Vocational doors really did open

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

A look back at what has happened to educational and job choices over the last 50 years suggests that vocational doors really did open for women during the 1970s, Charles Murray says (in Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class):

In 1971, 38 percent of women’s bachelor’s degrees were in education. That proportion had fallen by half by the early 1980s. Meanwhile, degrees in business grew from 3 percent in 1971 to 20 percent by 1982.


Consider first the most Things-oriented STEM careers — physics, chemistry, earth sciences, computer science, mathematics, and engineering. The percentage of women’s degrees obtained in those majors more than doubled from 1971 to 1986 — but “more than doubled” meant going from 4 percent to 10 percent.

And 1986 was the high point. By 1992, that number had dropped to 6 percent, where it has remained, give or take a percentage point, ever since.


Women’s degrees in People-oriented STEM — biology and health majors — doubled in just the eight years from 1971 (9 percent) to 1979 (18 percent), remained at roughly that level through the turn of the century, then surged again, standing at 27 percent of degrees in 2017.


It looks as if women were indeed artificially constrained from moving into a variety of Things occupations as of 1970, that those constraints were largely removed, and that equilibrium was reached around 30 years ago.


The effect of the feminist revolution on the vocations of college-educated women was real but quickly reached a new equilibrium. For women with no more than a high school education, it is as if the feminist revolution never happened.


The subtext of this chapter has been that it’s not plausible to explain the entire difference in educational and vocational interests as artifacts of gender roles and socialization. If that were the case, the world shouldn’t look the way it does. In contrast, a mixed model — it’s partly culture, partly innate preferences — works just fine. In this narrative, females really were artificially deterred from STEM educations and occupations through the 1950s and into the 1960s. One of the effects of the feminist revolution was that new opportunities opened up for women and women took advantage of them.

The revolution in women’s education and work since the 1960s

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Charles Murray explores the revolution in women’s education and work since the 1960s (in Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class):

In 1960, a few years before second-wave feminism took off in the United States, only 41 percent of women ages 25–54 were in the labor force. In 2018, that figure stood at 75 percent.

From 1960 to 2018, women went from 1 percent of civil engineers to 17 percent; from 5 percent of attorneys to 35 percent; from 8 percent of physicians to 42 percent.

Not a single woman was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 1960, nor would there be any until 1972.34 In 2018, 25 women were Fortune 500 CEOs, among them the chief executives of General Motors, IBM, PepsiCo, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, and General Dynamics.

In 1960, there was one woman in the U.S. Senate. After the 2018 election, there were 25. In the 1960 House of Representatives, there were 19 women. After the 2018 election, there were 102.


By 2016, 1,082,669 women got bachelor’s degrees compared to 812,669 men—a 33 percent difference.


In 1960, 20 men got a professional degree for every woman who did. By 1970, the ratio was less than 10 to 1. By 1980, it was less than 3 to 1. In 2005, women caught up with men. Since then, more women have gotten more professional degrees than men in every year. As of 2016, 93,778 women got a professional degree compared to 84,089 men.

It’s time for learning

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Children are born curious:

The number of questions a toddler can ask can seem infinite — it is one of the critical methods humans adopt to learn. In 2007, researchers logging questions asked by children aged 14 months to five years found they asked an average of 107 questions an hour. One child was asking three questions a minute at his peak.

But research from Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind and a leading international authority on curiosity in children, finds questioning drops like a stone once children start school. When her team logged classroom questions, she found the youngest children in an American suburban elementary school asked between two and five questions in a two-hour period. Even worse, as they got older the children gave up asking altogether. There were two-hour stretches in fifth grade (year 6) where 10 and 11-year-olds failed to ask their teacher a single question.

In one lesson she observed, a ninth grader raised her hand to ask if there were any places in the world where no one made art. The teacher stopped her mid-sentence with, “Zoe, no questions now, please; it’s time for learning.”

The latest research suggests we should be encouraging questions, because curious children do better:

Researchers from the University of Michigan CS Mott Children’s Hospital and the Center for Human Growth and Development investigated curiosity in 6,200 children, part of the US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

I’m not sure the causality runs that way.

Even gifted women who are attracted to STEM gravitate toward the life sciences

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

Men and women have slightly different “cognitive toolboxes,” Charles Murray notes (in Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class), but they also have different interests, with women more interested in people and men more interested in things. For instance, men aligned with the following:

  • “The prospect of receiving criticism from others does not inhibit me from expressing my thoughts.”
  • A merit-based pay system
  • Having a full-time career
  • Inventing or creating something that will have an impact
  • A salary that is well above the average person’s
  • believe that society should invest in my ideas because they are more important than those of other people in my discipline.”
  • Being able to take risks on my job (–0.41)
  • Working with things (e.g., computers, tools, machines) as part of my job
  • “The possibility of discomforting others does not deter me from stating the facts.”
  • Having lots of money

And women aligned with the following:

  • Having a part-time career for a limited time period
  • Having a part-time career entirely
  • Working no more than 40 hours in a week
  • Having strong friendships
  • Flexibility in my work schedule
  • Community service
  • Having time to socialize
  • Giving back to the community

The men and women surveyed weren’t typical though:

The results I just presented came from members of SMPY’s Cohort 2, born in 1964–67, who at age 13 had tested in the top 0.5 percent of overall intellectual ability: the top 1 in 200.


The SMPY women were about twice as likely to take STEM majors as the general population of female undergraduates, but this was true of the men also, and so the male-female ratio in STEM degrees among the SMPY sample (1.6) was fractionally higher than the ratio in the general undergraduate population (1.5).


Even gifted women who are attracted to STEM gravitate toward the life sciences (People-oriented), not math and the physical sciences (Things-oriented). It was not a subtle tendency. Proportionally, males outnumbered females by almost two to one on the Things-oriented sciences, and females outnumbered males by almost two to one on the People-oriented sciences.

97 males and 7 females got perfect scores

Friday, February 14th, 2020

Average men and women have similar verbal and math abilities Charles Murray notes (in Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, leaning on Diane Halpern’s Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities), but not as similar at the extremes:

On tests with nationally representative samples, females can be expected to consistently outperform males on a variety of verbal tasks, with a small advantage in reading and a more substantial advantage in writing.


To the question, “Is the typical male better at math than the typical female?” the answer is close to settled: “If yes, not enough to be noticeable,” with an open possibility that a small gap will close altogether.


“Sex differences in mathematics become progressively larger as the sample becomes more selective and the type of math skill becomes more advanced,” writes Halpern, and herein lies a major issue in the study of cognitive sex differences.


The last 60 years have seen major reductions in the male advantage at the extreme high end for 7th graders. For those in the top two percentiles, a ratio of about 2.0 in 1960 appears to have disappeared. For those in the top percentile, a male ratio of about 7.0 has fallen to around 1.5. At the most stratospheric level, the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, a male advantage that was measured at about 13 to 1 in the 1970s and the early 1980s has fallen to less than 3 to 1.


In short, what was once thought to be an overwhelming male advantage at high levels of math achievement has been greatly reduced during the last six decades.


The male-female ratios in the top percentiles of the AMC12 are substantial and they grow larger at the 98th and especially the 99th percentile. In the table, I counted perfect scores of 150 as being in the 99th percentile. When they are broken out separately, it turns out that from 2009 to 2018, 97 males and 7 females got perfect scores: a ratio of 13.9.

Can you draw a bicycle?

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

We overestimate our ability to explain how things work. Cognitive psychologist Rebecca Lawson at the University of Liverpool measured how well people understand how everyday objects work using the bicycle:

I have given the test to over 200 students and parents coming to Open Days at the University. Over 96% had learnt to cycle as children with a further 1.5% learning as adults and less than 3% never having learned. Also 52% of this group owned a bicycle. Sadly, the figures on actual cycling were low, with just 1% cycling most days, 4% cycling around once a week and 9% cycling about once a month. The vast majority either never cycle (52%) or rarely do so (33%). Nevertheless, even for these non-cyclists, bicycles are a common sight. Secondly, if Rozenblit and Keil are correct, people should greatly over-estimate their understanding of how bicycles work because bicycle parts are visible and they seem to be simple, mechanical devices.

Draw a Bicycle Figure 1

I first asked people to draw a bicycle and I then asked them to select which of four alternatives were correct for the frame, the pedals and the chain, see Figure 1. I used the multiple choice test to check that errors that people made were not just due to problems with drawing or in my judgement of the accuracy of their drawings, see Figure 2.

Draw a Bicycle Figure 2

I looked at three types of errors which would severely impair the functioning of a bicycle (see Figure 3 for examples of all three):

1. drawing the frame joining the front and back wheels (making steering impossible)

2. not placing the pedals between the wheels and inside the chain (the pedals were sometimes drawn attached to the front wheel, the back wheel or dangling off the cross-bar)

3. not putting the chain around the pedals and the back wheel (these errors were almost all because people drew the chain looping around both the front and the back wheel of the bicycle)

Draw a Bicycle Figure 3

It seems that many people have virtually no understanding of how bicycles work. This is despite bicycles being highly familiar and most people having learnt how to ride one. Most people know that turning the pedals drives one or both of the bicycle wheels forward, but they probably understand little more than this.


One last thing: unexpected sex effects. One finding that I was not looking for jumped out from the data. There were huge sex differences with females making many more errors than males.


Thus, at least for frame and chain errors, females make around twice as many errors as males. It could be argued that this is still a matter of experience. It is likely that boys cycle more than girls so many males who currently rarely cycle may have, over their lifetime, seen and used more bicycles than females. However the sex difference is even more extreme for those who claim to cycle around once a month, once a week or most days.


Not only do male non-cyclists make fewer errors than female non-cyclists, they also make fewer errors than female cyclists; whilst male cyclists make almost no errors.

Patrick Mahomes became the NFL’s best quarterback by refusing to specialize in football

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

Patrick Mahomes became the NFL’s best quarterback by refusing to specialize in football:

At Whitehouse High outside Tyler, Tex., Patrick Mahomes did not think of himself as a quarterback first, if at all. He told inquiring coaches his favorite sport was whatever was in season. He started at point guard as a freshman and quietly harbored a dream to play for Duke. He pitched and played shortstop for the baseball team and turned down a signing bonus after the Detroit Tigers drafted him. He played defensive back as a freshman and didn’t earn the starting quarterback position until early in his sophomore year.


He used his developmental years to cultivate a broad spectrum of tangible and intangible athletic capabilities. He gained a profound, intrinsic sense of how to wield his body in competition. He learned how to be the best quarterback by not playing quarterback.


Had Mahomes chosen to specialize, it is likely he never would have become a quarterback — his father, Pat Mahomes Sr., was a major league relief pitcher, and Mahomes’s best early success came as a pitcher.

The selection process isn’t the only benefit of waiting. Epstein said that several studies have shown athletes who play multiple sports require less time to become elite in the game they ultimately choose.

“[This] seems particularly to be true for athletes who play multiple ‘attacking’ sports,” Epstein wrote in an email. “That is, anything that requires you to build anticipatory skills — the perceptual expertise that allows you to react faster than your reflexes would allow because you’re essentially seeing things unfold before they actually happen.”

In Mahomes’s most luminous moments, a direct line can be drawn to the sports he played as a teenager in the winter and spring. He completes passes from various arm angles with precision, a skill Mahomes said he honed manning shortstop. He zings throws under pressure or without looking at his intended target, a feat he once made routine on the hardwood.

“We welcomed teams to press and trap us when he had the ball,” said Ryan Tomlin, Mahomes’s high school basketball coach. “He would throw no-look, diagonal passes across the court to a spot to where he knew a player was going to end up being. Which is exactly what I watch him do today. He’s just seeing things really before they happen, and he knows who’s going to be where, and he knows where the ball is going to be. Just things you can’t teach.”

Mahomes was an unselfish point guard with an unorthodox jump shot who managed to score when needed, a sneaky defender who, Tomlin said, was “fast without being fast.” He would often get out of position on defense, but Tomlin trusted Mahomes to sneak behind a ballhandler and make a steal. Mahomes credited basketball with enhancing his spatial awareness.

“You can tell by his vision he’s played basketball,” Chiefs quarterback coach Mike Kafka said.

When Mahomes reached the NFL, he leaned on footwork and technique picked up on the diamond. His proficiency at off-platform and across-body throws, he said, traces back to baseball. The bubble screen is a staple of Kansas City’s offense, and the play requires a quarterback to make a rapid-fire throw laterally, without even gripping the football’s laces, in a move similar to turning a double play in baseball.


Mahomes’s unusual style scared off college recruiters and, later, teams in the draft. What some NFL scouts and executives saw was a raw quarterback with unorthodox mechanics and shoddy footwork. What those evaluators missed was a genius athlete who understood his biomechanics on a deep level after developing, to his benefit, outside the Quarterback Industrial Complex.


Mahomes sat his rookie season behind Alex Smith, but he validated Veach’s evaluation immediately. During training camp, Mahomes led Kansas City’s third-string offense against its third-string defense. His performance quickly became legend.

“It was like a phenomenon with Pat, where we run back to dorms and we would put the threes vs. threes on just because we wanted to see the throws he was making,” Veach said. “That doesn’t happen. You have training camp dog days. The veterans, they’re in the tent and they’re watering down. The vets would stand there … to watch the kid go against the threes. You knew you had something.”

David Epstein makes a similar point in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

It felt like the political classes in high school in China

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

While researching the future of America’s contest with China, Evan Osnos visited Joan Xu, an American screenwriter with an office at a WeWork downtown:

She wore a slate-blue silk shirt and jeans, and handed me coffee in a mug with a WeWork slogan: “Do what you love.” Xu’s parents emigrated from China to the U.S. to attend graduate school in economics. She was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Maryland. “I grew up in white suburbs with other lawyers’ and professors’ kids,” she said. In 2003, when she was fourteen, the family moved to Beijing. Her mother became a professor at Peking University, and Xu entered a prestigious middle school, where she had to catch up by learning to read and write Chinese. “Before that, I was very much single-culture,” she said. “Now we were memorizing poems written two thousand years ago. That was just mind-blowing to me, coming from an American education, where two hundred years is old.”

After high school, she returned to the U.S. to attend Harvard, where she sang in an a-cappella group and reëmbraced American life. In her application, she described wanting to be “a U.S.-China bridge” who might bring the countries closer together. “Everybody was, like, ‘Oh, this is great,’ ” she said. She loved Harvard, where she majored in political science, but a tone in her classes surprised her. “My sophomore tutorial was themed ‘Democracy.’ It was basically a whole year of every famous professor coming in and giving a lecture about why democracy is the only legitimate form of governance.” She told me, “It felt like the political classes in high school in China, where everyone knows it’s propaganda. It didn’t encompass the world I’d known.”

Xu moved back to Beijing in 2012, and eventually started working on co-productions between Chinese and American filmmakers. “It was, like, ‘Oh, this is the future! The two greatest countries producing culture together.’ ” Her optimism has since waned. “It has become pretty clear in the last few years that the Hollywood-China co-production is not a thing. It still happens financially; it just didn’t happen creatively.” A breaking point came in 2016, with the release of a historical fantasy called “The Great Wall,” directed by Zhang Yimou; it starred Matt Damon as a warrior with Chinese comrades, all fending off monsters. In the hype preceding its release, the producer hailed it as “a new kind of film.” Afterward, USA Today judged it “a complete train wreck.” Xu told me, “No one has attempted to do a large-scale creative collaboration like that again.” She went on, “It was already, conceptually, about as middle ground as a blockbuster had gotten. So, it was just, like, ‘O.K., there is no middle ground. Culturally it’s just too different.’ ” Chinese audiences will watch Chinese movies, or American blockbusters, but the combination doesn’t work.

Xu still wants to be bicultural, but she finds it increasingly difficult to combine both sets of values. “All of my friends who are similar to me in Beijing, in every one of our industries, ‘U.S.-China’ is not a thing anymore,” she said. “We’re basically seen as just China people now.”

Xu told me she is “pro-China,” and I asked what she meant. “Most people who are within the sphere of the West kind of reflexively look at China and see, ‘Oh, wow, totalitarian dictatorship, oppression, no human rights, suffering.’ Just evil, right? To be ‘pro-China’ is simply to realize that’s not right; there is much more going on. It’s not perfect, but it’s just simply an alternative system.” She went on, “I would say that the ideals of human rights are not bad to aim for, but it’s not a universal, God-given thing. It was something that was consensus-driven at a certain point in Western history. If you look at Chinese social progression, things are genuinely getting better for most people, despite the problems. It’s more of a battle of narratives about values.”

Technology will, by itself, degrade

Sunday, January 12th, 2020

I didn’t recognize Jonathan Blow by name — he’s the “indie” game designer behind Braid, which I haven’t played, but which I have mentioned — but he recently gave a speech about a topic that interests me, Preventing the Collapse of Civilization:

He presents the key point fifteen minutes in:

This is why technology degrades. It takes a lot of energy to communicate from generation to generation, there are losses.

Nikita Prokopov summarizes it this way:

The software crisis is systemic and generational. Say, the first generation works on thing X. After X is done and becomes popular, time passes and the next generation of programmers comes and works on Y, based on X. They do not need to know, exactly, how X is built, why it was built that way, or how to write an alternative X from scratch. They are not lesser people or lazier, they just have no real need to write X2 since X already exists and allows them to solve more pressing tasks.

The biggest a-ha moment of the talk was that if you are working on Y and Y is based on X, that does not imply automatically that you would know X also. Even if the people who build X are still around, knowledge does not spread automatically and, without actual necessity, it will go away with the people who originally possessed it.

This is counter-intuitive: most people would think that if we’ve built, for example, a space ship or a complex airplane in the past, we could build it again at any time. But no, if we weren’t building a particular plane uninterruptedly, then after just 50 years it is already easier to develop a new one from scratch rather than trying to revive old processes and documentation. Knowledge does not automatically transfer to the next generation.

In programming, we are developing abstractions at an alarming rate. When enough of those are stacked, it becomes impossible to figure out or control what’s going on down the stack. This is where my contribution begins: I believe I have found some pretty vivid examples of how the ladder of abstractions has started to fall and nobody can do anything about it now because we all are used to work only at the very tip of it.

I still think a good general education would teach how to rebuild civilization. (I haven’t read my copy of How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler yet, but it looks promising.)

Imagine sending a five-year-old into combat

Saturday, January 11th, 2020

Hamilton Gregory, author of McNamara’s Folly, discusses the use of low-IQ troops in the Vietnam War:

I mentioned McNamara’s Folly when Gwern reviewed it.

Intelligence and character aren’t the same things at all

Sunday, January 5th, 2020

The problem with meritocracy, T. Greer notes, isn’t the meritit’s the ocracy. He cites some passages from Andrew Yang’s book, of all places:

Intelligence and character aren’t the same things at all. Pretending that they are will lead us to ruin. The market is about to turn on many of us with little care for what separates us from each other. I’ve worked with and grown up alongside hundreds of very highly educated people for the past several decades, and trust me when I say that they are not uniformly awesome. People in the bubble think that the world is more orderly than it is. They overplan. They mistake smarts for judgment. They mistake smarts for character. They overvalue credentials. Head not heart. They need status and reassurance. They see risk as a bad thing. They optimize for the wrong things. They think in two years, not 20. They need other bubble people around. They get pissed off when others succeed. They think their smarts should determine their place in the world. They think ideas supersede action. They get agitated if they’re not making clear progress. They’re unhappy. They fear being wrong and looking silly. They don’t like to sell. They talk themselves out of having guts. They worship the market. They worry too much. Bubble people have their pluses and minuses like anyone else.


In coming years it’s going to be even harder to forge a sense of common identity across different walks of life. A lot of people who now live in the bubble grew up in other parts of the country. They still visit their families for holidays and special occasions. They were brought up middle-class in normal suburbs like I was and retain a deep familiarity with the experiences of different types of people. They loved the mall, too.

In another generation this will become less and less true. There will be an army of slender, highly cultivated products of Mountain View and the Upper East Side and Bethesda heading to elite schools that has been groomed since birth in the most competitive and rarefied environments with very limited exposure to the rest of the country.

When I was growing up, there was something of an inverse relationship between being smart and being good-looking. The smart kids were bookish and awkward and the social kids were attractive and popular. Rarely were the two sets of qualities found together in the same people. The nerd camps I went to looked the part.

Today, thanks to assortative mating in a handful of cities, intellect, attractiveness, education, and wealth are all converging in the same families and neighborhoods. I look at my friends’ children, and many of them resemble unicorns: brilliant, beautiful, socially precocious creatures who have gotten the best of all possible resources since the day they were born. I imagine them in 10 or 15 years traveling to other parts of the country, and I know that they are going to feel like, and be received as, strangers in a strange land. They will have thriving online lives and not even remember a car that didn’t drive itself. They may feel they have nothing in common with the people before them. Their ties to the greater national fabric will be minimal. Their empathy and desire to subsidize and address the distress of the general public will likely be lower and lower.

There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Clinicians at the Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center have used MRI scanners to find a Goldilocks effect in how children react to being read to:

For a small 2018 study involving 27 children around the age of 4, the researchers watched how the young brains responded to different stimuli. As with the first bowl of porridge that Goldilocks finds in the house of the Three Bears, the sound of the storytelling voice on its own seemed to be “too cold” to get the children’s brain networks to fully engage. Like the second bowl that Goldilocks samples, animation of the sort that children might see on a TV screen or tablet was “too hot.” There is just too much going on, too quickly, for the children to be able to participate in what they were seeing. Small children’s brains have no difficulty registering bright, fast-moving images, as experience teaches and MRI scanning confirms, but the giddy shock and awe of animation doesn’t give them time to exercise their deeper cognitive faculties.

Just as Goldilocks sighs with relief when she takes a spoonful from the third bowl of porridge and finds that it is “just right,” so a small child can relax into the experience of being read a picture book. There is a bit of pleasurable challenge in making sense of what he’s seeing and hearing. There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations in his own life — a transaction that may be as simple as the flash of making a connection between a real donkey he once saw with the “honky tonky, winky wonky donkey” of Craig Smith’s picture book. The collaborative engagement that a child brings to the experience is so vital and productive that reading aloud “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development,” as a 2014 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics put it, strengthening the neural connections that will enable him to process more difficult and complex stories as he gets older.

Much of the hidden magic of reading aloud has to do with those curious eyes and that devouring gaze. Looking at a book with an adult, a child increases his capacity for “joint attention,” noticing what others see and following their gaze. This phenomenon has a remarkable tempering power in children. It encourages the development of executive function, an array of skills that includes the ability to remember details and to pay attention. Children “learn to naturally regulate their attention when they are focusing on a task they find interesting in a context that is nurturing, warm and responsive,” as Vanderbilt University’s David Dickenson and colleagues put it in a paper summarizing the rich developmental value of reading aloud.

By contrast, fast-paced TV shows have been shown to impair executive function in young children after as little as nine minutes of viewing. Nor is that the only tech-related downside. Babies look at adults to see where we’re looking, so if we’re glued to our electronic devices, that’s what will draw their gaze too. What they see may not be what we want them to see. As the psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair has written: “Babies are often distressed when they look to their parent for a reassuring connection and discover the parent is distracted or uninterested. Studies show that they are especially perturbed by a mother’s ‘flat’ or emotionless expression, something we might once have associated with a depressive caregiver but which now is eerily similar to the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down to text, stare away as we talk on our phones or stare into a screen as we go online.”

Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

One tool for avoiding cognitive entrenchment, David Epstein reports (in Range), is to keep one foot outside your world:

Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation. And those who have won the Nobel Prize are more likely still. Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction. And, again, Nobel laureates are far more likely still. The most successful experts also belong to the wider world. “To him who observes them from afar,” said Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, “it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.”


“When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” [Steve Jobs] said. “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

Or electrical engineer Claude Shannon, who launched the Information Age thanks to a philosophy course he took to fulfill a requirement at the University of Michigan. In it, he was exposed to the work of self-taught nineteenth-century English logician George Boole, who assigned a value of 1 to true statements and 0 to false statements and showed that logic problems could be solved like math equations. It resulted in absolutely nothing of practical importance until seventy years after Boole passed away, when Shannon did a summer internship at AT&T’s Bell Labs research facility. There he recognized that he could combine telephone call-routing technology with Boole’s logic system to encode and transmit any type of information electronically. It was the fundamental insight on which computers rely. “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both those fields at the same time,” Shannon said.


Connolly’s primary finding was that early in their careers, those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple “career streams” open even as they pursued a primary specialty.


They employed what Hogarth called a “circuit breaker.” They drew on outside experiences and analogies to interrupt their inclination toward a previous solution that may no longer work. Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns.

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

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

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

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


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


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


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

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

Saturday, December 7th, 2019

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

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

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

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

I think he really misses the boat here, though:

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

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