Getting Ripped: A string of thrilling claims!


The full bloom of a con: We know, we know. You think we’re overdoing it with Amanda Ripley’s ballyhooed new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

We understand the complaint! But Ripley’s book is a remarkable text, a Rosetta Stone which helps us see the nature of modern “journalistic” practice.

We want to record the succession of scams involved in this widely-praised book. Today, let’s review Ripley’s succession of claims about miraculous Finland.

We’ve presented one claim before. It comes right at the start of the book.

In the passage shown below, Ripley pretends to explain why she wrote her book. On page 2, she refers to a chart which appears on page 3—a chart of test scores achieved by fifteen nations over the past fifty years:
RIPLEY (page 2): Then one day I saw this chart, and it blew my mind.

The United States might have remained basically flat over time, but that was the exception, it turned out. Look at Finland! It had rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath.
According to Ripley, miraculous Finland “rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath.” When she saw that chart, it blew her mind. It led her to write her book.

That claim about Finland does sound pretty amazing! It sets up what Malcolm Gladwell calls an “intellectual adventure story,” in which “you know that something wonderful and thrilling is about to happen” (or already has).

(For Gladwell quotes, click this.)

On page 2, a wonderful, thrilling claim has already been made. On page 7, Ripley adds to the picture:
RIPLEY (page 7): Meanwhile, the Finns themselves offered vague explanations for their success. Education, I was told, had always been valued in Finland, going back hundreds of years. That explained it. But, then, why did only 10 percent of children finish high school in Finland in the 1950s? Why were there huge gaps between what urban and rural kids knew and could do in Finland in the 1960s? Back then, Finland’s passion for education had seemed rather uneven. What had happened?
Huh! It sounded like things were pretty grim as late as the 1960s. Soon, Ripley suggests that the change in Finland was very rapid—although it all depends on what the meaning of “a generation” is:
RIPLEY (page 18): Historical test results showed that Finnish kids were not born smart; they had gotten that way fairly recently. Change, it turned out, had come within a single generation.
Try to ignore the cloying notion that kids across some nation can be “born smart.” You’re simply being talked down to. At any rate, historical test results show that Finland’s kids weren’t smart until fairly recently.

A bit later, Ripley drives the developing portrait home. “Kim” is an Oklahoma high school kid who decides to go to Finland as an exchange student:
RIPLEY (page 39): Then [Kim] read that Finland had the smartest kids in the world. Could that be right? Teenagers in Finland did less homework than Americans, but scored at the top of the world on international tests, which was weird, since Finland had been until fairly recently a largely illiterate farming and logging nation.
Wow! Until fairly recently, Finland was largely illiterate! Or so we’re told as the “adventure story” deepens.

Let’s review. Until fairly recently, Finland was largely illiterate. Change came within a single generation. Without pausing for breath, the country went from the bottom of the world all the way to the top.

One part of that story is reasonably accurate. For the most part, Finland scores at or near the top of the world on international tests—although, in a 230-page book, Ripley only discusses the one international test on which Finland does best.

(She doesn’t report that the United States matched Finland in math in both grades tested on the 2011 TIMSS. That information undermines the thrust of the “adventure story” we are being told.)

Until fairly recently, Finland was largely illiterate. Change came within a single generation. Without pausing for breath, the country went from the bottom of the world all the way to the top!

That’s a thrilling story, all right—but is the story accurate? As we’ve noted before, the chart which Ripley shows on page 3 doesn’t seem to show what she describes on page 2. It seems to show Finland recording high test scores all the way back to the 1960s, when international testing began.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you how Finland scored in 1964, two generations ago. We’ll try to evaluate that claim about Finland having been largely illiterate until fairly recently. (“Largely” and “fairly” can be highly useful words. Note the earlier use of “fairly” in that page 18 quote.)

From there, we’ll move on to several more slippery presentations in this thrilling adventure book. We've already listed quite a few. We plan to list several more.

Ripley makes several sensible suggestions in her book, which comes with elite support. At least, her suggestions seem to make pretty good sense if we’re discussing the educational needs and shortfalls of our middle-class students.

She also presents a string of highly embellished claims. These claims are found all through her book. Along with her sensible suggestions, those embellishments ought to be listed.

Those cons help you see the way our modern “journalism” routinely works. We think it’s a dirty story, a story your heroes won’t tell.


  1. OMB

    A thrilling story!

    Amanda Ripley reports her mind was blown by charts showing a land of lumbering illiterate loggerheads rocketing breathlessly to the top in the huge sport of international test taking. And to spice it up, she throws in side trips to exciting Poland and Korea, lands American readers have longed to study in, but were too timid to travel there themselves.

    Yes, a thrill a minute. And because these thrills are based on false
    statistics to support apple pie recommendations with little prospect of implementation, they must be destroyed by presenting more questionable data in defense of a widely inefficient. somewhat ineffective system devised in a badly governed country populated by people who think they are the greatest but clearly are not.

    We must do this or the inner rube within each of us will be conned into hate. Isn't this why the elders looked at Jesus like he was funny or something?

    Well, OK. We may be overdoing it. We just don't know. But it's fairly thrilling! It largely beats covering the living dead on Meet the Press. But only because those corpses are no longer feasting on Gore.