Monday, January 11, 2016

Diversity Makes You Brighter ... if You're a Latino Stockpicker in Texas or Chinese in Singapore

Nearly everybody, or at least those who run the western mainstream media, agrees that some things are sacred. Unfortunately,  this is not always obvious to the uncredentialled who from time to time need to be beaten about their empty heads with the "findings" of "studies".

So we find that academic papers often with small or completely inappropriate samples, minimal effect sizes, marginal significance levels, dubious data collection procedures, unreproduced results or implausible assumptions are published in top flight journals, cited all over the Internet or even showcased in the pages of the "quality" or mass market press.

For example, anyone with any sort of mind knows that the environment is the only thing that determines intelligence.

So in 2009 we had an article in the Journal of Neuroscience that supposedly proves that a stimulating environment will not only make its beneficiaries more intelligent but also the children of the experimental subjects.

A headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed that " Mothers who enjoyed a stimulating childhood 'have brainier babies"

The first sentence of the reports claims that "[a] mother's childhood experiences may influence not only her own brain development but also that of her sons and daughters, a study suggests."

Wonderful. This could, of course, be an argument for allowing programs like Head Start to run for another three decades so that that their effects would show up in the next generation. Then the next sentence gives the game away.

"Researchers in the US found that a stimulating environment early in life improved the memory of female mice with a genetic learning defect."

Notice that experiment involved mice and not humans or any other mammal bigger than a ferret, it improved memory and nothing else, and the subjects had a genetic learning defect.

Still, that did not stop the MIT Technology Review from reporting Moshe Szyf of McGill University a saying “[i]f the findings can be conveyed to human, it means that girls’ education is important not just to their generation but to the next one,”

All of this, if confirmed, would be a serious blow against modern evolutionary theory. The MIT Technology Review got it right when it spoke about a comeback for Lamarckianism. But if there is anything scientists should have learnt over the last few decades it is that an experiment that appears to overthrow current theory, not to mention common sense and observation, is often flawed in some way. Confronted with evidence in 2011 that neutrinos were travelling faster than light, physicists with CERN reviewed their experimental procedures until they found that the apparent theory busting observation was caused by a loose fibre optic cable.

If a study had shown that a stimulating environment had a negative effect on the subjects or on the next generation or that it was stimulation for fathers that made the difference, would it have been cited in the Daily Mail or the MIT Technology Review? Would it even have been published in the Journal of Neuroscience? Wouldn't everybody have been looking for the equivalent of a loose cable?

A related idea that has reached the status of unassailable truth is that the famous academic achievement gap between Asians and Whites, and African Americans and Hispanics, could be eradicated by some sort of environmental manipulation such as spending money, providing safe spaces or laptops,  boosting self esteem or fine tuning teaching methods.

A few years ago Science, the apex of scientific research, published a paper by Geoffrey L. Cohen, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel and Allison Master that claimed a few minutes writing a essay affirming students' values (the control group wrote about somebody else's values) would start a process leading to an improvement in their relative academic performance. This applied only to low-achieving African American students.

I suspect that anyone with any sort of experience of secondary school classrooms would be surprised by the claim that such a brief exercise could have such a disproportionate impact.

The authors in their conclusion say:

"Finally, our apparently disproportionate results rested on an obvious precondition: the existence in the school of adequate material, social, and psychological resources and support to permit and sustain positive academic outcomes. Students must also have had the skills to perform significantly better. What appear to be small or brief events in isolation may in reality be the last element required to set in motion a process whose other necessary conditions already lay, not fully realised, in the situation."

In other words the experiment would not work unless there were "adequate material, social, and psychological resources and support" in the school, and unless students "have had the skills to perform significantly.

Is it possible that a school with all those resources, support and skills might also be one where students, mentors, teachers or classmates might just somehow leak who was in the experimental and who was in the control group?

Perhaps the experiment really is valid. If so we can expect to see millions of US secondary school students and perhaps university students writing their self affirmation essays and watch the achievement gap wither away.

In 2012, this study made the top 20 of studies that Psychfiledrawer would like to see reproduced, along with studies that showed that participants were more likely to give up trying to solve a puzzle if they ate radishes than if they ate cookies, that anxiety reducing interventions boost exam scores, music training raises IQ,  and, of course, Rosenthal and Jacobsons' famous study showing that teacher expectations can change students' IQ.

Geoffrey Cohen has provided a short list of studies that he claims replicate his findings. I suspect that only someone already convinced of the reality of self affirmation would be impressed.

Another variant of the environmental determinism creed is that diversity (racial or maybe gender although certainly not intellectual or ideological) is a wonderful thing that enriches the lives of everybody. There are powerful economic motives for universities to believe this and so we find that a succession of dubious studies are show cased as though they are the last and definitive word on the topic.

The latest such study is by Sheen S. Levine, David Stark and others and was the basis for an op ed in the New York Times (NYT).

The background is that the US Supreme Court back in 2003 had decided that universities could not admit students on the basis of race but they could try to recruit more minority students because having large numbers of a minority group would be good for everybody. Now the court is revisiting the issue and asking whether racial preferences can be justified by the benefits they supposedly provide for everyone.

Levine and Stark in their NYT piece claim that they can and refer to a study that they published with four other authors in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences. Essentially, this involved an experiment in simulating stock trading  and it was found that  homogenous "markets" in Singapore and Kingsville, Texas, (ethnically Chinese and Latino respectively) were less accurate in pricing  stocks than those that were ethnically diverse with participants from minority groups (Indian and Malay in Singapore, non-Hispanic White, Black and Asian in Texas).

They argue that:

"racial and ethnic diversity matter for learning, the core purpose of a university. Increasing diversity is not only a way to let the historically disadvantaged into college, but also to promote sharper thinking for everyone.

Our research provides such evidence. Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike."

From this very specific exercise the authors  conclude that diversity is beneficial for American universities which are surely not comparable to a simulated stock market.

Frankly, if this is the best they can do to justify diversity then it looks as though affirmative action in US education is doomed.

Looking at the original paper also suggests that quite different conclusions could be drawn. It is true that in each country the diverse market was more accurate than the homogenous one (Chinese in Singapore, Latino in Texas) but the homogenous Singapore market was more accurate than the diverse Texas market (see fig. 2) and very much more accurate than the homogenous Texas market. Notice that this difference is obscured by the way the data is presented.

There is a moral case for affirmative action provided that it is limited to the descendants of the enslaved and the dispossessed but it is wasting everybody's time to cherry-pick studies like these to support questionable empirical claims and to stretch their generalisability well beyond reasonable limits.

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