Friday, September 12, 2014

Extracurricular activities are indeed just "extra"

I am happy to report that I agree with Scott Aaronson – and obviously with Steve Pinker – that the universities should focus on the learning and scholarly work while sports and similar things should be treated as cherries on a pie.

Also, I agree with them that the standardized tests are – if you allow me to use a quote we invented along with Winston Churchill – that the standardized tests are the worst method to "rate" applicants except for all other methods that have been tried. ;-)

I've served on a Harvard undergraduate student admission committee, Harvard graduate student admission committee (repeatedly), and a Harvard postdoc admission committee, and I know something about the things that decide and whether they look OK. Just to be sure, Harvard is insanely selective, reducing MIT, Yale, as well as Princeton to schools where pretty much everyone can be admitted.

It's great if someone has a rock band or plays a sport game or flies to Africa to feed the children or something like that. I am usually touched or impressed when I hear or read such things. But at the end, it is not what universities should look at when they pick students (or other members of the community).

Also, standardized tests produced boring numbers and don't see the multi-dimensional qualities of a human being, her X-factor, invisible creativity, and blah blah blah. No doubt about it, it's true. But the admission committee ultimately assigns a student even less than one real number – it attaches one bit of information (accepted/rejected) so it's not surprising if a real number is used as an intermediate step to calculate the final bit.

At the end, the multi-dimensional perspective on the applicant is what encourages favoritism, nepotism, corruption, and similar things. The greater role is played by undefined criteria that are only seen by individual human members of committees, the less kosher and "demonstrably fair" the admission process is. There's more room for the bad things which – if we ignore their moral problems – show up as noise reducing the efficiency of the admission process.

Last year, there was a summit at the local science center asking how to stimulate the best high school students to work on their physics/mathematics skills and I defended the usual mathematics/physics olympiads against high school teachers who found them obsolete – and the logic was fully analogous. Vague, less quantitative ways to compare "top mathematicians at schools" etc. are less objective, less fair, and for those reasons, less motivating (I mean motivating them to do the right things), too.

I do think that even though MIT isn't quite Harvard in most respects, we may see that there exists evidence that Harvard has made a mistake when it did not accept Scott Aaronson to a much more lowly position than what Aaronson occupies at MIT today. It is not waterproof evidence, of course, but it is evidence, nevertheless. One shouldn't overlook that the odds of being accepted to the physics graduate school at Harvard are something like 1:15.

Peter Thiel is probably right that college education is overrated in general, especially when it comes to a young person's plan to become a great manager, inventor, entrepreneur, and so on. However, I still think that there are activities in which the universities are unchallenged leaders. If you will try to find people who investigate and follow research on string theory and who are not affiliated with a university, you will have a hard time to find the three people and even if you succeed, you will ask who is the third (and the second, for that matter). The number of string theorists in the Academia across the world is of order 1,000. You can't really expect a serious research of fundamental physics in the environments that look nothing like the Academia.

Aside from the string theory research, there are not too many other, very different yet indisputably great examples of highly valuable activities that universities are best at (or even enjoy a monopoly status, more or less). But there are some and I find it obvious that the universities aren't really needed for (or unchallenged at) the production of best athletes, among many other things, which is why the people at the universities shouldn't be led to focus on such things and students shouldn't enjoy major advantages because of these extra skills.

Scott and/or some of his readers argue that some of the tests were introduced to encourage the rural youth to get to the universities – which I find sensible because the scholarly environment is often isolated and degenerating (although these adjectives are often positive, however). Others, including the sport requirements, were meant to suppress the Jews whose average IQ is 10 points higher which makes them overrepresented at the universities. Scott believes that the Jews are as good at sports as everyone else these days. I am not sure but it's clear that a suppression could be achieved if someone demanded the students to be experienced in farming and agriculture – search for these two words in the famous 2005 speech by the 30th cousin of Scott Aaronson, namely Larry Summers.

Of course, I am suggesting such a thing as joke – as an example of the type of a contrived multidimensional selection that the universities should surely avoid.

Universities may train the students to become great at many activities and it's just fine. They may feel and surrender to financial incentives to produce future billionaires or powerful politicians etc. However, the more "common" the character of the training is, the less clear comparative advantage the universities (I especially mean the top universities) may boast. Preparing someone who seems excellent for the environment itself – i.e. for the scholarly work – is something that should always remain at the top of the good universities' agenda.


  1. I had a few personal feelings about this . I think I poured out on shtetl

  2. How much admission committees (graduate) look for research ? Of course it is great if some undergraduate student do original research but number of them is very small. Sometimes i think i should learn more high energy stuff than doing some projects on else.

  3. The number is very small, indeed, so even most people who are accepted have "zero" of such things, at least at some official level, I think. Nevertheless, I think that there's a room for the committee members to pay attention to such things and be impressed so statistically, it must play a nonzero role.

    You must understand that the decisions are not super perfect repeatable procedures. There are lots of partly random, noisy numbers written at many places.

  4. I can understand why universities pursue sports programs though ... it builds better relations with the alumni community and thus helps raise money for the university. From that perspective, the football team is critical.

  5. Separate comment for separate content, re: standardised testing.

    Lubos, have you followed the backlash against the GREs? There are a significant number of people in astronomy (I don't know about physics) who want the Physics GRE removed as a tool of graduate admissions. I don't know if they've succeeded much yet but they're vocal and they pursue their philosophy. Their main argument is that the correlation between subject test GRE score and research productivity is low.

    I have problems with that: that's a hard correlation to measure objectively.

    1) How do you define research productivity?
    2) All of the other correlations (with GPA, etc) are low as well ;
    3) The intrinsic correlation between Physics GRE and research performance is suppressed since people with low GRE scores are less likely to be admitted in the first place.
    4) The intrinsic correlation between Physics GRE and research performance is suppressed even further since the people with low GRE scores admitted are predominantly those who are amazing in other regards.

    I may be prejudiced, but I believe that if a third year physics major can't solve the acceleration of a ball on an inclined plane then they are unlikely to lead a productive research career.

  6. How about the school post a research topic and have the applicant write a 5 to 10 page paper about it, LaTeX to pdf and all. The goal will be to see how the student approaches the topic, in rigor and originality.

  7. If you compare the number of publications today's average graduate student has at the time he or she gets a PhD, it is higher than it was, say, 50 years ago and probalby higher than 25 years ago as well. I heard from some people that this tendency has seeped into the undergraduate phase as well, so more applicants to physics graduate schools will have done some sort of research and perhaps published, so graduate schools may be expecting more of that as part of the admissions process.

    Whether it is a meaningful criterion to find people who will be creative researches at an advanced level is not entirely clear. Most undergraduates have a limited knowledge base, so the research they can do at that stage is unlikely to be very independent.

  8. I have to disagree. The purpose of Harvard College is not education. The students bring whatever education they will ever have with them. Harvard College is a networking service for the Ruling Class' next generation. In that role, holistic admissions, sports, legacy, etc., are all desirable. The MIT kids will do the physics, and the Northeastern U. kids will do the engineering. The Harvard kids will Rule.

  9. OK, but I am not sure whether you are getting the causal relationships well.

    Harvard alumni often rule the world *because*

    1. they are innately good because that's how Harvard selected them in the first place
    2. they get the Harvard diploma which helps them later, too.

    Whether the network is so important, except for the case of Facebook of course, is debatable.

    Even if I accept your claims about the network purpose, I don't see why you think that all the things that you label as desirable are desirable. I don't think that ruling the world has anything to do with sports, and most other things you wrote down.

  10. I had a mathematics professor who made it into college on a football scholarship, it was his way out of a small town in West Texas. I suppose that these days he could rely on test scores.

    As to string theorists not a universities, yes, absolutely, a university is the best, maybe only, place where such people can do their work. It was for such people that universities were originally intended, even if many specialized in theology at the time ;) Which reminds me, back in the 1965 or so I looked up physicists in the New York yellow pages and found... Leon Brillouin.

  11. Completely off-topic here, sorry Lumo;
    Here's an interview with a countryman of yours - the game developer Daniel Vavra who directed Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven.
    He's one of the few in his industry brave enough to speak up against the insane political correctness going on. Most major gaming websites published articles 2 weeks ago saying that all their own customers are "dead" because we're all misogynistic racists.

  12. I am a huge fan of Vávra and other developers of Mafia I/II and 2K Czech in general. Those games are amazing, at least visually, although Mafia II had less-than-desirable amount of stuff to interact with you.

    I've surely spent hundreds of hours playing the Mafia games, perhaps more than hundreds LOL.

    I didn't quite understand who is "misogynistic racists" and who said that. At any rate, I know that the Mafia team had some crazy problems with political correctness. For example, some Italian PC folks claimed that it's a form of racism to preserve the stereotype that connects Mafia with Italy. Just imagine that. These people want to deny that Italy has any special relationship with the Mafia! ;-)

  13. Well, there was a sex scandal almost a month ago that revealed huge corruption in games journalism and they all decided to insult their customers to cover it up. There's been an extraordinary amount of censorship of the subject.
    Probably the first time in history that an entire industry decided to declare their own customers dead.
    These were all published within 24 hours of each other (linkspam follows):

    Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over. Exclusive – Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra (Aug 28, 10:00am)
    We Might Be Witnessing The ‘Death of An Identity’ – Luke Plunkett, Kotaku (Aug 28, 8:00pm)
    A Guide to Ending “Gamers” – Devin Wilson, Gamasutra (Aug 28, 7:57 pm)
    The death of the “gamers” and the women who “killed” them – Casey Johnson, arstechnica (Aug 28, 5:00pm)
    It’s Dangerous to Go Alone: Why Are Gamers So Angry? – Arthur Chu, The Daily Beast (Aug 28)
    Gaming Is Leaving “Gamers” Behind – Joseph Bernstein, Buzzfeed (Aug 28, 8:29 pm)
    An awful week to care about video games – Chris Plante, Polygon (Aug 28, 1:21pm)
    Sexism, Misogyny, and online attacks: It’s a horrible time to consider yourself a gamer – Patrick O’Rourke, Financial Post (Aug 28, 9:33pm)
    Misogynistic trolls drive feminist video game critic from her home – Callie Beusman, Jezebel (Aug 28, 4:05pm)
    A disheartening account of the harassment going on in gaming right now (and how Adam Baldwin is involved) – Victoria McNally, The Mary Sue (Aug 28, 1:30pm)
    This guy’s embarassing relationship drama is killing the ‘gamer’ identity – Mike Pearl, Vice (Aug 29)

  14. The shtetl has not posted my comment. I was going to post it here but I would let the shetl decide on the fate of that comment. However it included this :
    I'm not going after anyone. Just adding pictures to a controversial tale.

  15. This is a little OT but it's kinda related since 'leaders' have been mentioned.

    What should be one's reaction to them?

    I don't know about the rest of you but my default position is that I can't stand the fcukers, the appointed ones that is. In less formal circumstances the ones who emerge in a given situation—usually quite naturally, such as in an emergency, when there's an actual need for them—are a different matter entirely. These tend to be fine. I'm really only interested in the formal ones because I despise them so much. I despise them because they get in the way and fuck things up. That's because they're leaders, see, and they've got to be seen leading. So they do the leadership thing and interfere.

    You want leaders? What for? In which areas of your life do you want to be led? Why don't you just be your own leader and leave it at that?

    Maybe you don't know about something and feel the need to seek out advice or explanation. Then do so. There's no need for a leader there, for someone to tell you what to do. Listen and then make your own mind up.

    If I work for a company the CEO of that company is not my leader—assuming I'm not he. He's a bloke I have a contractual deal with. That's all.

    It's the same with politicians. These are the very last sort I want any kind of leadership from. These egregious pricks have stood the relationship completely on its head. We tell them what to do, not the other way round. They're just the hired help to make things manageable. That's ALL they are. They're serfs.

    I understand some men like to slap their wives around. I don't approve of that. I don't approve of slapping servants around either.

    EXCEPT when they are POLITICIANS. These need plenty of slapping around on a regular basis in case they aspire to conspire to 'leadership'.

    We don't fcuking need leaders. Get rid of them.

  16. I see you too have surrendered to the misuse of unequivocally discriminatory feminine pronouns instead of those that are applicable to all. Shame on you, Lubos, shame on you. Go plural if you don't have the nuts!

  17. Given the high cost of private universities in the US, their worthiness has been under greater scrutiny due to the recession. One interesting study compared the success rate (which they defined just by income later in life) of those who went to top private schools versus those that went to state schools.

    One peculiar finding of this study was that those who got admitted to places like Harvard, MIT, etc, but for whatever reasons (often financial) ended up going to a state school instead, did just as well later in life as those who actually got their degrees from top schools.

    This would seem to suggest that the selection process at the top schools correctly identifies people who will be successful later in life (but who don't actually need these schools to be successful).

  18. You are not prejudiced, David. The only way to determine if an individual can solve a problem is to present him with one.
    Being adept with the fundamentals is, of course, a necessary but, by no means, a sufficient condition for doing research but without the foundation the situation is hopeless.
    My experience is in industry but the picture is really the same. Lubos is correct.

  19. ktahn-motivated-even-moreSep 13, 2014, 12:21:00 AM

    There was a time I loved Nintendo. The original stuff with cartridges and all. We have play station now. Let us have all our children master Nintendo, then Sega genesis and then ps1 and so forth before they be let near say PS 4. That is how it should be done. Lets pretend for a second or rather acknowledge the fact that a kid was a Statistical Mechanics course off, and that he spent the last semester as a Lab slave for some woman who superbly degraded and erased all aspects of what he spent time that would have been used for study and research from. Time that could have been used for work so, may be he could afford that rent. Life is awesome isn't it. No mention of me, except as a kid who did minimum and could not pay rent. You would have to be an awesome person to track me later in Palo Alto and say great things about me :) . I chose to strip her off her dildo. I support women, and have spent a lot of time doing things in this regard. Most of which I have never mentioned. However, I had to put away her strap on. To feminists out there. Don't hate me(I am not the enemy), I am just taking a moment to get this off my chest. Feels better :) . btw I can't tell, can we wear jerseys so I can know who to pass the ball to?

  20. I have examined the list of top QG theorists as listed in wiki and could not find any PHD graduate from harvard(sorry Lubos you are not listed) except for Lee Smolin. Princeton seems to produce much more.

    And this is the first time that I am aware of this person(listed in above)

  21. University educations are becoming unaffordable for the middle class these days, and the middle class is rapidly vanishing anyway. Tuitions are increasing geometrically, so that students not on generous scholarships graduate with crippling debts. Also, the admission processes for certain schools is becoming ludicrously "performance art for the rich and entitled" example is medicine, where, in addition to great course marks and medcat scores, the applicant has to have entensive volunteer charity work, better in diverse third world countries.
    Also, private coaching for the medcat exams, coaching for up to three interviews etc, along with influential references. It helps to be a pc minority. This whole procedure requires committed rich parents---tiger moms are a plus. It also results in driven, perfectionistic students.
    It is difficult limiting class size, but the students going through the current process should be given a fine arts degree for acting.
    The process was more linear for me in math and physics--was based on standardized grade 12 test results for undergrad, and on course marks, tests, and undergrad thesis work for grad school.

    I see MOOCs as the savior for the less wealthy---things like Coursera, EdX, Udacity---they are offering signed certificates of competence in course work from Ivy League and other top universities for passing online tests and doing homework. Most are free, some come with fairly small fees.

    Comment to QsaTheory---- hmmm, Smolin graduated...? :)

  22. That is a very harsh comment. I do find his ideas on QM foundation/time way off but I also find (I have my own reasons) LQG to have some element of truth.

  23. "... I worry that if a third year physics major can't solve the acceleration of a ball on an inclined plane then they may be unlikely to lead a productive research career."

    As John McEnroe rightly shouted at that puffed-up prick of an umpire at Wimbledon one year: "YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!"

    But I wonder.

    I'm not an academic. Recently though, I was asked as a personal favour to help a young undergraduate with some mathematics. The university involved has always had a good reputation as far as I am aware, which is not greatly. Two things amazed me. The first was the rudimentary level of the questions set at the end of the first year of a physics course, things which should easily have been covered at school. The second was the appalling drafting of the questions. I found myself having to read over them very carefully to make sure I wasn't suffering from a stroke or something. Nope, I wasn't. They were bad. I felt my gorge rise that someone struggling to learn should have been faced with what I could see were completely mangled and misleading questions. But mostly I was shocked at the standard of drafting and what it implied. I'm hoping it's a one-off but I don't know.

    Previously I would have automatically taken your statement above as outrageous hyperbole, intended so purely for harmless rhetorical emphasis. But given my recent experience I now genuinely wonder if you really are serious about the level of question you mentioned.

    Are you? (I don't care if my question turns out to be dumb.)

  24. My statement was hyperbole.

    The physics GRE is based predominantly on first year undergraduate physics, newtonian mechanics including questions about the incline plane and springs, special relativity, quantum numbers, some second year topics such as E&M and Thermal. Physics majors should in principle have a solid nail on that exam.

  25. Leaders are like everybody else, there are good ones and bad ones.

  26. Yes, it is interesting, but is not Lorentz invariant. I guess it depends on whether or not this is important to you. The ideas are very interesting though. Rovelli seems to think his models are Lorentz invariant, but i don't understand why.

  27. The list isn't really correctly composed or complete but I wasn't saying that Harvard *students* are forming the bulk of the 1,000 string theorists. I meant the Harvard community, mostly professors.

    Lee Smolin is certainly not among the good QG theorists, let alone the best ones.

  28. Yes. It's the 99% of bad ones that have given the rest a bad name. :-)

  29. You have to remember that Harvard and other elite schools do use high scholastic achievement as a requirement, but this is just the first order filter. The finer filters are based on personality, and things like activism, sports, etc., that indicate an outgoing and assertive orientation are considered leadership traits.

    You might also want to consider how a mere handful of schools dominate the Presidency, Congress, the Courts and financial institutions. I would say Harvard's emphasis on personality to make the final cut works.

    As to Swine Flu's observation, I merely note again, Harvard's first cut is based on academic talent.

  30. Dear BobSykes,

    I've served on one undergraduate, two graduate, and two postdoc admission committees at Harvard, so don't you think it's a bit silly for you to teach me how the folks are being selected?


  31. hola Brute!
    peanuts is the size that comes to mind. . . . yes peanuts. lol

  32. Sorry, I idon't mean to denigrate your experience.

    However, Unz claims that Harvard undergrads are disproportionately Jewish, even accounting for IQ, so, something other than intelligence is being used.

    You are the expert on this point, so I'll take your word for it that Harvard's undergraduates are not selected for athletic ability or civic mindedness, etc., but I still think those are valid criteria for a school that wants to train the next Ruling Class.

  33. Dear Bob, Jews represent 2.2% of the U.S. population and 25% of Harvard students. The latter percentage is about 11 times higher than the former one.

    Ashkenazi Jews' IQ distribution is exactly 15 points (115), one standard deviation, above the general average (100).

    IQ above 130 means "at least 2 sigma above the average" (1/2 * 1/20) but it means "at least 1 sigma above the Jewish average" (1/2 * 1/3). If you assume the selection to be above 130, it's 20/3 = 7 times more severe for the average ethnic groups relatively to the Ashkenazi Jews, and it's not so different from the number 11 above.

    If you repeat the same exercise with 145, 3 sigma above the average, it's 1/2*1/300 selection for the general populace but just 2 sigma i.e. 1/2*1/20 for the Ashkenazi Jews, and the ratio is 15, on the other side.

    If you take the threshold to be somewhere in between 130 and 145, like 137, then you will get the ratio 11 making it easier (relatively more likely 11-fold) for Ashkenazi Jews to get in.

  34. That's nice but the evaluation could depend on mood swings of the committee members - it's less objective than rating figure-skating - and such a single essay would be rather unlikely to be representative of the true general skills.

  35. It's important that everyone who has the ability believes they have a fair chance to win the lottery for the best positions in life. It's probably true that the truly gifted children of the elite would do slightly better than equally gifted children of the ordinary, but to select only the privileged would mean many of the ordinary would become bitter and thus unproductive at an early age. This means that part time jobs flipping burgers need to be understood by admissions committees to be an economic necessity that prevents spending as much time in expensive tutoring sessions that boost test scores. In a sense selecting the less privileged will somewhat slow the progress in string theory and other areas, but the benefit is a more motivated and stronger economy that can provide more economic support for science. A lot of science is just putting your head down and plowing through work anyway, and we need people with that kind of focus also.

  36. compliments-ny-ktahnSep 14, 2014, 7:54:00 AM

    About Club Med magazine. This is just plain childish but let me clarify this. I was in Monaco. In fact Monte Carlo. Yes, with people who were so rich their farts produced British Pounds and fcuk loads of Euros. I was on a Yacht with a girl who was so fcukin tired of Monaco, she just wanted to study at the London School of Economics, to get out of the environment a little. Yes we had loads of fun time and time again and desecrated her racist parents sheets purely out of fun. She gave me a club med magazine which I only got the chance to look at before I did some exam at Oluuumnia. Yes , some dim witted cum licker said I am a club med kid. Jealous pop-tart headed shant, What does that have to do with anything. I work hard, but I am lucky too, to that cum licker. . . . . . . just die already :) . Ok got this too off my chest. CLuB Med. People went as far as putting MET jokes in papers. Dumb fcuks. Grow a diK then we'll talk.
    ~ktahn aka "Red White and Blue"

  37. Dear Lubos,

    It is exactly these statistics that Ron Unz and Jerome Karabel use to argue that Harvard in particular and other elite schools discriminate heavily against East Asian. East Asians have essentially the same IQ distribution as Jews, and there are more of them. So if Harvard is 25% Jews on merit (I do not dispute that), it should also be 25% East Asian.



    Jerome Karabel, "The Chosen."

    This is not a criticism of you personally. Your committees never saw all the applicant files. The ones you saw were heavily filtered by other people first, some of whom might have had other agendas.

  38. I am not sure. There are 4.8 million Asian Americans but the East Asian average IQ is substantially lower than Jews' 115, perhaps just 105 according to some sources.

  39. Just a partly on-topic recent event: this is also how the "sports elite" may treat their fiancees (Ray Rice):

    This guy differs from an average black guy by being stronger and perhaps more aggressive. There's some sense in which this is the universal "bias" you get from any athletes. I don't see how it may help to produce a better "ruling class".

  40. lumo, we both know that he is not black.

  41. Ray Rice is not black? Is that some joke that I did not understand?

  42. I take it back he's black. I assumed he was at a super elite school. Yes, he definitely is black lol. My mistake.

  43. I think it is good when universities offer, students, faculties, etc good possibilities to find some relaxing and reenergising complementation while persuing serious studies, such as sports, music, etc ... It can be helpful to step back for a break when working on a problem.

    But such off-topic activities should not be used to judge (aspiring) students ...!

  44. ktahn-On-Beverly-HillsSep 16, 2014, 1:07:00 AM

    On Beverly Hills address. Sometime ago, while I was without domicile, It became clear I could not even fill the application online if I could not put in an address. I eventually saved up an rented a post box in Beverly Hills, because it was the cheapest. The Beverly Hills PO Box made people hate me more, and went out of their way to say things. SEXY! people,. . . . . . mostly shants. Any who, for I am doing cool stuff. Will work all night today and go over my stuff probably after hot, hot xes. Yay Dartmouth jokes :) . I only sent the email to one fellow, Now its out. Exciting! Sophistication is the trigger word. It brings the demons to live lol.