Thursday, 11 September 2014

Steven Pinker on university standards: Harvard


It would be great if Prof Pinker had decided to reach out to Psychological Comments in order to join our occasional series on university standards, but he has done the next best thing: he has written a heartfelt account of teaching at Harvard, which serves our purpose very well. My thanks to an alert reader for this:

In brief, Pinker is arguing against those who would have university entry be based largely on holistic criteria: general enthusiasm, good works, helping the unfortunate (excluding unfortunate academics), playing sports, and being diverse in some required manner. The latter loophole allows you to encourage or prevent racial and religious groups, and to make special provision for those whose parents have donated large sums.

Pinker makes an admission I find quite shocking: A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam. I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do.

Well, I thought I was the only one. I was highly ranked as a teacher in my medical school, but I assumed that the more-than-slightly-better-known Prof Pinker would command a full lecture hall. Other psychology teachers happily go to talks by Steven Pinker, and read his many books. Why not these brats?

Pinker argues that they are not at lectures because they are following the holistic pursuits that gained them entry: music, drama, sports, dance, comedy. What is to be done with these all-too-well-rounded but thoroughly anti-intellectual, uncultivated , and wilfully untutored minds?

Pinker muses:

If only we had some way to divine the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system. If only we had some way to match jobs with candidates that was not distorted by the halo of prestige. A sample of behavior that could be gathered quickly and cheaply, assessed objectively, and double-checked for its ability to predict the qualities we value….

We do have this magic measuring stick, of course: it’s called standardized testing. []test-based selection used to be the enlightened policy among liberals and progressives, since it can level a hereditary caste system by favoring the poor and smart over the rich and stupid.

So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.

Pinker goes on to show that these claims are wrong: ability and scholastic tests are our best predictors overall, and are little influenced by tuition. Standardized testing would be fairer than Harvard’s messy current system. Students selected on that basis might even have intellectual interests.

How strange that we even have to argue that entry to an academic establishment should be on academic aptitude, when that should be obvious. Stranger too that the inept entry system confers advantages to graduates because employers assume that if they went to Harvard they must have done so on merit, and be bright and well educated.

Finally, if you wondered why people read Steven Pinker, look at these two paragraphs, given early in his essay in reply to the suggestion that, instead of the usual objectives, education should be focussed on the holistic goal of building a self, a unique being, a soul. Pinker reports he doesn’t know how to do that, but suggests:

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

A virtuous prospectus, uncluttered by priests, and within the bounds of the possible. As Burke observed in A Vindication of Natural Society, all happiness is connected with the practice of virtue, which necessarily depends upon the knowledge of truth.


  1. >>As Burke observed in A Vindication of Natural Society, all happiness is connected with the practice of virtue, which necessarily depends upon the knowledge of truth.<<

    And yet our society is based almost entirely on lies.

  2. If dumb and dumber have children and smart and smarter have children, how can DDs descendants ever get to the mean.

  3. Through regression to the mean, because intelligence is not perfectly heritable.

  4. Pinker has gifts that few of us have.

    That, or I'm overly optimistic. But I doubt it.

  5. Dear Jayman, Nope, not overly optimistic. Good psychologist, and writes well.

  6. Please indulge me as I seem to have found myself on the left side of the curve.
    Suppose population A has a mean of 100.
    Lets assume no one is at exactly 100.
    Population B is everyone <100
    Population C is everyone >100
    If, say, for 20 generations everyone who is born into B and has an IQ > 100 moves into C and reproduces. And everyone who is born into C with an IQ of <100 moves into group B and reproduces, what will happen to the mean for group B and C, respectively?


  7. The simple answer is that at every generation there is a shuffling of categories, the extent of which depends on the heritability of intelligence. if we take heritability as measured in adults as greater than 60%, then we still have 40% of adults going up and down because of environmental variables, or simple error variation. There will be a fair amount of shuffling of classes. If people follow stricter assortative mating (only marrying those they meet at university) then heritabilities could be higher, at 80% and social stratification would be stronger, social mobility (both up and down) would happen less often, generation after generation. Elites would rise and stay at the top longer.
    Search the blog for social mobility, which should provide the arguments, and some references.

  8. The right side of your blog "shakes" making it very hard for me to read this blog. I'm using Google chrome.

  9. For those that missed it here is Scott Aaronson:

    Steven Pinker’s inflammatory proposal: universities should prioritize academics

    (Incidentally, readers who haven’t experienced it firsthand might not be able to understand, or believe, just how strange the undergraduate admissions process in the United States has become, although Pinker’s anecdotes give some idea. I imagine anthropologists centuries from now studying American elite university admissions, and the parenting practices that have grown up around them, alongside cannibalism, kamikaze piloting, and other historical extremes of the human condition.)

    Read here:

  10. But they are limited. God of heaven, you know, I was not poisoned by any leftist, I have no patience to read the nonsense that many of them write. My skin gets irritated easily just imagine the typical leftist discourse on 'racism' among other things.
    I came to the conclusion that the 'standardized' tests' are not as infallible as well on their own. The problem is that withdrew the hereditary social privilege by inherited neurological privilege.
    I do not understand why they continue to believe in super powers of standardized tests. You want to legitimize their social positions through rites of passage bureaucratic.
    Are not realizing that people can not be unilaterally distributed as a bell curve. In each score qi, 120's, 107's, 142's, you have a range of different types of skills.
    It's not difficult to understand that, what happens is that there are no previous studies to use as legitimation of their assumptions.
    There are people who have great creativity and not just for recreational functions, but has no ability to produce a monograph or a scientific text.


    1. Is this what you're saying?

      I came to the conclusion that, on their own, standardised tests are also fallible. Because, instead of an hereditary elite, they would create an IQ elite, which would also be highly inherited.

      Which would merely validate the current elite.

      When in fact, IQ masks the range of skills and talents of many people who do not necessarily score ultra-high on a standardised IQ test.


      I think that's what you're saying. But the IQ hypothesis is that, IQ does explain much of the range of skills and talents because, IQ reflects g, which is a sort of genetic wild card for doing, anything that requires thought, well.

      I don't know if I've understood either side of the argument correctly.

    2. I will continue to preach this nail, maybe I can?

      Yes, you understand correctly. Already have an elite where people higher qi rise to positions of relevance. What is to be thought, intelligence is complex because it is diverse. A linear bell curve can not explain everything.

      Today I could not understand what this means g factor. Again I reiterate that makes sense as a theory, concept, but in practice, it also seems limited. The concept of the g factor tells us it is a kind of essence of intelligence. But when we show examples of what would be this essence appears as 'someone who is good at one thing, it will be equally good at everything else'.
      And this is not so for everyone and indeed, perhaps most do not work this way.

      Not only is iq, people have marked functions in society as cognitive castes. Only by relating only to the IQ criteria, we have a stupid elite that does not solve problems.
      I can use the IQ itself to prove that the idea of ​​a bell curve does not make sense as the only way to understand the macro-dynamics of human society.

      A person with IQ 130 verbal and non-verbal IQ around 90.

      Determinism iq part of the idea of ​​equality, which is derived from the pedagogy itself.

      All are equal in his faults and virtues, equality in inequality, while inequality exists only when there is meritocracy, subjective or unilateral, as in the case of someone with IQ above 130.

      Thanks to Lewis Terman.


  11. We are deceived by the appearance and education shows that where one who writes a beautiful text, but with zero new ideas, it is better than someone who does not write to the academic standard and has many ideas that can be useful.


    1. The purpose of university is mainly to create certain types of employees required by the economy. Even in the purest of fine arts, communication is fairly important. I suppose James Joyce comes close to writing something so clever that not many people can read it? But doctors and teachers and economists need to be able to communicate their cleverness, surely?

    2. Yes, I'm not against the technical maintainers seen that for our society to function, there have to be people like these, the farmer until the university professor. However, our society is based on false assumptions, since its root, what is called equality.

      The technical maintainers are selected for jobs that should be filled by being problem solvers and I have a hunch that these two types are considerably different.


  12. Thanks for your replies Santo.

    1. For nothing:-)