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.

It frequently bred confidence but not skill

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

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

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

[...]

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

[...]

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

[...]

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

A concerned citizen is largely helpless

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

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

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

[...]

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

Is that what is happening?

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

[...]

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

[...]

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

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

[...]

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

Naming things can weaponize them

Thursday, November 28th, 2019

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

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

[...]

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

[...]

Naming things can weaponize them.

[...]

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

[...]

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

[...]

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

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