Malaysia’s coddled elite is us!


Part 4—The Post denounces these kids: Early today, we were awakened by mordant chuckles from the analysts’ reading room.

The youngsters were reading the New York Times’ description of the Malaysian leadership. According to the Times, the group is now being attacked as a “coddled elite,” the incompetent product of a “paternalistic culture.”

“Careful, Timesmen,” one analyst cried. “Discerning readers are going to say that you’re describing yourselves!”

How weak are the basic skills of our upper-end press corps? To what extent is the mainstream press corps simply a slacker elite?

Such questions were raised by the Washington Post’s reaction to last week’s extremely big news, in which the College Board said it will be making changes to the SAT.

For Gene Lyons' assessment, click this.

In our view, the Washington Post and the New York Times did a rather poor job describing and assessing these forthcoming changes. But good God!

When the weekend came, so did the Washington Post’s standardized statements of opinion. How good are the Washington Post’s basic skills?

The quality of the newspaper’s work was extremely poor.

An editorial and two opinion columns emerged from the Post’s inner circle. But before we consider what those pieces said, consider the “5 Myths about the SAT” piece which appeared in Sunday’s Outlook section.

Oof! The piece was written by Anthony Carnevale, a highly credentialed Georgetown professor who surely knows a lot about testing.

In fairness to Carnevale, he was trying to jam his thinking into a gimmicky every-Sunday Post format. That said, here’s the way he attacked the first of his alleged myths:
CARNEVALE (3/9/14): 1. The SAT is the best measure we have for assessing if a student is ready for—and can succeed in—college.

The College Board maintains that the SAT “has a proven track record as a fair and valid predictor of first-year college success.”

But the most reliable studies don’t bear that out. Jesse Rothstein at Stanford University calculates that on its own, the SAT explains a mere 24 percent of the variation in college freshman grade-point averages. By contrast, high school GPA alone explains 34 percent...
Carnevale starts by alleging a myth without explaining who holds it. Things go downhill from there.

He quotes the College Board making a claim which differs from the alleged myth. From there, he proceeds to refute a different, third proposition.

It’s a bit like watching Meet the Press. In a mere three paragraphs, we’ve experienced two bait-and-switches!

Before he’s done with this first section, Carnevale produces some information. (We can’t judge the accuracy of his statements, although we also don’t doubt them.) But by the time he’s done with this section, he is saying this:

“Certainly, the version of the test now offered isn’t an indispensable predictor of college success. And it doesn’t look like the redesigned test, to be offered starting in 2016, will justify its outsize role in selective college admissions, either.”

Fine! But who ever said that the SAT was an “indispensable” predictor? In this first part of his five-part piece, Carnevale has wandered the countryside in search of a myth to reject.

The logic of Carnevale’s second section was considerably worse. It included a fuzzy, remarkably sweeping claim—“In fact, the SAT does not recognize merit”—as it attempted to refute an extremely fuzzy myth.

In his third section, this happened:
CARNEVALE: 3. Test-prep courses substantially improve scores.

Organizations that provide test-preparation courses are happy to perpetuate this myth. Kaplan, for example, proclaims: “Test prep is the most effective and efficient way to take your score higher.” Anxious parents and students have bought into the myth, making test prep an $840 million industry.

But test-prep courses are not the best use of parents’ money or students’ time. Independent studies show that the effect of test preparation on SAT performance is marginal, boosting scores by 30 points, on average.
Personally, we’d take that “marginal” 30 points, which is only an average. Presumably, this means that many students gain more than 30 points from their test prep courses.

Such score gains may start to seem “substantial.” But by the way:

Does the average student gain 30 points per 800-point subtest? Or does she gain those 30 points on the combined 1600-point scale?

Carnevale didn’t explain that point. At the Post, no one made him. (We’re assuming the editor didn’t edit that out.)

We have no doubt that Carnevale knows a lot about testing, and about the SAT. We were struck by the low caliber of his journalistic exposition.

Just a guess: Carnevale could have done a more useful job is he hadn’t agreed to shoehorn his thoughts into the Post’s “5 Myths” format. (No “4 Myths” need apply!) But good grief!

When the Post spoke with its own voice, the roof came crashing in.

How odd! In three separate presentations, the Post spoke uniformly. The basic themes of the Post’s reaction appeared at the start of Alexandra Petri’s column in Saturday’s paper.

Petri is Harvard, class of 2010. [We misstated the year in our initial post.] But alas! When they work within the guild, the kids get old real fast:
PETRI (3/8/14): By now you've probably heard the news.

The SAT is reverting to a 1600-point scale and making the essay portion of the test optional. The vocabulary words and math sections are changing and the guessing penalty (where you were penalized for getting a question wrong instead of not answering it) has been eliminated.

"What?" you may well say. "But the SAT just changed to include that essay." Ah, but then its rival, the ACT, started to take over the SAT's market share. The College Board, which administers the SAT, insists that the changes will make the test do a better job of reflecting what students learn.

In my experience, "more reflective of what students learn in high school" always is a nicer way of saying "easier." How could it not be? Look at what people are actually learning. Less and less, every day. Employers, when asked if college students strike them as at all ready for the workforce, have stopped responding and just emit a low chuckle, gazing off into the distance.
We don’t know where she got that “emit a low chuckle” hook, but she should probably send it back. That said:

Instantly, Petri stated the themes which were expressed in all three homegrown Post pieces. The SAT is being made easier—and these kids today are sooo dumb.

More on each claim tomorrow. (In its news reporting, the Post did not say that the SAT is being made easier.) For now, here’s a look at Petri, who generally writes in a humorous vein and seems like a very nice person:

Petri is the daughter of a 17-term congressman. She went to the National Cathedral School before trudging on to Faire Harvard.

(There’s nothing “wrong” with any of that.)

Petri had every advantage. In this piece, she repays the debt by adopting the familiar claims which thrill her owners.

She mocks the manifest dumbness of these students today, who aren’t as brilliant as she was. As she does, she displays the lack of basic skills which marked the Post’s reactions and the overall work of her guild.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the Post’s editorial about the changes to the SAT. We’ll also look at Kathleen Parker’s column on the subject.

At the Post, everybody seems to know that today’s students are dumb. But alas! The Post published low-skill work all weekend long. That includes the worst piece of them all, the opinion column which (once again) misstated those D.C. test scores.

American students lack basic skills? So said a coddled elite.

Tomorrow: Look who’s talking! The work of a slacker elite


  1. that on its own, the SAT explains a mere 24 percent of the variation in college freshman grade-point averages.

    There are (at least) two problems with this comment:

    1. The phrase "explains 24 percent of the variation" is a technical term. It refers to the output of a particular statistical technique. Most readers have no idea what it means.

    2. Comparing SAT scores to college GPA's ignores the fact that people with higher SAT scores tend to go to more competitive colleges. E.g., suppose combined SAT scores for Student A were 1500 and for Student B were 1200. Suppose Student A got a 3.3 GPA at Harvard and Student B got a 3.3 GPA at Foothill Junior College. According to the technique used here, this result would show that SAT scores did a bad job of differentiating between Students A and B.

    1. Because no one is suggesting that SAT scores be used instead of high school GPA, the more relevant question is how much variability in college GPA is explained by knowing the SAT score, above and beyond what high school GPA predicts. If it is 24% then that is substantial and well-worth requiring the exam. Comparing the SAT to high school GPA as predictors provides context for interpreting the 24%, and it seems higher than I would have expected. But each could be correlated with college GPA for different reasons and thus they are not necessarily redundant. As to (2) above, this is why different colleges and universities independently assess how much value they will place on SAT for admission purposes and whether or not they will require it. At places like Harvard, for example, restriction of range will affect correlations to the point where the SAT is useless beyond screening out those below a cutoff score. In grad programs the GRE is used to set cutoffs but then disregarded because the remaining variations among those with high scores are meaningless.

    2. Thanks, Din C
      I, for one, had no idea what that meant.

      Another point. Someone with a high IQ but poor study habits could do well on a SAT but bomb in their freshman year at college.

    3. Someone with a high IQ but health or family problems in high school could have a low high school GPA but be capable of doing very well in college. If the problem was low motivation in high school, that may or may not change in college. These other things are part of the variability not measured by any of the indicators. Essays and letters of recommendation can get at some of them. That's why multiple sources of info are used in admission decisions.

  2. I would add that that difference in college major also should have been reflected.

    In general, smarter students will get higher SAT scores and will be more likely to major in the more difficult, technical subjects. Earning a certain GPA in physics is harder than earning the same GPA in many other fields.

    1. The idea that some majors are easier than others is incorrect because it depends on the student's preparation. We see physics majors fail introductory psychology courses, for example, because they do not understand social behavior or have poor reading/writing skills. They tend to be outraged at their low grades because they think psych is supposed to be easy. Similarly, if you have no talent or experience in music or art, those courses will be difficult. Technical courses are easier for those with good math preparation while humanities and social sciences are easier for those with good verbal, reading and writing skills. These don't necessarily overlap.

      As an undergraduate history major, I read a dense book per week per course. I think many technical majors would have a lot of trouble doing that, much less writing coherent, detailed essay exams. I was glad I was not an English major because I would have the same reading load but would be tested on quotes drawn from anywhere in the books assigned. At my university, technical majors are more likely to fail the required writing exam required to graduate in the California State University system.

      I think physicists, such as Feynman and Hawking, have worked hard to promote the idea that they are the smartest people on earth and that all other majors are easy. I still resent Feynman's mistaken statement about psychology as a cargo-cult science. He would fail an introductory psych methods class with such a misunderstanding of methodology and measurement issues. We psychologists wonder why physicists have such fragile egos that they need to go around denigrating other, equally difficult and important areas of study.

    2. Feynman used to joke about his low tested IQ of something like 128. So I'm not sure he thought he was the smartest, just cleverly adaptable, which he was. He knew how to simplify things in an elegant way.

      Having been too both a history and engineering major, history is much easier.

    3. His joke about his IQ is a humble-brag.

    4. Anonymous @11:54A,

      Oh, well played! We psychologists have diagnosed physicists as suffering from ego defects. Are you the spokesman for the APA, or are you the victim of multiple personality disorder? Or perhaps your resentment is just a bit of overdetermined projection.

      Feynman worked hard to promote the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, the theory that explains light; Hawking works hard to promote the understanding of singularities in general relativity, otherwise known as "black holes." Both worked hard to make some of their work accessible to non-physicists.

      Feynman was and Hawking is among the smartest people on earth.

      The "cargo cult" reference is from Feynman's commencement address at Caltech in 1974. If you'd bothered to read it, you'd find that he's criticizing certain procedures in some experiments in psychology. He's careful to point out that not all experiments in psychology are faulty and that physicists are prone to the same errors. Feynman also notes that the difficulty of reaching useful results arises from the difficulty of the subject matter.

      I find risible the idea that Feynman would be stumped by "measurement issues" in an introductory psych course. Since Feynman is dead, we can't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet no one in that course could solve a Feynman path integral, no matter how dense books they read each week.

    5. Someone as smart as Feynman should not be calling an entire discipline a "cargo cult" science on the basis of some flawed experiments that are not representative of the sophistication of the field. I did read his address, although not recently.

      Because Feynman is not a psychologist and has not had any graduate training in psychology, I find it highly unlikely he has any understanding whatsoever of the scientific sophistication of the field. He would definitely not have gotten any exposure to it in whatever undergrad course he may have taken in psychology. Measurement issues aren't taught in introductory psychology at all. Feynman would most likely be unaware that several eminent psychologists earned their first doctorates in mathematics (Guthrie, Narens), or that many who work in psychophysics (Iverson) have doctorates in both physics and psychology (or cognitive science or neuroscience). They could certainly do whatever math was involved in Feynman's work if they had taken that path instead. The idea that psychologists cannot do math is ridiculous -- ask Duncan Luce, William Estes, George Sperling or Louis Narens about that. Few people know that beyond math modeling, several of the statistical techniques widely used in biomedicine and economics were developed originally by psychologists for use in psychology. Fuzzy math, probabilistic approaches started in psychology too.

      Dense reading is required in history and English literature, not psych. Nobody ever claimed such books taught math. I said that students attracted to the hard sciences were just as likely to be avoiding reading and writing as those attracted to the humanities were avoiding math. I don't think Feynman would do well in psychology because he was stupid enough to dismiss it as cargo cult in front of an audience that is relationship-challenged at best, stroking the egos of all involved but communicating little of use in making physicists better citizens of a diverse world.

    6. "Someone as smart as Feynman should not be calling an entire discipline a "cargo cult" science on the basis of some flawed experiments that are not representative of the sophistication of the field."

      Oh grow up. He didn't. That speech was about maintaining "integrity" in all of life's pursuits. He gave examples in psychology and also in physics where he said he was saddened to see people lose their integrity. That is all. He didn't dismiss the entire field of psychology.

    7. Yes we all know that the two fields are held in equal esteem, especially by physicists.

    8. Anonymous @6:23,

      Ironically and predictably you didn't bother to re-read Feynman's address to discover what he actually said instead of remembering the umbrage you took when you first read it.

      No, Feynman isn't a psychologist. He died in 1988, so you can safely use the past tense. And yes, there are no doubt a few psychologists trained as mathematicians, although you don't get any points for naming collaborators of BF Skinner with his behavioral psychology bullshit. But let's not pretend that you and most of your colleagues sitting around the Department of Cargo Cult Science are doing deep mathematics when they dump their "data" in SPSS or whatever statistical package they're using or that they "could certainly do whatever math was involved in Feynman's work" if only they'd wanted to.

      Feynman didn't dismiss the entire field of psychology, and even noted that physicists often committed the same errors he attributed to psychologists. But at the end of the day, when physicists like Feynman get it right, we end up with quantum electrodynamics. Whadda you got on your best day? I'm OK, You're OK?

      Only someone willing to dismiss Richard Feynman as "stupid" would think it matters to your argument (or to anything else) whether Feynman would have been a success in psychology. (Perhaps that's even true, but it certainly wouldn't be because the field's mathematics was beyond him.) Feynman's work wasn't to make physicists "better citizens of a diverse world" or ameliorate the lives of the "relationship challenged." Let's just say that it's an open question as to whether your fellow Cargo Cultists have made progress on those fronts.

      It was not my intention to suggest that dense reading material taught math. It was just my way of gently making fun of your pomposity and braggadocio in comparing your skills as a history major to all those technical types without calling you a pompous braggart.

      Now, see what you've gone and made me do?

    9. I dislike Feynman so why would I reread him? You have totally ignored every point you didn't distort, to defend an obvious jerk.

    10. Anonymous @12:15A,

      Well, that reveals more than you probably wanted to. You dislike Feynman? How so? Did you ever meet him?

      Or did you mean that you disliked what Feynman had to say? In that case, there's every reason to re-read him, if only to make sure that your memory of what he wrote matched what he actually wrote. Here's a quote from the Feynman address that you may wish to consider. Or not

      I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong.

      There's evidence that Feynman was a jerk, but so what? If you've got a problem with his evaluation of your chosen field, that's fine, but you can't show he's wrong by pointing out what a bad person he was. Seems an elementary thing that they should have covered in your first course on methods of investigation in psychology.

      I'm guessing that you didn't feel the need to point out which of your points I ignored and which I distorted because you feel I'm a jerk as well. That last is a fair cop. Your omissions, not so much.

    11. I'm not convinced any one person is particularly smarter than anybody else. David does seem dumb from his comments, but I'm pretty sure that is willful.


    12. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong.

      I can't think of a better message to pass on to new graduates. I hadn't read this commencement address before but reading it now has only increased my admiration and love for that man.

    13. My point had nothing to do with Feynman. Someone else introduced him into this discussion. I said that physics students avoid subjects involving reading and writing because they aren't good at those skills, just as those in the humanities avoid subjects involving math, when they are not good at math. The idea that only physics students (or those in technical fields) can do math is incorrect, just as there are some technical folks who can read and write well, but it is wrong to place physics and other technical fields on some sort of pedestal because they involve math. In general, verbal skills correlate most strongly with intelligence (as measured by IQ tests). In my opinion, psychology is an example of a field that requires both verbal and quantitative skills, but it is not what I was originally commenting on, before people dropped in with their Feynman quotes and worship of physics. I do not exempt Somerby from this because I do not understand his fascination with reading Hawking's book. Feynman took some cheap shots at a field he doesn't understand and contributed to the general disrespect for psychology, something furthered by the likes of Dr. Phil. That has nothing to do with what I was saying about people going with their strengths and avoiding fields that they are weak in, including physicists, who are generally weak in reading, writing and especially people skills (understanding complexities of social behavior).

      Proxmire used to take cheap shots at research he didn't understand. One of the first papers he held up for ridicule was from the Journal of Mathematical Psychology and he ridiculed it because he didn't understand the title and didn't know what it was about. It was written by Duncan Luce, who was later awarded a Presidential Science Medal and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Feynman placed himself in that company, as has Kevin Drum (who is clueless about experimental psychology and refuses to accept correction from his commenters). You guys can worship physics if you want, but denigrating the fields you do not understand is wrong, whether it is Feynman or someone else doing it. That extends to the humanities, including History and English Literature, and to people who think Engineering is more difficult than History because they took undergrad courses in both and found one harder for them than the other. There is a real measurement problem when people who do not know the depths of their own ignorance judge the depths of other people's fields. Feynman made a fool of himself to the extent that he did that and I have no intention of going back and rereading something to argue that point. Self-satisfied physicists are a dime a dozen.

    14. Anonymous @10:06A,

      Most of your response consists of banal generalities that are hard to argue with. Physics students avoid reading and writing, and physicists are weak in "people skills"; humanities students avoid mathematics; it's wrong to conclude that only physics students can do math; verbal skills "correlate" with intelligence as measured by IQ tests (!); Dr. Phil contributes to the general disrespect for psychology; denigrating fields you don't understand is "wrong." And so on.

      Let me restrict my comments to Feynman's observation that psychology is a "cargo cult" science, by which he meant that psychologists adopt the methods of physics not for any reasons to be found in the phenomena they study but in imitation of physics in the hope of obtaining the same success physics had had with these methods. Let's drop over to the website of The Journal of Mathematical Psychology:

      where we find from the abstract for the paper "A connection between quantum decision theory and quantum games: The Hamiltonian of Strategic Interaction"

      Experimental economics and studies in psychology show incompatibilities between human behavior and the perfect rationality assumption which do not fit in classical decision theory, but a more general representation in terms of Hilbert spaces can account for them.

      Do you know what a Hilbert space is? Do you realize how absurd the quoted statement is? Do you understand that this is pure cargo cult science? A Hilbert space is a (possibly infinite dimensional) vector space that is particularly suited to describing the the quantum states of particles. The properties of Hilbert spaces and the operators defined on them describe the interactions of quantum particles. John von Neumann first established the axiomatic basis of quantum mechanics in terms of Hilbert spaces, and this mathematical method allows physicists to accurately describe all known interactions involving photons and electrons. "Accurately" here means that so far, the theory agrees with experiment no matter how much better the experimental apparatus gets. In one case, the agreement is to 14 decimal places.

      But things like "human behavior" and "rationality" (in decision making) are not things measurable like electrons and photons. The authors of this paper may understand Hilbert spaces and they may claim that their calculations "explain" the results of their "experiments." But there is no intrinsic relationship between vectors in Hilbert spaces and human behavior the way there is between those vectors and the particles involved in electromagnetism. The sole reasons to invoke such advanced mathematics is in the imitation of von Neumann.

    15. (continued from my previous comment)

      Another favorite from the website is the paper "The pseudo-transitivity of preference relations: Strict and weak (m,n)-Ferrers properties," which includes this gem:

      We give a detailed description of the finite poset of weak (m,n)-Ferrers properties, ordered by the relation of implication. This poset depicts a discrete evolution of the transitivity of a preference, starting from its absence and ending with its full satisfaction.

      A poset is a partially ordered set, one in which you can't necessarily compare every two items the way you can with say, with a set of integers. This allows you to discuss people's preferences, when as will often be the case, they say they have no way to determine a preference between some pairs of items under discussion. Transitivity of a relation means that if X is related to Y and Y is related to Z, then X must be related to Z. Think "greater than" for the relation. I can't tell you what "Ferrers properties" are exactly, but a little time spent on the google reveals they're useful in studying preferences of items some of which aren't comparable, and this property apparently preserves transitivity when comparisons can be made among choices.

      I bring this up not to discuss the mathematics but to relate a personal anecdote. I had a friend who was taking graduate courses in economics, and he asked me to review a paper he was writing. The paper assumed that consumer preference was transitive, i.e., if you like X more than Y, and Y more than Z, then you liked X more than Z. "But that's not the way things work." I said. "I like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla, and I like vanilla ice cream more than strawberry. But I like strawberry ice cream more than chocolate."

      "You can't." was his reply.

      Which I think sums up everything you need to know about the JMP, even assuming the authors understand the mathematics.

    16. Physicists can be horrible like everyone else. Greed does not fade because one studies science. A nasty storm of physics, psychology, and greed can be found here:

      I do not see how Hawking's musings on black holes has done anything to enrich our lives. He did find a way to make it financially rewarding for himself, but his life is pretty miserable otherwise:

      The black hole that is the lack of character and ethics in physicists is a much bigger threat to us than Hawking's black hole horizon.

    17. Exactly what the fuck does your comment have to do with the discussion?

      Has anybody made the claim that physicists are better people because they use mathematics correctly? Certainly not I.

      Given the problems of Hawking's health and his personal life, let's be sure to shield him from your judgment that his groundbreaking work on black holes hasn't enriched your life. (Which is what I presume you mean when you say it hasn't enriched "our" lives.) If he found out, he'd be devastated to find that you're still an ignoramus in spite of his attempts to make his work accessible to non-physicists.

      There is no ethical black hole populated by physicists. Except of course in your imagination and your inapt metaphors. Black hole horizons were described long before Hawking came on the scene, and Hawking's concept of these horizons differs considerably from the generally-accepted form. There are no black holes anywhere near us, so they and their horizons are no threat at all, making your last statement technically correct and completely absurd.

      But, gee, thanks for sharing.

    18. Dead rats don't get defensive.

      The discussion and my comment involved physicists, psychologists, and integrity.

      Your fanboy styled hero worship of Hawking I find absurd. His life is truly miserable (see link) and I agree with Somerby's assessment of his contribution to us ignoramuses.

      You don't see a lack of ethics amongst physicists because you lack familiarity with the field. The linked article provides a peek. Journalists don't cover subjects like grant awards and skewing science to fulfill the needs of administrators and politicians.

    19. Why would I be defensive: you're not criticizing me. I'm mildly irritated at trying to carry on a conversation with someone who can't seem to focus. No, the discussion had nothing to do with anyone's "integrity." It was about the verbal and mathematical skills (or lack thereof ) shown by physicists and psychologists, and the disparagement of the latter by the former. Remember? Let me refresh your memory: you held up The Journal of Mathematical Psychology as evidence that psychology has a proper grounding in mathematics, so I took a look at their web site, only to find an article that so properly fit Feynman's description of the field as a "cargo cult science" that it might have been a parody. Is this ringing any bells?

      I admire Stephen Hawking for his contributions to astrophysics, although I have to rely on the judgment of his peers that he's one of the keenest intellects around. I admire his ability to do his work in spite of suffering from a debilitating disease. This makes me a "fanboy"? I followed your link, and assuming his life is "truly miserable," what would that have to do with his work? Am I supposed to admire him less because he's getting a divorce amidst rumors that his wife physically abused him?

      If you agree with Somerby about Hawking's "contribution to … ignoramuses" (presumably A Brief History of Time) then you're likely as big an ignoramus about physics as he is. And, apparently, proud of that.

      Please stop telling me what I don't see or what fields I'm familiar with. I've made no comments on the level of ethics "amongst" physicists. This is your hobbyhorse and you can ride it by yourself. For my part, I see no reason to believe that physicists are more or less ethical than any other group of academics and researchers.

    20. oh I'm not the earlier Anon, I'm just the one since 4:13 am.

      The segment of Feyman's speech being discussed is about integrity. You don't like how psychologists conflate their field with ideas from physics. I gave an example of physicists giving a try at psychology and causing quite a mess, in part because of a lack of integrity.

      You said this (before launching into a Somerby like pointless tangent) "There is no ethical black hole populated by physicists. Except of course in your imagination"

      Scientists hold alot of power in the sense that when they lack integrity it can be disastrous. I also question the integrity of wasting so much genius (meant in the loosest sense) on black holes or hedge funds. It all might tie together; you see me as an ignoramus, so maybe it doesn't.

    21. Anonymous @11:06P,

      I'm sorry (he wrote with clenched teeth), since you won't have the common courtesy to use a nym, I have to squint hard to tell the difference between your byline and that of everybody else who's equally as rude and posts as Anonymous. Forgive me.

      I followed your link to the five-year old article from the NYT. And surprise! It had nothing to do with physics or psychology or greed. Instead it was about quants, people who developed mathematical models to predict financial market fluctuations and their effect on financial instruments. Some of those people mentioned used to work in physics; none of them worked in academic psychology. Some of the models, which most specifically don't rely on human psychology, broke down when the markets did in 2008. Nothing in the article suggests that the quants lacked integrity, or that the blame for the financial mess should be laid at their door.

      So, my question remains: What the fuck are you talking about?

      You claim that scientists hold "alot" of power because their lack of integrity can be disastrous. Aside from this being a strange measure of power, how is this different from politicians, officers in the military, or building inspectors? And what makes you think that physicists are responsible for an ethical black hole? I take it that means that physicists are especially unethical, but I'm not sure because the metaphor is so inapt.

      Feynman was talking about a special, internal integrity that he tasked his fellow investigators with, the integrity to try every possible way to invalidate one's own results, to test them to the limit. Your kind of integrity seems to be not wasting time on things you don't understand so think are unimportant.

      "It all might tie together," you say. What's the antecedent to "it"? Astrophysics? Market models? A rigorous approach to experimentation in physics? Whether "it" really might "tie together" will not depend on my judgment of you as an ignoramus. It may well depend, though, on your actually being an ignoramus.

    22. deadrat's ignoramusMarch 17, 2014 at 4:00 AM

      Deadrat quotes:
      "when physicists like Feynman get it right, we end up with quantum electrodynamics. Whadda you got on your best day? I'm OK, You're OK?"

      "Let me restrict my comments to Feynman's observation that psychology is a "cargo cult" science, by which he meant that psychologists adopt the methods of physics not for any reasons to be found in the phenomena they study but in imitation of physics in the hope of obtaining the same success physics had had with these methods"

      yo it's ignoramus again (I'm actually a....oh nevermind)

      The NYT article had to do with physicists, greedy ones, lacking integrity, using math where psychology rules, providing assurances that led to risky behavior. It did not provide a complete picture, but it is a good starting point. You are feigning being stupid? Why cling to grammar as a way to excuse your poor reasoning and ineffective writing style?

      Quotes from the article:
      "many physicists and other scientists who have flooded Wall Street in recent years, moving from a world in which a discrepancy of a few percentage points in a measurement can mean a Nobel Prize or unending mockery to a world in which a few percent one way can land you in jail and a few percent the other way can win you your own private Caribbean island.

      They are known as “quants” because they do quantitative finance. Seduced by a vision of mathematical elegance underlying some of the messiest of human activities, they apply skills they once hoped to use to untangle string theory or the nervous system to making money."

      "In some quarters they get blamed for the current breakdown"

      "As Dr. Derman put it in his book “My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance,” “In physics there may one day be a Theory of Everything; in finance and the social sciences, you’re lucky if there is a useable theory of anything.”"

      "There are a thousand physicists on Wall Street, she estimated, and many, she said, talk nostalgically about science. “They sold their souls to the devil,” she said"

      These article passages speak of the several things you claim it doesn't. I don't know what the fuck you are talking about. You are feigning being stupid? Why is it a problem to comment on something that connects physicists, psychology, and integrity? Why is your natural stance to attack and debate? Cool that shit out. You don't see yourself in these characters?:

    23. my ignoramus,

      Why is my natural "stance" to attack? I don't know. Perhaps many years spent in therapy with an insightful psychologist could help answer this question. All I can say is that there's just something in "teh stoopid" that sets me off.

      Is there a problem, you ask, commenting on something that connects physicists, psychology, and integrity. Of course, not. The problem here is that your source doesn't connect any of those things. There are apparently a thousand physicists in the naked city, according to one Dr. Derman, all working as "quants" and nostalgic for the days before "they sold their souls to the devil."

      Really, 1000 of them? And their souls are the devil's, why? Because they use mathematics to make money? OK, let's even grant this unsourced dumbness. Here's the point: In most cases, Quants. Are. Not. Physicists. Can I make this any clearer? Perhaps some used to be physicists, but they weren't five years ago, and presuming they're still selling their souls, they're not now. And how can we tell they're not? Because in almost all cases they're not doing physics. They may be misapplying mathematics and physics, but if that were a crime, we'd have to lock up the editors and contributors to The Journal of Mathematical Psychology.

      In fact, quants are doing cargo cult science, applying mathematics where it doesn't belong. Why does this place them among the damned? Because they're so greedy they want to be paid? Or is it because they know what they're doing is fruitless? Or is it because they know what they're doing is fraudulent? Your source doesn't actually make any of these accusations. It does say that "in some quarters they get blamed for the current breakdown," which, of course, isn't so current anymore. Some quarters, eh? Quite the indictment. I read that to mean that reckless traders blamed the quants for the quants' models instead of their own behavior. Imagine that.

      Are the markets ruled by psychology? I suppose there's an argument to be made there, but your source doesn't make it and in fact, doesn't mention the word "psychology." Do the physicists who work on theories of financial markets or the quants who implement such models all lack integrity, whatever that means? I suppose there's an argument to be made there as well, although your source doesn't make that one either.

      But really, what's your point? That physicists are just as fallible as everyone else, that physics isn't a cure for failings of character? That physicists sometimes misapply what they've learned when they venture into other fields like finance?

      Is any of that in dispute? Are any of these points even worth making?

      And no, I don't see myself in the caricatures placed on the screen by poseur/director Spike Lee. I've got nothing to say about your skin color, ethnic background, or cultural habits. How could I even know anything about those from a blog comment? I think what you write is inapt and borderline incoherent.

      But that's different.

    24. You were engaged in an uninteresting and pointless debate about Feyman's speech and psychologists inappropriately using physics concepts. Yawn.

      I brought to the discussion the much more interesting, but still related subject of physicists misusing their own field in the area of finance, originally sparked by government cutbacks on funding science and leading to a role in the largest financial crisis in modern times. Their models breakdown in no small part due to psychology. Their models also led many to inappropriate levels of risky behavior. Quants are physicists. They have phDs in physics, most were working in physics before they switched. Their role in the financial crisis may not be a crime, but certainly unethical. If you don't get the problem of people wasting their knowledge of physics or math in the world of finance, then I don't get your morality. You ask alot of questions, most of them you answer by coming to the same conclusions I have presented, but then you say so what. Warren Buffet, Paul Volcker, and many others have spoken out about this, but you are the genius who knows better. May I be allowed to doubt that?

      You seem unreasonably angry. Listen, relax, it's not the end of the world that you are not the most interesting or cogent commenter. Your efforts to mask this by microscopically focusing on tangential issues does not serve you well. For a deadrat you are pretty heated. I think you are alive, just a rat.

    25. You think I'm alive, but still a rat.

      Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I get it, I get it. My nyn is deadrat and I'm a rat, but I have to be alive to post comments. Wait, wait. Let me catch my breath.

      Ah, that's better. Do I seem "unreasonably angry" to you? Is that an official diagnosis of my mental state based on my comments on a blog? Didn't they warn against that kind of thing in psychology school? I'll just point out that lots of nonsense "seems" to you.

      Here's a hint, Sparky. Just because you don't understand the thrust of an argument, doesn't mean it's tangential. And just because you're bored with the debate doesn't make your correspondent's unanswered arguments "pointless."

      Quants aren't physicists. Quants are people who use mathematics to model financial markets. Physicists do physics, and yes, there are a few who do both. Most don't. Some quants "were working physics before they switched." And when they switched, they weren't physicists anymore.

      I don't know how many quants have PhDs in physics, and I'm willing to bet that you don't either.

      Their models may break down "due to psychology," whatever that means. Or they may break down because they are attempts to model nonlinear feedback systems, which are notoriously difficult to model accurately. I'm willing to bet that you don't have a clue which obtains. No, I'll go further and bet that you can't even define what the first claim even means and that you don't have the mathematical chops to determine whether the second one does.

      What conclusions do you think we're in agreement about? The morality of applying what one has learned to situations in which that knowledge turns out not to be worthwhile? Or the judgment that I've employed something akin to racial slurs against you per DTRT? How about making long- distance diagnoses?

      I'll agree that faulty mathematical models can be dangerously wrong. And I'm sure that Buffet and Volcker have expressed alarm about using faulty models. But mistaken doesn't equal immoral. Even willful ignorance judged in hindsight isn't necessarily immoral. As I said, if the mistaken application of mathematics were immoral, you'd have to condemn the editors and contributors to The Journal of Mathematical Psychology.

      By my lights, it would be immoral to steal from people or otherwise damage them by deliberately and deceitfully misapplying specialized knowledge. Is that what you're claiming quants did?

      Even I don't think myself a genius, so you're most certainly allowed to doubt that I am. But from what you've posted, I think I'm equally allowed to figure I'm smarter than you are. Or at least better informed. And wittier, too.

      Admittedly, the bar is pretty low on both accounts.

      Oh, dear. Did that seem unreasonably angry?

    26. "By my lights, it would be immoral to steal from people or otherwise damage them by deliberately and deceitfully misapplying specialized knowledge. Is that what you're claiming quants did?"

      Essentially, yes.

      As a physicist working at a national lab, I don't see you exhibiting any wit or useful information, just willfully playing dumb in a lame attempt at one-upmanship. True, we probably focus on different things in life, so I may be missing something about you. What is your profession?

    27. Anonymous @5:49A,

      Anyone can play the modern-day Richard Feynman in cyberspace.

      If I told you that my profession was the Queen of Romania, would you believe me? How about if I said I was an insurance adjuster? Since you have no reliable way to know, why even ask?

      You don't see any wit or utility in what I say, and you've sussed that out because you're a physicist working at a national lab? Have I got that right?

      It's certainly possible that we focus on different things in life, but what you're missing about me is any reliable information about me. I'd have thought that would have been obvious to a physicist working at a national lab. So how about we just focus on what I've written?

      You're another poster child for the TDH dictum about tribal behavior. You don't like quants, the ones who got away from the lab and tried to make money, while you stayed and slaved. They're the "other," so you feel free to impute not only bad action to them but bad motives as well.

      Do you have any evidence that quants deliberated jiggered their models to their own advantage or that of their patrons? That they knew their quest to model the markets was impossible?

      I mean "essentially," of course.

    28. "Do you have any evidence that quants deliberated jiggered their models to their own advantage or that of their patrons? That they knew their quest to model the markets was impossible?"

      better questions, (the rest is just nonsense I will ignore) This would be very difficult to prove with evidence. I am familiar with former physicists in finance, so I myself don't need more evidence. But for you to understand, you have required a level of demonstration that can't be fulfilled in a comment section. There are books you can read about it. I encourage you to explore the topic. Just choosing to learn science and math to then use to develop bizarre complicated financial packages to sell to people who don't know better, that alone is immoral and unethical. For this you don't need more evidence, just a decent moral compass. This happens often in science as well, so it is not just those greedy finance people. Specialized knowledge can encourage some people into bad behavior. Have a nice day.

    29. better questions, (the rest is just nonsense I will ignore)
      Oh, well played!

      This would be very difficult to prove with evidence.
      Sorry, but outside of brewing, baking, minting, and mathematics, that's really the only way to prove things. With evidence.

      … I myself don't need more evidence.
      Imagine my surprise. But what you mean is that you don't need any evidence. Because you don't have any now.

      you have required a level of demonstration that can't be fulfilled in a comment section.
      That's possible, but it doesn't seem very likely.

      There are books you can read about it. I encourage you to explore the topic.
      Sorry, Sunshine, but I'm not doing your homework for you. Your claim, your burdens of proof and production.

      Just choosing to learn science and math to then use to develop bizarre complicated financial packages to sell to people who don't know better, that alone is immoral and unethical.
      Everybody uses complicated "packages" of software that they, the users themselves don't understand. I don't see how the development of these packages or their sale is inherently immoral and unethical, whatever the difference you find between the conjunctands.

      For this you don't need more evidence,
      No, no, for "this" I need evidence. It's you who doesn't.

      just a decent moral compass.
      I own a fairly good and well-calibrated moral compass. It has a scale for deception, and it can register the difference between that and ignorance or foolhardiness. Apparently, you have a more exquisitely tuned instrument.

      Specialized knowledge can encourage some people into bad behavior.
      This is beyond dispute. The question is whether quants indulged in such behavior. Either you have knowledge of evil intent through your familiarity with "former physicists in finance" or intent is irrelevant to you and the outcome of fall 2008 is dispositive for you.

      Have a nice day.
      It's always a nice day on the high moral ground, isn't it?

    30. I can't help you if you don't have an interest in this topic and you don't wish to explore it. I do have evidence from my personal life, I also have read a few books, read a few articles on the subject. I have some free time between my neutron scattering runs, but not enough to help you with your problems. There is no analogy to be made between ex-physicists playing games with math to bilk and loot, and software developers. That is beyond laughable, it is downright nutty. You misuse your severely self-overrated intelligence to a degree that is pathological. Instead of exploring a topic, you pretend to be dumb with extreme literalism, refuse to put two and two together, react defensively to everything, insult with a condescension so goofy that bemusement can be the only reaction. I don't buy your claims about your morality, your comments are evidence to the contrary. I think you hope for deception and ignorance so it can relieve your jealousy and shame. On the other hand, I hope in the future you can reach a higher moral ground, we all will benefit.

    31. Neutron scattering runs!

      Bwahahahahahahaha! Those are just so time consuming. About the time you pin down where the little suckers are, you can't tell how fast they're going.

      Is my face red or what? Ya caught me taking myself just a tad too seriously. In my defense, nothing you could think to write is so dumb that someone else in the commentariat hasn't posted dumber and in all seriousness.

      Nevertheless, good one. I also liked hoping for deception/ignorance relieving jealousy/shame.

    32. I'm sure your face is crimson.

      You know nothing about physics, your comments on the subject just bring you more embarrassment.

      Relax and enjoy life!

    33. Oh, pretty please, take some time out from your oh-so-time-consuming neutron scattering runs and point out where my comments about physics have been wrong. That should be both relaxing and enjoyable.

      What? You figured I was going to give a detailed defense of my knowledge of physics?

      Bwahahahahahahahaha! "Neutron scattering runs"!


    34. You don't show any knowledge of physics.

      Here you go, silly person:

      One might use it to study humic acid in soil, for example.

      How do you spend your time?

    35. I realize that you think I don't know any physics, which is why I hoped to be amused at your criticism of say, the various comments I've made in response to TDH's blog entries on science writing.

      But, no, you're going to pretend that I'm making fun of you because I think you've made up the term "neutron scattering." Yes, Capt. Wikipedia, I know what neutron scattering is, so no, I don't think it's something you've made up. I'm making fun of your cyber-impersonation of a physicist, and not just any physicist, but one who's too busy to post cogent replies because of his pressing engagements in the lab.

      And also making fun of myself for having taken you seriously in the first place.

      How do I spend my time? Part of it making fun of buffoons.

      LIke you.

    36. I linked to wikipedia because all your comments read like you regurgitate material.

      It is clear you did not know what neutron scattering is.

      I am too busy to help you with most of your deficits because I do real work.

      You have not provided anything to reply to. All you do is insult, to mask your: lack of knowledge, jealousy, insecurity, etc. You are a clown. I can help you to some degree with this, and in fact I have seen some results already.

      Keep smiling.

    37. OK, I'll play.

      You linked to Wikipedia because you don't know any more about neutron scattering than I do. But the "humid acid in soil." was a nice touch.

      You do real work? Let me guess: you're a part-time professional mind reader. And a full-time buffoon. You're not very good at the former, but you're not bad at the latter. You're keeping me smiling.

    38. It's humic acid, but don't worry it doesn't matter in this context.

      I continue to inspire progress in you, keep it up, you can become a better person.

    39. Back from the neutron scattering runs so soon?

      Yes, of course, it's humic with a "c." Clearly your ameliorating influence does not extend to my typing.

      You've inspired nothing but contemptuous mirth. Does that make me a bad person? I worry that it does.

    40. In the midst, my doubting rat, and even with your contempt, my badge indicates I am safe.

      You of course have contemptuous mirth confused with jealous rage, but that doesn't make you a bad person. It is a symptom.

      Within this comment-world, I offer love and support. Eventually your stoniness will melt. I am pleased with the results so far. Some might prefer your earlier, funnier comments, but I am liking the new you that is emerging from your hideous lonely emptiness of existence. You've replaced your pompous parroting with a tone that is adopted, yes, but closer to your true nature and therefore a move in the right direction.

      Oh, I hear a buzz. I have to go flip some switches and turn some dials.

      Keep your head up.

  3. For what it's worth, Isaac Asimov told a story where a room full of professors were grading finals.
    A math professor claimed he had a student name Gauss that had just flunked his math final.
    The whole roomed laughed.
    Later, a language professor announced that his student Cato had just flunked his Latin final.
    Only the Humanities professors laughed.

    1. Asimov was trained as a scientist and yet chose to make writing his career.

    2. Asimov had a career as a professor of biochemistry AND a writer of fiction and non-fiction.

  4. OMB (Looky Looky Mordant Analysts Play Hooky)

    Chuckling in Reverse With BOB

    "Look who’s talking!"

    "At the Post, everybody seems to know that today’s students are dumb."

    Why are we the people so dumb? Some of us read Gail Collins. 2/2/12

    First, it showed us how hopelessly dumb we the people are. 2/21/12

    "She mocks the manifest dumbness of these students today, who aren’t as brilliant as she was."

    Reading Salon, we see the strange truth again and again:
    The kids are not all right.

    Young, inexperienced, grasping, unwise, he and the other youngsters are running loose on the land. Our world is a joke in many ways. 3/18/13

    Our intellectual culture is broken. Our rotted-out values leave us just this side of insane. This breakdown is so widespread it can't be seen by many observers 2/15/14

    "Carnevale starts by alleging a myth without explaining who holds it. Things go downhill from there....Just a guess: Carnevale could have done a more useful job is he hadn’t agreed to shoehorn his thoughts into the Post’s “5 Myths” format. (No “4 Myths” need apply!) "

    In the Outlook section of yesterday’s Post, Reid wrote a piece headlined, “5 Myths About Health Care Around the World.” We strongly recommend the whole piece—every single word. 8/24/2009

    Like BOB, his analysts, and the advantaged Ms. Petri, we were hooked on low, mordant chuckles. So we emitted them involuntarily.


    1. Seeking a foolish consistency in Somerby's remarks (in different contexts with respect to different topics) does not obscure the point that when journalists imply that students these days are not learning enough (are insufficiently prepared) it is another attack on the job being done by our schools (i.e., teachers). It furthers the attack on public education by making education appear incompetent, so incompetent that we must now dumb down the SAT so kids can go to college.

      KZ, this matters much more than any vendetta you hold against Somerby.

    2. Is your comment designed to send us fleeing to the arms of "everybody is dumb" Somerby as opposed to "kids these days are dumb" Wasington Post humor columnists? That's right, BOB, the failed comedian, didn't tell readers Petri's column is titled "ComPost" and subtitled "Amanda Petri Puts the Pun in Punditry."

      BOB told you about her parentage and education, and called that "advantaged." We are pleased he took the trouble to tell you "there's nothing wrong with that" since her background is almost identical to the man whose creativity gave us the Internet (or was it his "initiative" a skill acquired from farm labor?)

      You say this column "furthers the attack on public education." We say Somerby has dropped another of his favorite tribal weapons, the T-Bomb, sparking the outrage of those who see every slight as an attack on public schools. You know what he left out to do it? Check these two lines, the first from Somerby and the second from Petri's column.
      We'll then ask, like BOB in the other post from today, if you noticed a difference, not in approach, but in meaning. And, to follow BOB, to make sure those of you too dumb to notice the difference do notice it, we'll highlight the difference (BOB may be right about how dumb you all are, after all).

      BOB quotes Petri: In my experience, "more reflective of what students learn in high school" always is a nicer way of saying "easier."

      Petri: “More reflective of what students learn in high school and college” always, in my experience, is a nicer way of saying “easier.”

      But wait, there's more! You see when he quotes her as saying "less and less" you don't see that in Petri's original web piece, this phrase is a link to a study of students scores on the College Learning Assessment, an instrument measuring the value added to students not in public schools, but in higher education. In short, dear Anon., BOB misled you.

      Which brings us to our final point and your main one. We don't demand a "foolish consistency" from BOB. In fact, his "foolish" consistencies are a major flaw we satirize in recounting his repetitiveness even in the face of obvious factual error. But we repeat ourselves.

      The inconsistencies BOB demonstrates while judging others harshly for flaws he exhibits in his own work, often in the same post in which he is leveling criticism is our larger problem with his effort on behalf on crumbling intellectual culture which, like Maddow with crumbling American infrastucture, can be blamed for sleepless nights.

      You charge we have a vendetta we hold against BOB. Why would we? We don't know him. We've never charged him with keeping our college buddy from being President or getting tens of thoiusands killed. Perhaps our work is inspired by BOB when he is at his best. To quote with minor alterations:

      Why does BOB engage in so much simplistic repetition? Why is his revulsion increasingly supersized and dramatic? Why does he work to ratchet the sense that he is chasing cartoonish villains?

      When very smart people do very bad work, sensible people ought to wonder why.


    3. You think Petri's column was humor?

    4. We believe it is intended to be. Especially since it closes:

      "The test really should just consist of one question: “CAN YOU USE GOOGLE?” with a follow-up, “ARE YOU WILLING TO PAY SOMEBODY A GROTESQUE AMOUNT OF MONEY TO SPEND FOUR YEARS DRINKING?” If the answer to both questions is “Yes,” you are all set for a great college career."

      Whether you find it funny is a matter of individual taste. In our book saying she "usually writes in a humorous vein"
      then later, "In this piece, she repays the debt by adopting the familiar claims which thrill her owners" is an attempt to ratchet up a bit of outrage rather than just say she isn't funny.

      By the way, many of the comments to the column we read
      found it funny and we didn't find one that exressed outrage seeing it on its own merits. In fact none expressed a view similar to those of OTB. But we did not read them all. Not count them.


    5. Even in a humorous context, buying into the idea that our high school grads know less today and need to have the SAT dumbed down for them still supports the agenda of those wishing to privatize public education, and it attacks the job being done by teachers.

      Messages communicated less explicitly, packaged as humor or entertainment, can still have an impact on what people believe. This is how memes become accepted as common knowledge, things everyone knows and people assume to be true, such as the idea that our schools are failing. That no one in comments took issue with that point suggests it is widely accepted as true, when it is in fact false.

      I didn't see anything at all funny in the lengthy excerpts that would have tipped me off that this was intended as humor. You are, of course, familiar with people who insult others or say socially unacceptable things, and then when people get upset, say "Just kidding, can't you take a joke?" So, people shouldn't get a pass for labeling their ideas "humor," much less pun-ditry.

    6. "I didn't see anything at all funny in the lengthy excerpts that would have tipped me off that this was intended as humor."

      Just as the good OTB intended.


    7. Shouldn't humor be funny enough to require no label?

    8. Shouldn't excerpts accurately reflect the author's intent?

      BOB "badly misquotes" Petri, then heaps abuse on Carnevale for writing in the exact same format of an article he had high praise for earlier when he agreeed with the writer.

      Let's see. What did Maddow's viewers get called by the OTB not long ago? Rhymes with boobs and boozers?


    9. The author's intent was actually to praise students and their teachers?

    10. Those who can do follow the link and read for themselves, those who can't get teacher BOB.

  5. "...emit a low chuckle, gazing off into the distance..."

    Someone's been reading Somerby....

  6. Bob would have been wise on this topic to follow the advice of the writer to whom he links:

    Much Hullabaloo About Nothing.

    Instead nothing is already at Part 4 and counting.