18 March 2012

Steve Hsu On Race, Class, IQ and Socio-Economic Success

Steve Hsu has a number of posts at his Information Processing blog on the every hot topics of race, class, IQ and socio-economic success. Among them:

* Academic achievement gaps between whites and blacks in the U.s. have fallen since the 1940s, while academic achievement gaps between high income and low income families have grown wider in absolute terms and relative to the white-black gap. The implication is the our society has grown more meritocratic, with income and academic ability more aligned, than it used to be, in the last sixty years.

* Socio-economic distinctions between those who were rich in 1800 in the U.K. and those who were poor then remain quite significant statistically in their descendants as of 2011 although they have been diluted significantly over the last two centuries: "averaged parent-child correlations of variables such as wealth, education and occupation are in the 0.7 -- 0.8 range over the last 200 years, the same as found in India, with its caste system! . . . Mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated. There is considerable persistence of status, even after 200 years. But there is convergence with each generation. The 1800 underclass has already attained mediocrity. And the 1800 upper class will eventually dissolve into the mass of society, though perhaps not for another 300 years, or longer."

* Another study looks at intergenerational socioeconomic mobility using a different methodology. IQ has less of a role than Hsu would have expected, but he suggests that: "While it doesn't appear that IQ alone can account for most of intergenerational earnings transmission, a combination of IQ, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, ambition, and traits related to social intelligence (even, physical attractiveness) likely play an important and heritable role."

* Hsu wonders, reacting to an Atlantic article how many less skilled American workers are qualified to do modern manufacturing jobs (also here) even if they receive free training to aid them in qualifying for those jobs.

* Hsu comments at the New York Times against race based affirmative action. The arguments he makes are pretty much the ones that affirmative action opponents were making when I was in college, i.e. that creating an academic environment where people of different races have different levels of average academic ability is pernicious and does more harm than good.

* SAT test preparation work doesn't help much: "Does test preparation help improve student performance on the SAT and ACT? For students that have taken the test before and would like to boost their scores, coaching seems to help, but by a rather small amount. After controlling for group differences, the average coaching boost on the math section of the SAT is 14 to 15 points. The boost is smaller on the verbal section of the test, just 6 to 8 points. The combined effect of coaching on the SAT for the NELS sample is about 20 points."

* The benefits of growing up rich rather than poor, and of having high v. low IQ both manifest in your income at your first job in similar amounts (per standard deviation of difference). But, the edge from starting out rich neither grows nor shrinks proportionately over your career, while the impact of IQ has a marked impact on the rate at which one's income improves over time.

* He also argues for the outsized influence of supersmart people, like von Neumann, in mathematics and the sciences:

Luis Alvarez laid it out bluntly: "The world of mathematics and theoretical physics is hierarchical. That was my first exposure to it. There's a limit beyond which one cannot progress. The differences between the limiting abilities of those on successively higher steps of the pyramid are enormous." . . .

People who work in "soft" fields (even in science) don't seem to understand this stark reality. I believe it is because their fields do not have ready access to right and wrong answers to deep questions. When those are available, huge differences in cognitive power are undeniable, as is the utility of this power.

(Additional posts here, here, here, and here). He also argues in the last of those posts that: "My current estimate is that one or two hundred common mutations (affecting only small subset of the thousands of loci that infuence intelligence) are what separate an ordinary person from a vN. There's plenty of additive variance to be exploited, and many desirable human phenotypes that have never been realized." Riffing on the notion of non-additive heritability (i.e. genes with a non-linear phenotypic impact) in the process.

For what it is worth, he hasn't won me over, not least of all because John von Neumann(an Americanization of his birth name, Neumann János Lajos) himself. von Neumann is a fascinating person from the perspective of a biographer and an obvious genius. But, if you look at his contributions to mathematics and physics, you find that while he was extremely prolific, making dozens is notable contributions to mathematics or physics, each of which would individually have been sufficient to win tenure on a decent university faculty, no one of his discoveries had a character that was so ground breaking or atypical of discoveries made by other mathematicians and physicists that one could safely argue that you needed to be a genius to accomplish it. He may have done the work of ten very good mathematicians in his lifetime, but did nothing that ten very good mathematicians who were not up to his standard of genius could not have done. von Neumann's contributions were to extend the fields he worked in a few theorems beyond where they were when he started in each area of research (and those fields have each continued beyond those discoveries since his passing). His most ground breaking contributions were in quantum mechanics, but even now, the validly of von Neumann's proof that "quantum mechanics could not possibly be derived by statistical approximation from a deterministic theory of the type used in classical mechanics" is disputed.

Hsu's arguments about what he sees as threshold minimums of inherent mathematical ability to grasp higher mathematical and physical concepts is quite a bit more credible, than his arguments in support of the claim that the supergenius can achieve what the ordinary quite smart person cannot.

* Finally, he finds a nice reference to the empirical support for the proposition that people with the intellectual style described as Foxes (non-ideological people who know many small things) make better predictors of the future than those with the intellectual style described as Hedgehogs (people who know one big thing).

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