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.)

They are unable to decipher compound sentences

Saturday, August 3rd, 2019

Rod Dreher shares this email from a college professor in a STEM field:

My students are unable to analyze, follow and understand written text. To be more specific, they are unable to decipher compound sentences, understand relationship between subordinate and main clauses. They can’t grasp the logical relationship between sentences, let alone paragraphs, which are totally opaque to them.

When I started to teach (only 2 years ago), I prepared material written in normal, rational, technical prose — for adults, or as I understood they would be. Immediately, it became apparent that there was zero comprehension. Well, thought I, let’s make it a bit simpler. So I reduced the paragraphs to bullet point lists.

Still nothing? Hmm.

I started to write step by step, basically cut-and-paste instructions, highlighted the important points, wrote in notes and cross references (like NOTE: you did this in step #2 please refer to #2). Abject failure.

So, especially in the exams, I started to write in answers in the follow up questions, like so: “If you correctly answered #1 as ABC what is the cause of …?”. Basically I give them the answers in followup questions, plus cut and paste documents. My exams are open book, open notes, Internet access.

95% of them fail.

This is what I attribute this phenomenon to: I don’t think that they are able to concentrate for more that a few seconds. Hence compound sentences become an enigma. Their brains are ’trained’ to hold information for the minimum time possible and to move on the next soundbite or tweet. They are unable to hold a thought in their minds long enough to abstract it, analyze it, and form required relationships. As a result they lack the fundamental building blocks for inductive and deductive reasoning. They want to be spoon-fed without ever having to resort to a single abstract thought. They have been ‘educated’ by quick turnaround, expensive and largely incorrect multiple choice question textbooks.

Imagine how this would (and soon will) affect the medical profession. “When you treat appendicitis you will remove a) spleen, b) heart, c) appendix, d) none of the above. “Well, done!” Here is your first patient … (or, in Dr. Zoidberg’s context: Scalpel!, Blood bucket! Priest!).

Their problem is that they are unable to formulate questions. It’s difficult to come up with answers if you don’t know what to ask. So I tell them that my ambition is to teach them how to ask questions. They love my classes but I am told repeatedly: “This was the best class we have had but by far the most difficult.”

Good grief. We have totally destroyed this generation.

The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

T. Greer has a second, more tentative hypothesis for why post-1960s strategic theorists seem far less brilliant than those who came before:

The very first wave of thinkers in the American age (who by and large were educated before its birth) were brilliant people. If Thomas Schelling and Herbert Simon are not included in St. John’s reading list by 2050, the list will not be worth much. The strategic practitioners of this time were also very sharp people. But things quickly were muddled up. The clearest break between the crisp thinking of the older Americans and the addled thought that came after them is marked quite clearly in Freeman’s second section, when he transitions from a discussion of the strategic theory behind the American Civil Rights movement to the theory behind the SDS and the Port Huron manifesto.

My low estimation of the SDS’s strategic acumen is shared by Freedman himself. To quote:

The new radicals were more in a libertarian, anarchist, anti-elitist tradition, desperate for authenticity even at the expense of lucidity… Instead of the rigorous analysis of classic texts, the new radicals were suspicious of theory. Political acts had to be genuine expressions of values and sentiments. Convictions took priority over the calculation of consequences, reflecting a wariness of expediency and a refusal to compromise for the sake of political effects. At times it seemed as if deliberate and systematic thought was suspect and only a spontaneous stream of consciousness, however inarticulate and unintelligible, could be trusted. Todd Gitlin, an early activist and later analyst of the New Left, observed how actions were undertaken to “dramatize” convictions. They were “judged according to how they made the participants feel,” as if they were drugs offering highs and lows. If it was the immediate experience which counted for most, then there was little scope for thinking about the long term.

I do not think American intellectual thought has ever really recovered from this. The SDS and the constellation of social movements that it was a part of created the “New Left.” These students, and those they influenced, would go on to take control of university departments, editorial chairs, and other positions in the ‘commanding heights of American culture. Though most are now passing from the scene, the American imagination still refracts politics through the cultural lens these boomer rebels created. Most of the intellectual sloppiness that you find in modern activism comes from this source (not from Foucault et. al., who was brighter than conservatives give him credit for, and has largely been appropriated as intellectual cover for shoddy thinking that had been entrenched before Foucault was published in English).

The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think. It also taught them to reject all that came before, cutting themselves off from the smartest thinking of the preceding two centuries. It was our misfortune that this happened just as the American intellectual scene was shrinking away from the rest of of the world. The free-wheeling, transnational debates of the 19th and early 20th century could not be repeated in the frozen Cold War world.

I pity the American public intellectual. Rejecting the rigor of the past, isolated from intellectual currents of non-Anglophone society, and planted in an environment where feelings trumped thought, it is a marvel that any of the lot has added to our understanding of strategy at all.

Drawing clowns

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

Elementary education has gone terribly wrong, Natalie Wexler argues — especially for poor kids:

At first glance, the classroom I was visiting at a high-poverty school in Washington, D.C., seemed like a model of industriousness. The teacher sat at a desk in the corner, going over student work, while the first graders quietly filled out a worksheet intended to develop their reading skills.

As I looked around, I noticed a small girl drawing on a piece of paper. Ten minutes later, she had sketched a string of human figures, and was busy coloring them yellow. I knelt next to her and asked, “What are you drawing?”

“Clowns,” she answered confidently.

“Why are you drawing clowns?”

“Because it says right here, Draw clowns,” she explained.

Running down the left side of the worksheet was a list of reading-comprehension skills: finding the main idea, making inferences, making predictions. The girl was pointing to the phrase draw conclusions. She was supposed to be making inferences and drawing conclusions about a dense article describing Brazil, which was lying facedown on her desk. But she was unaware that the text was there until I turned it over. More to the point, she had never heard of Brazil and was unable to read the word.

I was looking forward to a kids say the darndest things-style misunderstanding, but that was…too much.

Wexler argues that poor children under-perform in reading because of a knowledge gap:

In the late 1980s, two researchers in Wisconsin, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, designed an ingenious experiment to try to determine the extent to which a child’s reading comprehension depends on her prior knowledge of a topic. To this end, they constructed a miniature baseball field and peopled it with wooden baseball players. Then they brought in 64 seventh and eighth graders who had been tested both for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

Recht and Leslie chose baseball because they figured lots of kids who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the game. Each student was asked to first read a description of a fictional baseball inning and then move the wooden figures to reenact it. (For example: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”)

It turned out that prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text — more so than their supposed reading level. The kids who knew little about baseball, including the “good” readers, all did poorly. And all those who knew a lot about baseball, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.

About 25 years later, a variation on the baseball study shed further light on the relationship between knowledge and comprehension. This team of researchers focused on preschoolers from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. First they read them a book about birds, a subject they had determined the higher-income children knew more about than the lower-income ones. When they tested comprehension, the researchers found that the wealthier kids did significantly better. But then they read a story involving a subject neither group knew anything about: made-up animals called “wugs.” When the kids’ prior knowledge was equal, their comprehension was essentially the same. In other words, the gap in comprehension wasn’t a gap in skills. It was a gap in knowledge.

I don’t think it’s too terribly surprising that reading comprehension suffers when the reading material is full of specialized jargon on an esoteric subject, like the rules of a game you don’t know how to play.

For a number of reasons, children from better-educated families — which also tend to have higher incomes — arrive at school with more knowledge and vocabulary. In the early grades, teachers have told me, children from less educated families may not know basic words like behind; I watched one first grader struggle with a simple math problem because he didn’t know the meaning of before. As the years go by, children of educated parents continue to acquire more knowledge and vocabulary outside school, making it easier for them to gain even more knowledge — because, like Velcro, knowledge sticks best to other, related knowledge.

I can think of a more parsimonious explanation for why children from better-educated families arrive with more knowledge and then acquire more knowledge, too, and it doesn’t involve special tutoring on prepositions.

Still, teaching kids the facts they should know, rather than trying to teach them skills without facts, seems like a reasonable strategy:

As E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains in his book Why Knowledge Matters, until 1989, all French schools were required to adhere to a detailed, content-focused national curriculum. If a child from a low-income family started public preschool at age 2, by age 10, she would have almost caught up to a highly advantaged child who had started at age 4. Then a new law encouraged elementary schools to adopt the American approach, foregrounding skills such as “critical thinking” and “learning to learn.” The results were dramatic. Over the next 20 years, achievement levels decreased sharply for all students — and the drop was greatest among the neediest.

What did I learn today?

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

Tyler Cowen shares a partial list of his intellectual practice strategies:

1. I write every day. I also write to relax.

2. Much of my writing time is devoted to laying out points of view which are not my own. I recommend this for most of you.

3. I do serious reading every day.

4. After a talk, Q&A session, podcast — whatever — I review what I thought were my weaker answers or interventions and think about how I could improve them. I rehearse in my mind what I should have said. Larry Summers does something similar.

5. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to crack cultural codes. I view this as a comparative advantage, and one which few other people in my fields are trying to replicate. For one thing, it makes me useful in a wide variety of situations where I have little background knowledge. This also helps me invest in skills which will age relatively well, as I age. For me, this is perhaps the most importantly novel item on this list.

6. I listen often to highly complex music, partly because I enjoy it but also in the (silly?) hope that it will forestall mental laziness.

7. I have regular interactions with very smart people who will challenge me and be very willing to disagree, including “GMU lunch.”

8. Every day I ask myself “what did I learn today?”, a question I picked up from Amihai Glazer. I feel bad if I don’t have a clear answer, while recognizing the days without a clear answer are often the days where I am learning the most (at least in the equilibrium where I am asking myself this question).

9. One factor behind my choice of friends is what kind of approbational sway they will exercise over me. You should want to hang around people who are good influences, including on your mental abilities. Peer effects really are quite strong.

10. I watch very little television. And no drugs and no alcohol should go without saying.

11. In addition to being a “product” in its own right, I also consider doing Conversations with Tyler — with many of the very smartest people out there — to be a form of practice. It is a practice for speed, accuracy in understanding written writings, and the ability to crack the cultural codes of my guests.

12. I teach — a big one.

Physical exercise is a realm all of its own, and that is good for your mind too. For me it is basketball, tennis, exercise bike, sometimes light weights, swimming if I am at a decent hotel with a pool. My plan is to do more of this.

Here are a few things I don’t do:

Taking notes is a favorite with some people I know, though my penmanship and coordination and also typing are too problematic for that.

I also don’t review video or recordings of myself, for fear that will make me too self-conscious. For many people that is probably a good idea, however.

I don’t spend time trying to improve my memory, which is either very bad or very good, depending on the kind of problem facing me. (If I need to remember to do something, I require a visual cue, sometimes a pile on the floor, and that creates a bit of a mess. But it works — spatial organization is information!)

I’ve never practiced trying to type on a small screen, though probably I should.

Implicit learning ability is distinct from IQ or working memory

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Our implicit learning ability seems to be distinct from IQ or working memory:

Priya Kalra at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her colleagues gave 64 healthy young adults four types of tasks that required implicit learning. One involved detecting an artificial grammar (after studying a series of letter strings that all adhered to undisclosed grammatical rules, the participants had to judge which strings among a new set were “grammatical” and which were not.) The second task required them to learn whether a particular group of images was going to trigger one outcome, or another (and they were given feedback to help them to learn). For the third task, they had to predict where a circle was going to appear on a screen, based on prior experience, during which the circle sometimes appeared in a predictable sequence of positions and sometimes did not. Finally, they had to learn visual categories implicitly: with the help of feedback, they had to classify abstract visual stimuli into one of two categories. (Explicit learning could have fed into some of these tasks, but the researchers made efforts to investigate, and take into account, its contribution for each individual.)

One week later, the participants returned to complete different versions of all these tasks, as well as tests of working memory, explicit learning (they had to deliberately learn a list of words) and IQ.

For three of the four implicit learning tasks, the researchers found a “medium” level relationship between a participant’s initial performance and how well they did a week later. This suggests stability in implicit learning ability. The exception was the artificial grammar task; the researchers think it’s possible that explicit learning “contaminated” implicit learning in this task at the second time-point.

The team also found that how good a participant was at implicit learning bore no relation to their IQ or working memory results. It seems, then, to be driven by independent neural processes to those that underpin explicit learning, which is linked to IQ.

This finding fits with earlier work that has tied explicit and implicit learning to different brain regions and networks. (The hippocampus is important for explicit but not implicit earning, for example, whereas damage to the basal ganglia and cerebellum impair implicit, but not explicit, learning.)

The new results have implications for theories that intelligence depends upon a single fundamental factor, such as processing speed, the researchers write. “These data … provide evidence for the existence of a completely uncorrelated cognitive ability,” they added.

The findings also imply that someone might feasibly be smart, as measured by an IQ test, but poorer at implicit learning than someone else with a significantly lower IQ score.

This might explain all kinds of things, from book-smart nerds with no common sense, to Jared Diamond’s acquaintances in Papua New Guinea.

There are people who could afford any of the private schools in LA but want that school in particular

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Elon Musk’s Ad Astra school before, and now word is slowly spreading:

Ad Astra has a lower profile than most start-ups in stealth mode. Its website is just a logo and an email address, and the school does not market itself to parents. Musk himself has said virtually nothing about Ad Astra, and both SpaceX and Ad Astra declined our requests for comment. Currently, the only glimpses of Ad Astra available to outsiders come from a 2017 webinar interview with the school’s principal (captured in an unlisted YouTube video) and recent public filings like the IRS document referenced above.

Despite this mystique, demand among families in Los Angeles is astronomical, says Christina Simon, author of Beyond the Brochure, a guide to private elementary schools in the city. “There are people who could afford any of the private schools in LA but want that school in particular,” she says. “It’s very much about Elon Musk and who he is.”

The last admissions cycle in 2017 saw up to 400 families visit in the hope of securing one of just a dozen open spots.

In December, an online application form purportedly for Ad Astra starting popping up in Los Angeles parenting forums and Facebook groups. The form asked for details of grades, test scores, and personal information about families, but it had no affiliation or contact listed.

“I talked to several parents who were going to take a chance and apply, even though it was impossible to verify that it was an Ad Astra application,” says Simon. “That’s the level of interest in this school. I cannot imagine that happening with any other school, public or private.”

The school is even mysterious within SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company that houses Ad Astra on its campus in the industrial neighborhood of Hawthorne. About half Ad Astra’s students are children of SpaceX employees, and the school is touted during recruiting, says Simon. “I’ve heard from various SpaceX families that they have tried and failed to get information about the school, even though they were told it was a benefit during the interview,” she says.

The lucky few who succeed in applying, pass a reasoning test, and are admitted ultimately enter a school quite unlike any other. For a start, Ad Astra’s location inside a working company is unconventional to say the least. “We started with eight kids in a really small conference room with transparent walls,” says Joshua Dahn, head of the school, speaking in conversation with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis last year. “Engineers [would] always come drop by and peek on it.”

That first year, Musk’s children accounted for nearly two thirds of the student body. “It was really small,” remembers Dahn. “Especially when five [students] from the same family… go on vacation and you have three kids [left].”

It is not unusual for parents to have a grassroots effort to build their own school, according to Nancy Hertzog, an educational psychology professor at University of Washington and an expert in gifted education. “But money talks in terms of how that school is directed and supported,” she says. “The worry would be, are these schools preventing kids from other populations getting in? Are there strict test scores, and can they support kids with disabilities?”

A non-discrimination policy quietly published in the Los Angeles Times in 2016 stated that Ad Astra does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin, but the document made no mention of disabilities.

Although Ad Astra now has dedicated classrooms and a chemistry lab at SpaceX, its start-up chic still includes whiteboard walls, a Mac laptop for every student, and food trucks for after-school sessions. These, like everything else at school including tuition, are paid for by Elon Musk. He gave Ad Astra $475,000 in both 2014 and 2015, according to the IRS document, and likely more in recent years as the school grew to 31 students.

“[Elon] is extraordinarily generous,” says Dahn. “And it allows us to take any kid that sort of fits… We don’t have unlimited resources but we have more resources than a traditional school.”

All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019

Scott Alexander looks at increasingly competitive college admissions and ends with this summary:

  1. There is strong evidence for more competition for places at top colleges now than 10, 50, or 100 years ago. There is medium evidence that this is also true for upper-to-medium-tier colleges. It is still easy to get into medium-to-lower-tier colleges.
  2. Until 1900, there was no competition for top colleges, medical schools, or law schools. A secular trend towards increasing admissions (increasing wealth + demand for skills?) plus two shocks from the GI Bill and the Vietnam draft led to a glut of applicants that overwhelmed schools and forced them to begin selecting applicants.
  3. Changes up until ten years ago were because of a growing applicant pool, after which the applicant pool (both domestic and international) stopped growing and started shrinking. Increased competition since ten years ago does not involve applicant pool size.
  4. Changes after ten years ago are less clear, but the most important factor is probably the ease of applying to more colleges. This causes an increase in applications-per-admission which is mostly illusory. However, part of it may be real if it means students are stratifying themselves by ability more effectively. There might also be increased competition just because students got themselves stuck in a high-competition equilibrium (ie an arms race), but in the absence of data this is just speculation.
  5. Medical schools are getting harder to get into, but law schools are getting easier to get into. There is no good data for graduate schools.
  6. All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time, unless you are from a disadvantaged background. For most people, admission to a more selective college does not translate into a more lucrative career or a higher chance of admission to postgraduate education. There may be isolated exceptions at the very top, like for Supreme Court justices.