s the rapid expansion of the universities came to a halt, especially in the humanities. Faculty openings slowed or stopped in many fields. Graduate enrollment cratered. In my own department in 10 years we went from accepting over a hundred students for graduate study to under 20 for a simple reason. We could not place our students. The hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers.

What became of them? No single answer is possible. They joined the work force. Some became baristas, tech supporters, Amazon staffers and real estate agents. Others with intellectual ambitions found positions with the remaining newspapers and online periodicals, but most often they landed jobs as writers or researchers with liberal government agencies, foundations, or NGOs. In all these capacities they brought along the sensibilities and jargon they learned on campus.

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture. The leftists who would have vanished as assistant professors in conferences on narratology and gender fluidity or disappeared as law professors with unreadable essays on misogynist hegemony and intersectionality have been pushed out into the larger culture. They staff the ballooning diversity and inclusion commissariats that assault us with vapid statements and inane programs couched in the language they learned in school. We are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus, an intrusion of academic terms and sensibilities that has leaped the ivy-covered walls aided by social media. The buzz words of the campus—diversity, inclusion, microaggression, power differential, white privilege, group safety—have become the buzz words in public life. Already confusing on campus, they become noxious off campus. “The slovenliness of our language,” declared Orwell in his classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” makes it “easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

As Peter Turchin notes, this is textbook elite overproduction.

A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare would find himself stymied at every turn

Friday, December 30th, 2022

Why are archaeologists taking to anonymous online spaces to practice their craft?

In part because we have an inflation of young people, educated to around the postgraduate level, who no longer see a future in the academy, where jobs are almost non-existent, and acutely aware of the damage a single remark or online comment can do to a career. But also because we have a university research system that has drifted towards a political position that defies a common sense understanding of human nature and history. A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether. Much easier instead to go online and find the ten other people on Earth who share his interests, who are concerned with what the results mean, rather than their wider current political and social ramifications.