Tuesday, August 28, 2012

People are Stupid

This is an adapted excerpt from my newest book, "What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals. 

We deify rational thinking: We teach it relentlessly in schools. We admire our universities and think tanks. We make fun of stupidity. Yet so much of what we do is downright idiotic.

Seventy-seven percent of mutual fund investors use actively managed mutual funds rather than index funds, even though decades of data make clear that index investors do better.

Homeland Security
We spend billions every year, including to make every airplane passenger spend a half hour or more in line, taking off their shoes, and having their toothpaste checked to ensure it weighs less than three ounces, when even a retarded terrorist knows we do that and so would simply bomb one of the millions of unsecured targets, for example, a water reservoir in Wyoming or a Bar-Mitzvah in Brooklyn. A more sophisticated terrorist would, in the  lobby of an international airport terminal, reach into a shopping bag, open a vial of highly communicable mutated smallpox virus and saunter across the terminal, infecting enough people headed all over the world to kill billions. A rational government would accept that we can't stop terrorism by policing it no matter how many billions we spend. But we're not rational.

A Google Search on the term "Surrender to God" yields 900,000 links. Countless people follow the Bible's urging to be passive, to wait for God to provide. For example, 

Philippians 4:19 Be not wise in your own eyes; God shall supply all your need.

Proverbs 3:1: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.

1 Corinthians 10:17  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability,

Matthew 17:20  If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.
What are the odds there is an omniscient, omnipotent deity watching the seven billion people's every move to ensure they all do okay? Forget about whether surrendering to God will result in your landing a good job in this economy. Remember that billions of people, including newborns have died screaming in agony. And what about all those catastrophic earthquakes and epidemics? And if "God will provide," why do billions of people lack basic food, water, shelter, and health care? Could anyone with a mote of rationality "surrender to God?" 

Education as key to closing the achievement gap
We continue to bet billions and billions on education as the tool most likely to close the achievement gap. That, despite more than a half-century and trillions of dollars (also see this) spent trying so many permutations and combinations of teaching style, curriculum, etc. Yet the achievement gap remains as wide as ever. We haven't been able to do better than to tout a non-replicable superstar teacher or pilot program: from Marva Collins (her school is now closed due to lack of enrollment) to Michelle Rhee's DC non-miracle, to bad-data KIPP, to the latest fad, Khan Academy. Go take a Khan Academy lesson and ask yourself if a year of that is likely to close the algebra achievement gap. They're boring. Only highly motivated students will learn algebra that way. Do you really think America's low achievers will learn algebra so much better with Khan lessons as to close the achievement gap?

Yet we continue to prefer to bury our heads in the sand and bet a fortune and our children's future that the next classroom innovation du jour will close the achievement gap. Couldn't the enormous costs of those classroom programs, trainings, etc., be more wisely spent? For example, mightn't it be wise to accept that we aren't close to knowing how to close the achievement gap and so rather than spending more trillions on unlikely-to-work classroom programs, reallocate those dollars to foundational research on figuring out the gap's true roots and only then develop programs based on those roots, and if there's money left,  return it to the taxpayer?  But we are not rational. 

A Solution
 The most important thing schools and colleges should teach is how to think rationally: 
 how to make decisions based on an probability-based assessments of risk, reward, cost and opportunity cost. But we're too busy teaching the periodic table of elements, the causes of the French and Indian Wars, and how to solve quadratic equations.


Jeff Jones said...

Wow, Dr. Nemko, thank you for saying that the Khan Academy is boring. I feel vindicated because I thought it was just me who felt that way.

I think a much bigger problem with teaching math is that many people have no idea how to use the math they study. Watching a video lecture on how to do algebra didn't inspire me, because, frankly, I'm 37 years old and the only math I've ever used is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. I also go online to use a compound interest calculator but have no idea how to manually calculate it.

As you said, the problem is that students don't learn critical thinking skills. I did not learn to think critically or manage money or anything useful until I was well into my thirties. But I sat through countless hours of boring math classes in school. As I said, not only do I not remember any of it, but I wouldn't even know when or how to use it.

As you said, I doubt the Khan Academy will really teach math to anyone who isn't exceptionally motivated in the first place.

Marty Nemko said...

Forcing all kids to learn algebra is another stupidity. As I implied, I'd much rather my child develop good estimation and probability skills even if he never learned to graphically solve parabolic equations.

Maria Lopez said...

I don't think algebra is stupid for many people since formulas come up over and over again in my somewhat unusual life.

I also think that you cannot assign probabilities without some subject matter knowledge. I'm not sure people can think about probabilities in the abstract as well as they can reason about the probabilities of specific things.

For example is it more probable that the fuel line is clogged or that the fuse for the fuel pump is blown? Mechanics can intuitively figure out based on subject matter knowledge what is more likely and therefore what procedures would are likely involve the least work for them.

Actually, I kind of agree with you about parabolas, such analytic geometry hasn't been useful to me. Still, it would have been helpful to me if I had been able to algebraically solve for the intersections two ellipses.

I guess my point is that teaching estimation and probability at a sophisticated level involves as much formulaic stuff as teaching analytic geometry and most people wouldn't be able to take that knowledge and apply it to figuring out real world problems.

A secondary point is that analytic geometry does come up in image processing and optics. I have an, admittedly emotional attachment to the idea of teaching children something about how the physical world works though maybe it's not beneficial.

Shawn said...

The ultimate long-term solution to many problems is genetic engineering and population management. China seems to be the most sensible country with regards to such issues.

Maria Lopez said...

Most Westerners see such as tyranny. It does highly resemble what we do to dogs. As with dogs, the majority of people would not benefit if people are shaped according to the whims of their masters.

ST said...

It's culturally OK in this country to be bad at math, people laugh, "I'm just so bad at math", har-dee-har-har. That's OK, don't worry, the billion Chinese and the billion East Indians will be more than willing to take the very well-paying jobs in the USA that use math. (My company's entire analytics team is almost entirely Chinese [and mostly female] except for a couple middle-aged white guys).

Intuitively thinking in probabilities is a lot of times wrong. Not only is there a lot of math in probability and statistics, the intuition only gets better the more you learn the math. Intuitively knowing what "probably" is wrong with something given expert knowledge is more inductive or diagnostic reasoning, which is also convergent thinking. Some people are very good at it naturally, but the expertise in a subject area lets them become bullet proof, almost.

The mundane "boring" math you learn as a kid is only a very small stepping stone into really learning math. Some kids used to say that they liked math because there was one exact answer. Well, not so much the higher you go. It's really all about probabilities, "guesses" and hoping you're close. Watch the show "Numb3rs" to kind of get an idea (although embellished for TV).

Yes, not everyone's cut out for it no matter how hard they try. Even for people who are good at math, it's a lot of hard, boring work at times (except for Will Hunting. Well, it wasn't hard, but he got bored).


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