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Trends in social science

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More interesting graphs from GNXP, based on searches of JSTOR in the following journal categories: anthropology, economics, education, political science, psychology and sociology. Progress!

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Written by infoproc

October 1, 2008 at 3:22 pm

A warning from von Neumann

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I can’t resist reproducing this quote from John von Neumann, which I think applies well to certain branches of particle theory today. Thank goodness the LHC is coming on line soon…

As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source… it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing, more and more purely l’art pour l’art. …In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much “abstract” inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration.

From the opening material of the book John von Neumann and Modern Economics. If you can get a copy of this book, I highly recommend the chapter by Paul Samuelson.

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August 28, 2008 at 9:24 pm

Scifoo 2008

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I’m off to the Googleplex tomorrow for Scifoo 2008, sponsored by Google, Nature and O’Reilly.

Here’s the Nature web page; maybe I’ll show up in some of the photos. This one is from last year:

With all the interesting people and talks (and Olympics going on in the background!), I doubt I will post very much for the next few days!

Written by infoproc

August 7, 2008 at 10:06 pm

Posted in foo camp, science, scifoo

Annals of psychometry: IQs of eminent scientists

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I recently came across a 1950s study of eminent scientists by Harvard psychologist Anne Roe (The Making of a Scientist, published in 1952). Her study is by far the most systematic and sophisticated that I am aware of. She selected 64 eminent scientists — well known, but not quite at the Nobel level — in a more or less random fashion, using, e.g., membership lists of scholarly organizations and expert evaluators in the particular subfields. Roughly speaking, there were three groups: physicists (divided into experimental and theoretical subgroups), biologists (including biochemists and geneticists) and social scientists (psychologists, anthropologists).

Roe devised her own high-end intelligence tests as follows: she obtained difficult problems in verbal, spatial and mathematical reasoning from the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, but also performs bespoke testing research for, e.g., the US military. Using these problems, she created three tests (V, S and M), which were administered to the 64 scientists, and also to a cohort of PhD students at Columbia Teacher’s College. The PhD students also took standard IQ tests and the results were used to norm the high-end VSM tests using an SD = 15. Most IQ tests are not good indicators of true high level ability (e.g., beyond +3 SD or so).

Average ages of subjects: mid-40s for physicists, somewhat older for other scientists

Overall normed scores:

Test (Low / Median / High)

V 121 / 166 / 177

S 123 / 137 / 164

M 128 / 154 / 194

Roe comments: (1) V test was too easy for some takers, so top score no ceiling. (2) S scores tend to decrease with age (correlation .4). Peak (younger) performance would have been higher. (3) M test was found to be too easy for the physicists; only administered to other groups.

It is unlikely that any single individual obtained all of the low scores, so each of the 64 would have been strongly superior in at least one or more areas.

Median scores (raw) by group:

group (V / S / M)

Biologists 56.6 / 9.4 / 16.8
Exp. Physics 46.6 / 11.7 / *
Theo. Physics 64.2 / 13.8 / *
Psychologists 57.7 / 11.3 / 15.6
Anthropologists 61.1 / 8.2 / 9.2

The lowest score in each category among the 12 theoretical physicists would have been roughly V 160 (!) S 130 M >> 150. (Ranges for all groups are given, but I’m too lazy to reproduce them all here.) It is hard to estimate the M scores of the physicists since when Roe tried the test on a few of them they more or less solved every problem modulo some careless mistakes. Note the top raw scores (27 out of 30 problems solved) among the non-physicists (obtained by 2 geneticists and a psychologist), are quite high but short of a full score. The corresponding normed score is 194!

The lowest V scores in the 120-range were only obtained by 2 experimental physicists, all other scientists scored well above this level — note the mean is 166.

My comments:

The data strongly suggests that high IQ provides a significant advantage in science. Some have claimed that IQ is irrelevant beyond some threshold: more precisely, that the advantage conferred by IQ above some threshold (e.g., 120) decreases significantly as other factors like drive or creativity take precedence. But, if that were the case it would be unlikely to have found such high scores in this group. The average IQ of a science PhD is probably in the 130 range, and individuals with IQs in the range described above constitute a tiny fraction of the overall population of scientists. If IQ were irrelevant above 130 we would expect the most eminent group to have a similar average.

Conversely, I think one should be impressed that a simple test which can be administered in a short period of time (e.g., 30 minutes for Roe’s high-end exams) offers significant predictive power. While it is not true that anyone with a high IQ can or will become a great scientist (certainly other factors like drive, luck, creativity play a role), one can nevertheless easily identify the 99 percent (even 99.9 percent) of the population for which success in science is highly improbable. Psychometrics works!

The scores for theoretical physicists confirm an estimate made to me by a famous colleague many years ago, that only 1 in 100,000 people could do high level theoretical physics.

Feynman’s 124: in this context one often hears of Feynman’s modest grade school IQ score of 124. To understand this score we have to remember that typical IQ tests (e.g., administered to public school children) tend to have low ceilings. They are not of the kind that Roe used in her study. One can imagine that the ceiling on Feynman’s exam was roughly 135 (say, 99th percentile). If Feynman received the highest score on the mathematical portion, and a modest score of 115 on the verbal, we can easily understand the resulting average of 124. However, it is well known that Feynman was extremely strong mathematically. He was asked on short notice to take the Putnam exam for MIT as a senior, and received the top score in the country that year! On Roe’s test Feynman’s math score would presumably have been > 190, with a correspondingly higher composite IQ.

I thought I should put this post up now, as the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t is out soon and will surely handicap the discourse on this subject for years to come 🙂

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July 7, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Women in the classroom

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Interesting comments from Judith Warner of the Times, as she reports on a brain science workshop for journalists, held at MIT. The audience was more engaged (less intimidated?) by female lecturers. I find as well that women are less likely to try to get by with “proof by intimidation” than men, and that their presence tends to improve the quality of scientific discussion, assuming an equal level of competence.

Anyone familiar with Feynman idolatry knows that “man crushes” are just as real as what is described below for women.

At M.I.T., we were mostly spoken to by men, various kinds of men, of different ages and with different speaking styles, and we interacted with them with typical reportorial formality. Some were more popular with us than others; some were more engaged with us than others. Some spoke right over our heads; some reached even me with perfect clarity.

Something very different happened, however, on the two occasions when we were spoken to by women. The atmosphere in the room changed. We all became more familiar. We asked more questions. We interrupted more. We made sounds of assent or dissent; we questioned methods, concepts, base assumptions. It was as though, with the women, the boundaries dissolved. We were all immediately drawn into relationships.

How much of this had to do with the fact that the women tended to speak more relationally (“I think,” “I feel”), I don’t know. I don’t know if it was created by the fact that the women — to varying degrees — turned the story of their work into personal narratives.

I know that there was no conscious desire on anyone’s part to talk back to them or treat them with less respect. But one woman in particular, Rebecca Saxe, a young, dynamic professor of neurobiology at M.I.T. who gave a riveting presentation on social cognition — “how we reason about the desires and intentions that motivate others’ actions” — was interrupted so much by her super-engaged audience that she didn’t have time to get through essential portions of her talk.

I did not ask questions of this amazing young woman. I was struck, once again, with one of my crippling bouts of shyness, and besides that, I was too busy writing down her every word and wondering why on earth I had never taken science and whether my daughters might attend M.I.T.

Maybe I could send them to do summer study, I thought. (Once they’d both learned their multiplication tables, of course.) Maybe I should sport little wire glasses and wear my hair in a long braid. Or buy Birkenstocks.

“What did you think?” I breathed to a fellow female fellow, as we filed out of the classroom for lunch.

“I have a crush on her,” she said. The women around us made approving noises.

“It was her passion and energy and approach that was infectious,” she later explained in an e-mail. “I really had an emotional reaction to her, and found myself day dreaming about being her friend.”

What is this thing we so often do, when confronted with an impressive woman? Why do they, in particular, set off such a Pavlovian rush of emotion? Why, for women in particular, do they set off this me/not me engagement, this game of my friend/not my friend, this eternal, sometimes infernal play of positive or negative mirroring?

Men do a version of this with women, too — though I think it plays out more in terms of validates me/doesn’t validate me, which may amount, in slightly altered form, to much the same thing. I don’t see them doing it with other men. I don’t hear of men getting “crushes” on other men because they’re impressed with them. They don’t seem to get so flooded with the desire to be them, to try on their skins; they don’t appear to be constantly testing their identities against another man’s example, calling into question, at the drop of a hat, their clothing style or hair or general sense of being in the world.

Written by infoproc

June 27, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Posted in gender, science

On Crick and Watson

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Eminent biologist Erwin Chargaff was extremely bitter about not receiving a Nobel for his important work on DNA, which contributed to Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix. I’ve been paging through his strange, but occasionally brilliant, memoir Heraclitean Fire: Sketches of a Life before Nature.

On meeting Crick and Watson at the Cavendish lab. Crick, 35, had already had a career in physics interrupted by the war and despaired of making his great contribution to science. Watson was a callow 23, fresh from Indiana.

It was clear to me that I was faced with a novelty: enormous ambition and aggressiveness, coupled with an almost complete ignorance of, and a contempt for, chemistry, that most real of exact sciences – a contempt that was later to have a nefarious influence on the development of “molecular biology.” Thinking of the many sweaty years of making preparations of nucleic acids and of the innumerable hours spent on analyzing them, I could not help being baffled. I am sure that, had I had more contact with, for instance, theoretical physicists, my astonishment would have been less great. In any event, there they were, speculating, pondering, angling for information. …

Thanks for digging around down there — what did you find, again? Great! I’ve got more horsepower, so I’ll just connect the dots for you now… 🙂 From Wikipedia on Crick:

Crick had to adjust from the “elegance and deep simplicity” of physics to the “elaborate chemical mechanisms that natural selection had evolved over billions of years.” He described this transition as, “almost as if one had to be born again.” According to Crick, the experience of learning physics had taught him something important—hubris—and the conviction that since physics was already a success, great advances should also be possible in other sciences such as biology. Crick felt that this attitude encouraged him to be more daring than typical biologists who tended to concern themselves with the daunting problems of biology and not the past successes of physics.

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June 12, 2008 at 2:12 am

Don’t become a scientist! Philip Greenspun edition

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I recently came across this essay by Philip Greenspun, which examines, in brutal detail, the negative aspects of a career in science. It goes way beyond my previous writings on the subject 🙂 Greenspun’s essay was occasioned by the Larry Summers affair, and his main point regarding women in science is that science is such a crummy career choice that only testosterone-poisoned (overly competitive and status-driven) men would be stupid enough to pursue it. I’m not sure I agree completely with that perspective, but I like his essay quite a bit.

Some other themes he touches on: (a) sample bias; people are typically only familiar with the lives and careers of exceptionally successful scientists: In short, some young people think that science is a good career for the same reason that they think being a musician or actor is a good career: “I can’t decide if I want to be a scientist like James Watson, a musician like Britney Spears, or an actor like Harrison Ford.”, and (b) foreign immigration as a source of scientific talent: Science may be one of the lowest paid fields for high IQ people in the U.S., but it pays a lot better than most jobs in China or India.

Incidentally, I met Philip many years ago through a common friend who is a scientist at Harvard, at one of the many parties she hosted. (When I first wrote this post I thought she and Philip had been housemates, but she says that recollection is incorrect. I think I do remember his dog Alex, though.) At one of these parties I met Steve Pinker in the kitchen. After a long conversation about his research I remember thinking: gee, isn’t that all kind of obvious? Don’t you wish you understood Yang-Mills theory? I was still a kid, just like Albert Q. Mathnerd described below 🙂

You might like to dismiss Greenspun’s perspective on this subject, but keep in mind that the guy earned a math SB (at 18) and PhD in EECS at MIT and founded several software startups. So he’s not entirely clueless about how the academic and real worlds work.

Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.

This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.

Why does anyone think science is a good job?

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college

age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month

age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year

age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year

age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university (“denied tenure” is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn’t quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a “second rate has-been” label on his forehead.

…Consider someone taking the kind of high IQ and drive that would be required to obtain a tenure-track position at U.C. Berkeley and going into medicine. This person would very likely be a top specialist of some sort, earning at least $300,000 per year. Instead of being fired at age 44, our medical specialist would be near the height of her value to her patients and employer. Her experience and reputation would continue to add to her salary and prestige until she was perhaps 60 years old. [A woman who wanted to spend more time with her children can choose from a variety of medical careers, such as emergency medicine, that involve shift work and where a high salary can be earned with just two or three shifts per week. She could also work from home as a radiologist reading data transmitted via Internet.]

Consider taking the same high IQ and work ethic, going into business, and being put on the fast track at a company such as General Electric. Rather than being fired at age 44, this is about the time that she will be handed ever-larger divisions to operate, with ever-larger bonuses and stock options.

A top lawyer at age 44 is probably a $500,000 per year partner in a big firm, a judge, or a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000 per year salary with some private work. …

What about the excitement and fun of science?

Is life all about money and job security? What about excitement and fun? Isn’t that a good reason to choose a job? Sure! I love every minute of my $8 per hour job as a helicopter instructor, but on the other hand I don’t say that it is a great career and I can’t understand why there aren’t more women helicopter instructors.

Some scientists are like kids who never grow up. They love what they do, are excited by the possibilities of their research, and wear a big smile most days. Although these people are, by Boston standards, ridiculously poor and they will never be able to afford a house (within a one-hour drive of their job) or support a family, I don’t feel sorry for them.

Unfortunately, this kind of child-like joy is not typical. The tenured Nobel Prize winners are pretty happy, but they are a small proportion of the total. The average scientist that I encounter expresses bitterness about (a) low pay, (b) not getting enough credit or references to his or her work, (c) not knowing where the next job is coming from, (d) not having enough money or job security to get married and/or have children. If these folks were experiencing day-to-day joy at their bench, I wouldn’t expect them to hold onto so much bitterness and envy.

…The most serious concern is that the field that a youngster found fascinating at age 20 will no longer be fascinating after 20 or 25 years. If you have a narrow education and have been earning an academic salary, it is much tougher to change careers at age 45 or 50 than for someone who was in a job where the earnings are higher and begin at a younger age. A doctor who practices for 10 years can easily save enough to finance a switch to almost any other occupation. A successful lawyer can walk away after 15 or 20 years, commute to school from his oceanfront and town houses, and become a furniture maker (my friend’s dad did this).

Why do American men (boys, actually) do it?

Pursuing science as a career seems so irrational that one wonders why any young American would do it. Yet we do find some young Americans starting out in the sciences and they are mostly men. When the Larry Summers story first broke, I wrote in my Weblog:

A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group

men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”

Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT (“Course 18” we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley’s attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan. …

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May 4, 2008 at 4:35 pm