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April 29, 2004

Social Pyramids

Dear Friedrich --

Gene Expression brainiac Razib wonders about something I've wondered about too. It goes roughly this way: once upon a time, there was a social pyramid, and its construction relied on inheritance, connections, tradition, family ties, etc. Boo, hiss, tear it down.

These days, thanks to various kinds of "liberalization," that old-style pyramid has been semi-demolished. But but but ... Doesn't it seem as though the result isn't a life without a social pyramid, it's just a life with a new-style, roughly meritocratic pyramid? And if IQ correlates with economic success -- some claim it does -- and if IQ is to some extent heritable (many claim this is true), doesn't that mean that we've now got ourselves a new social pyramid that's likely to prove just as sticky and self-entrenching as the old one?

I'm sometimes left wondering: so, although this change went under the banner of opportunity for all, was it really just a matter of one group trying to seize power from another?

Razib, happily, is much smarter and more informed than I am. You can read his thinking on the topic here.



UPDATE: I should have linked to the terrific Randall Parker posting Razib was bouncing off of. It's here. I notice that a commenter points out a similarity between Randall's point and Amy Chua's argument in "World on Fire" -- these are topics and thoughts that are in the air.

posted by Michael at April 29, 2004


It might be worthy of mention that the old-style pyramid also derived originally from a "roughly meritocratic pyramid".

Nobility was originally based (at least nominally) on public service in the form of defending society with a sword or spear. The ability to perform that service was contingent upon the (partly?) heritable traits of upper-body strength and reflexes.

Now, it happens that I'm smarter than I am strong, and my mental reflexes are better than my physical reflexes.

Coincidentally, I favor of the new-model pyramid.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 29, 2004 12:23 PM

Good point, thanks. I'm in favor of me winning a "genius" grant myself, or maybe (even better!) of discovering that a long-lost uncle left me a trust fund.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2004 12:25 PM

It is also worth remembering that intelligence (ie. IQ) is valued for a very practical reason, not just because it's shiny. It is reasonable to expect smarter people to be more productive than dumber people because they may better decisions (overall).

I'm not sure "pyramid" is the right way to think about a meritocracy. In an old-school pyramid, a well-born clod would be in a position of power and make all sorts of influential bad decisions, while a genius peasant would be left to rot tilling the fields. In a meritocratic "pyramid", a well-born clod may live off daddy's money, but he's not going to assume a position that requires good decision making, because that's where the genius peasant is going to end up.

I don't think it's reasonable to call such a system "sticky" or "self-entrenching", even though smart people breeding other smart people may make it seem so.

When comparing systems, it's helpful to think about how they respond to exceptional events.

Posted by: Zimran on April 29, 2004 12:58 PM

Zimran -- Good point too. But I'll still be surprised if the new arrangement doesn't turn into a sticky pyramid, clunky word choice though the term may represent. For one important thing, is there any reason to think that the new winners will prove to be any less determined to hold onto their position than the old ones? In other words, how purely meritocractic will the new world prove to be? A Harvard-educated set of parents isn't going to be too happy if their kid doesn't go to Harvard too -- they aren't going to step back just because some other kid got better SATs. They're going to dig in their heels and claim what they believe is rightly theirs.

Happy to agree that the characteristics of the new arrangements may be different than the characteristics of the old arrangements. But will that be entirely for the good? An advantage of the old arrangements was that a fair number of the people at the top felt some (patriarchal, admittedly) loyalty and sense of obligation to society at large. The new elite, whatever their pretentions, seems pretty determined to rip society off for whatever it can.

Anyway, the new arrangement may well be preferable, but I doubt it'll ever be a pure meritocracy. Which leaves me wondering if maybe the most fluid meritocratic years may already have passed. Maybe we're now into an era when the people who pushed the old aristocracy off the peak will do what they can to sew up their own position there. Wouldn't that be human nature?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2004 1:56 PM

Hi Mike:

While I am sure 2 harvard educated parents would dig their heels in, write threatening letters to the administration, etc. etc. if thick-but-blue-blooded Jr. failed to get in, but so what? People are always going to whine when they don't get what they think they deserve. The question is whether Harvard will sully its reputation for academic excellence by letting in thicker-than-average people because of who their parents are, or if they will bolster their reputation by insisting on the highest qualifications. This is a decision Harvard makes every day today, btw., as it lowers its standardized test requirements for legacies and minorities. Re-evaluate their reputation based on this info as you please.

I also think it is not accurate to say that the old elite were beneficial to society through some sense of noblesse oblige, while the new upstarts are just out to take all they can. Remember--the new guys got to where they were because of what they produced. Whatever they take from soceity is commensurate to what they have given. While it is easy to vilify bill gates, just think back to the world before there were standard PCs, with the crazy compatibility problems we all struggled with, and how expensive they were, before Windows came, made a large market for applications, and drove down hardware prices.

For a society to grow and discover new wealth, it needs people producing more, new, better stuff. The redistribution model of old, landed classes, does little to enrich us all going forward. I acknowledge that there is a romance attached to the benevolent gentry doing what's best by sharing the wealth, but tea parties for the poor is not going to invent the next digital camera.

Posted by: Zimran on April 29, 2004 3:18 PM

Zimran -- I think we're talking at slight cross-purposes. You're arguing that one arrangement is preferable to the other. Fair enough. I'm talking about something different, which is whether or not the new arrangements might not be settling into place as a "sticky pyramid" in their own right.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2004 3:28 PM

I think you're probably right about the 'sticky pyramids' thing, but I'll take a swing at a utilitarian argument.

When the majority of your most serious problems are of the form, "Hey ma, there's a viking longship on the beach again", you tend to select for a skill set that allows for efficient resolution of those problems. When the majority of your most serious problems are of the form, "That SOB in the Hobbes project is trying to start a whispering campaign to ace me out of the promotion", you select for a (hopefully) different set of skills.

It seems to me (as an overly broad generalization) that we have gone through several dominant societal-structure solutions: throw spears at the problem, organize and lead lots of people in throwing spears at the problem, throw money at the problem (sometimes by hiring people to throw spears), throw smarts at the problem.

Each of these solutions has resulted in a different set of characteristics being necessary to rise to the top of the pyramid. When the problem set changes, the pyramid gets shaken about.

The first interesting question, to me, is why "smarts" (broadly defined) is winning out over "hiring smarts". As a first-order guess, I'd say that it's because of the increase of capital available to the population in general; that is, I think there is a reduction in wealth concentration and an increase in wealth mobility. When the marginal benefit of finding a patron is small enough, the cost of finding that patron can be unappealing/uneconomic.

The second question of interest to me is how you (I, society, whoever) define "merit". The unstated premise of a meritocracy is that you rise to the top by your greater possession of/dominance with/efficiency in using meritorious characteristics. How do you rank-order the desirability of various characteristics? Is utility the right metric?

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 29, 2004 6:15 PM

"Is utility the right metric?"

Sorry, that should be, "Is personal utility the right metric?"

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 29, 2004 6:28 PM

Fab questions/issues and 'way over my head. Interested to hear more such. The only thing I've got to add is, Haven't I run across a fair number of people arguing that the shift from an industrial to an information economy seems to be driving all this? The more information-driven an economy gets, the more tightly economic success seems to correlate with IQ-style brains. Which -- and I semi-hesitate to bring this up -- was one of the points of "The Bell Curve," at least as I remember it. The argument there went this way:

* As our economy gets more information-driven, economic success will correlate more and more with IQ. Seems to be the case worldwide.
* What if there are segments of the population whose average IQs are lower than average?
* Isn't this cause for concern? In other words, as society stratifies more and more along IQ lines, we'll probably see some groups cluster at the economic top and some cluster at the economic bottom even more dramatically than we do now. And how can that not produce a lot of resentment?

Interesting: Amy Chua and "The Bell Curve" have some points of similarity. Actually, ignoring all the fuss about race (hard to do, of course), what struck me most about "The Bell Curve" was how progressive and social-welfare-esque its main argument was. Surprising, coming from Charles Murray ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2004 6:37 PM


It's kind of funny how we end up converging, topic-wise.

As I was writing my posting on the nature of the European welfare state, I noticed that all developed economies share a problem: what to do with the least productive fraction (the untalented tenth?) of the population.

In Europe the Untalented Tenth seems to get paid (at least modestly) to go sit on the sidelines, and stay out of the way. In the U.S. one suspects many of them end up in prison. But in neither society is there a very frank discussion of the situation. The problem of the Untalented Tenth is hard to reconcile with entrenched egalitarian ideals.

I noticed the same, rather unexpected note in "The Bell Curve" that you did--Murray and his co-author set out some proposals for how to deal with the Untalented Tenth. Of course, look what a calm, reasonable, thoughtful reaction that book received.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 29, 2004 7:18 PM

"The ability to perform that service was contingent upon the (partly?) heritable traits of upper-body strength and reflexes."

I think you underrate the value of intelligence in hand-to-hand combat and the social systems built around it. If only because the intelligent person ( or child of intelligent parents) might obtain better arms, train more quickly, make allies more easily.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 29, 2004 7:23 PM

Footnote for any scholars in our midst:

A book on merit as social stratifier that's been around for a while (I don't know if it was the first) is "The Rise of the Meritocracy" (1958) by Michael Young, 1915-2002.

Young, in a 29 June 2001 article in the Guardian called his book a satire, but allowed that he saw evidence of it coming true. (Warning: I did an ultra-skim of the article, so I might have gotten it wrong.)

Anyhow, the tale ends with a revolt against the meritocrats in 2033.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 29, 2004 7:24 PM

Let's see. 2033 minus 2004 equals how many years away?

Obviously my IQ isn't going to be sufficient to get me through the next 28 years. Er, 29 years. But I'm open to being paid to sit on the sidelines.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2004 7:54 PM

The stars really are converging: John Derbyshire's got some thoughts about all this here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2004 8:04 PM

Footnote to footnote:

Michael, you and any others familiar with the NYC publications game might be interested to know that a son of Michael Young (Lord Dartington) mentioned above is the father of Toby Young, who spent some time in New York and wrote "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People".

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 29, 2004 8:12 PM


Gotta be more patient when proofing. Toby Young is a son of Michael Young.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 29, 2004 8:14 PM

1. OF COURSE Harvard is going to let thick-but-blueblooded-son in (how did W get in? How did Teddy Kennedy not get expelled for cheating?)and no, their rep does not seem to appreciably suffer and yes, the kids cling to the sticky pyramid like velcro.

2. I notice Doug said that people use different skills when a Viking ship arrives on shore than when someone is screwing someone else out of a promotion. I think people use the same skills, just different tactics.

3. My only question about the Untalented Tenth: Was JFK Jr. one of the Untalented Tenth? Or just somebody on welfare or in prison?

4. I'm completely with MBlowhard by the way. My great frustration is that I never got a big severence package to go away. I always had to keep working at the damn place to get paid. I'd be OK with someone paying me to sit on the sidelines! I'd even be nice and quiet. :)

Posted by: annette on April 29, 2004 8:40 PM

Define IQ. Is Bill Gates smarter than everyone else. Is his IQ higher?

Define success. Are people who make money, have positions of corporate power and all it's trappings successful? Is Teddy Kennedy more successful than, say, my brother, who raised good kids, pays his mortgage, engages actively in his community and has a good marriage.

What is an intelligent person? Successful in school? Good at math or problem solving? etc. Good at social relationships?

I think you need to go a little deeper into your definitions before making sweeping generalizations. IMHO, of course. ;o)

Posted by: Deb on April 29, 2004 10:01 PM

One variable, which at face value seems trivial, seems missing from the puzzle - luck. How would luck be a part of the meritocracy pyramid? Interesting concept to add to the stew. Furthermore, what happens when an individual refuses to accept the place he thinks he has "merited"? Perhaps this is the "cellular" division and catalyst for revolutions?

To stray a bit, do you think modern poverty is a by-product of the "market" catering to the ideologies of an industrialized middle class - at least in terms of America?

Lastly, a quote from Marx as food for thought: "They want production to be limited to `useful things,' but they forget that the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.''

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 29, 2004 11:11 PM

It's not IQ that correlates with economic success, but education and connections (networking).

Take 100 kids from the poorest area of town and take another 100 from the richest area. What (pretty valid) predictions you can make about each group's respective economic success later in life?

DO you make these predictions based on IQ averages for both groups? Do you expect these averages to be very different?

Posted by: stepan on April 30, 2004 1:11 AM

I'll believe in a meritocratic society when I start noticing more merit in society.

Posted by: Untalented Tenth on April 30, 2004 3:41 AM

Hierarchy, Suh.
Ah repeat, Hierarchy.
Tain't no way 'round it!

Posted by: ricpic on April 30, 2004 10:06 AM

I think the term "meritocracy" is a stinker myself. It seems to encourage people to pull out the six-guns and start blazing away at each other. But if we can accept it as a lousy label for a handful of related phenemona, maybe the gunfire can die down a bit.

There are a few things happening (in a general sense that doesn't necessarily apply to any individual, of course):

* Something called "IQ" (or G-factor, or whatever) does exist and is measurable. Believe it or not, given all the smoke and lightning in the general press, this is widely accepted by people in the field. It seems to measure something like "abstract reasoning abilities."

* To some significant extent, IQ is inheritable. Smarter people (in the IQ sense) will tend to have smarter kids. Again, this is widely accepted by the pros.

[A break here, so that I can say that I'm not arguing for or against any of this, just taking note of what the pros say.]

* More and more, economic success (note: no one is saying "success in life generally") seems to correlate with IQ. This obviously doesn't apply to every individual; in my experience, for instance, the most flakily intellectually high-powered people I've known often don't have tremendous economic success. But as a general rule, smarter people do well economically and less high-powered people don't do so well. Again, as a loose and general thing, many many pros agree that this is happening. Let's forget for a moment whether it's good or bad.

* This is happening, as far as anyone can tell, not because the world is a just (or unjust) place, but because developed countries' economies are shifting from agricultural/industrial to information economies. In other words, given this economic context, an ability to shuffle abstractions with some agility is a big advantage. And having trouble with shuffling abstractions will tend to drag your economic prospects down.

* So people-who-juggle-abstractions-easily are tending to rise economically these days, and people-who-have-trouble are tending to fall economically these days. Roughly speaking of course, and many exceptions allowed, but apparently a workable general rule.

* So a major social re-alignment is going on. The social pyramid (like it or not, roughly speaking, exceptions allowed for, etc etc) is stratifying out along IQ lines.

* Again, skipping over whether this applies in a specific instance, and skipping over whether this is a good or a bad thing (both of them good conversations, but different ones), what some people have begun to worry about is what the consequences of this new-style ("meritocratic") stratification process will be.

* Given that the abstract-reasoning gift is inheritable, it's possible (who knows, but why not think the thought?) that a new kind of inheritable-position thing will establish itself, or is establishing itself. Bill and Hillary may have risen because they're super-bright and super-facile. But how about Chelsea? What if she isn't so bright? She'll tend to be (bright parents). In any case, is her family going to tolerate her tumbling back down to some non-prominent position? Will she let that happen? So isn't there a possibility that the new, IQ-based (roughly speaking) social-economic pyramid will start to freeze in place, with the same families and groups remaining at the same level -- bright people breeding more bright people and clinging to their position anyway, and non-high-IQ people tending to breed more non-high-IQ people, and completely frustrated by their inability to rise.

* Here's where things can get a little dicey and non-PC. So please don't argue with me here, I'm just the messenger. Given that some population groups seem to have higher IQ averages, and given that some population groups seem to have lower IQ averages, and given that there's a widely-acknowledged tendency around these days for the social pyramid to stratify out along IQ lines (remember, all this is pretty widely accepted by numerous pros from all kinds of political p-o-v's), some people are worried. Might that not mean that over coming decades one thing we're likely to see is society becoming more (and not less) stratified along -- forgive me here, just the messenger -- racial lines?

* And might that not lead to dangerous resentments? Ethnic antagonisms are scary things. Amy Chua's book documents tons of examples of resentful not-so-successful ethnic groups doing their best to wipe out, literally wipe out, more-economically-successful ethnic groups.

So: "meritocracy" (darned word!) has its benefits and virtues: bright people can rise more easily than they could in the pre-meritocratic world. But it's bringing along consequences -- some of them alarming -- that no one anticipated and that are only now starting to be noticed and thought about out loud.

I think -- FWIW -- that the key thing here is to get over the word "meritocracy." It's got nothing to do with personal merit, or moral merit, or any such thing. It's just a label for a kind of social organization whose top-to-bottom arrangement is -- loosely speaking, and understood as only relative to previous forms of social organization -- based on IQ-style prowess.

Here's hoping no one mistakes me for anything other than someone who's read a lot ... I'm not a fan or a partisan of any of this, by the way -- I'm just taking note, and then doing a little musing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 30, 2004 10:26 AM

Oh, and there's one other twist.

* Thanks to computers, etc, the world's becoming more open. Which is cool.

* But one thing that means is that economic competition is becoming more open too. You're no longer competing against your neighbhor; you're competing against the whole world. (Exceptions allowed for, rough generalizations, blah blah.)

* And one thing this might mean is (again) more stratification and specialization, but this time across the world.

Incidentally, this whole economic-success-correlating-roughly-with-abstract-reasoning-abilities thing took off at about the same time as inequality started to get bigger, circa 1970. Which is when the shift over to an info-based economy started to occur. It all seems to be part of the same package. Those with lotsa abstract-reasoning horsepower are tending to succeed economically; those without are tending to fall relatively further behind economically, even if they're rising in absolute terms. Again, a possible recipe for mucho resentment.

I find myself wondering about this in cutural terms. An example: there's obviously a market for "cute" things. And the Japanese are obviously really good at "cute." As markets become more global, isn't it likely that the Japanese will dominate the "cute" market? How's that going to affect you (let alone make you feel) if you're the local guy or gal in, say, Alabama who's making a living creating "cute"?

(And, as we all know, markets will tend to freeze in place. They'll get disrupted, but they'll resist it too. So how easy will it be for some Egyptian, for instance, who's got a knack for "cute" to break in?)

Will cultures start to specialize in cultural-product terms? Americans do "pop" really well -- we've got a knack for it, and sell it well too. Lotsa people like that and scarf it up. But lotsa people aren't too thrilled by it. It might divide out in racial ways. There are a lot of super-talented black standup comics, for instance; rural whites have a knack for c&w music.

So, as global competition increases, will we see cultures specializing more and more in terms of their cultural products? That might have some upsides. Tyler Cowen's really good on this, by the way. But it might also have some downsides. Let's say the rest of the world looks at Hollywood and says, I give up, I just can't compete, I'm going into a field where I can compete. And Hollywood winds up the Microsoft of the movie world, with 95% of the market. And what if you're a kid in Switzerland with a knack for movies and some ambition. Are you going to be stuck with no choice but to change countries?

Marketwise, this may all be a good thing. But culturally I'm not so sure -- I tend to think it's a good thing when cultures have lots of diverse cultural activities. It's a healthier ecosystem.

Anyway, fun to ruminate about these things...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 30, 2004 11:08 AM

Bob McManus: "I think you underrate the value of intelligence in hand-to-hand combat and the social systems built around it. If only because the intelligent person ( or child of intelligent parents) might obtain better arms, train more quickly, make allies more easily."

I have experience with a fairly broad range of armed and unarmed martial arts, and I would be the last to deny that intelligence (of the abstract reasoning sort that Michael refers to above) helps. In my experience, however, it is not a dominant trait of the best fighters, who seem to have a fairly normal intelligence distribution.

In part, I attribute this to fighting being such an extraordinarily right-brain activity. If you are conscious of decisions during a fight, you've probably already lost. I will allow for exceptions among the very best, who have so internalized combat as to allow for at least a little left-brain activity while still fighting efficiently.

The same effects can be seen among other sorts of athletes. They seem to have a fairly normal distribution of intelligence - some very smart, some not. But I find the most cliched comments instructive: "Don't think, just hit the ball." "I got to thinking too much and blew the shot."

As to the social advantages of intelligence in a society in which other skills are dominant, I will certainly concede that there are some. In my experience and in my reading of history, such advantages are at least partially balanced by a pervasive anti-intellectualism in many such societies. It's true in today's locker room, it was true of the 18th century nobles that refused to associate with the "Mercantile Class", and it was true of the 13th century nobles that looked upon the ability to read as a sign of unworthiness.

Annette: "2. I notice Doug said that people use different skills when a Viking ship arrives on shore than when someone is screwing someone else out of a promotion. I think people use the same skills, just different tactics."

The same meta-strategies (fight, run, hide), related strategies (attack the flank of the invaders, talk to the enemy's boss and coworkers), different tactics (shield wall, counter whispering campaign), entirely different skill sets (sword wrap, shield block; corporate networking, cocktail party conversation).

I suspect this is akin to what you meant, but I thought I'd clarify my terminology a bit.

Michael: I'll take it as read that when you say "meritocracy", at least in this discussion, that you mean "abstract-reasoning meritocracy". One of my points was that rule by the strongest is also a meritocracy in the same value-neutral sense, an "upper-body-strength meritocracy". In each case, the "merit" referred to is the ability to influence a rise to the top of the pyramid.

Another point that might be worth discussing is how important the complexity and diversity of challenges is to the rise of abstract reasoning as a determiner of success. If your challenges are consistently of a single sort or a tightly constrained set, the advantages of specialization are most easily observed. ("Expert: one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything there is to know about nothing.")

Conversely, a diverse set of challenges selects for both a diverse skill set and the ability to choose the correct skill for the job. By analogy, if your only task is driving nails, it's pretty hard to beat a nail gun. If you also need to pull nails and open crates, you need a less specialized tool, like a hammer, and you need to be able to choose the right tool mode for the task at hand.

I postulate that the flexibility of available skills and the ability to choose the appropriate skill are correlated with the sort of abstract reasoning abilities that Michael has referred to above.

For a particularly dark comedic rendering of the societal problems Michael is addressing, you might check out "The Marching Morons", a short, award-winning SF piece written by C.M. Kornbluth in the early 50s.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 30, 2004 11:53 AM

There's an interesting article by John Derbyshire - Ditching Diversity - that relates to the whole IQ stratification thing.
It can be accessed at Scroll down about 8 paragraphs.

Posted by: ricpic on April 30, 2004 1:01 PM

Fascinating stuff. It may be worth pointing out that some societies have already experienced extended cycles of pyramid-building along meritocratic lines and the results have been ugly: the Indian caste system is such an example. It is nominally a pyramid built on innate intellectual ability, but it became impenetrably rigid as those on top realized that they could use their abilities and their privilege to guarantee their position regardless of personal merit.

A question to ask, I think, is how to prevent a pyramid from becoming rigid. I don't think the existence of pyramids is wrong, but their inflexibility becomes wrong eventually. Or ... does it? I am often struck, when I watch wildlife programs on TV, by the trick-perspectives of the natural "pyramid" -- sure, the carnivores seem to have a better life than their prey -- but there are so many more of the prey. Sure, I'd prefer to be a cheetah than a wildebeest; but going by current trends, the fast, beautiful, smart cheetah is going extinct while the herds of wildebeest munch placidly onward, across the limitless plains. Meanwhile, underfoot, there are the insect paradigms ...

IQ on its own does not guarantee a successful life -- at least, not the kind of IQ that only produces a high score in tests. A combination of intelligence and advanced social skills is more likely to be successful. Intelligence + social skills + LUCK -- well that's a guarantee of success, I'd think!

A digression: is luck something inheritable? I read a brief news item the other day, about a study in Britain tracking luck, lucky people and any correlations they could find. According to that news item, one factor in common with those who were lucky or considered themselves to be lucky was being born between April and September! I immediately wondered whether Down-Under dwellers report a reversal of these months and whether the study had any validity at all in equatorial regions, where the variations in weather patterns through the year are not so pronounced.

Posted by: aliental on April 30, 2004 2:14 PM

I doubt that the old nobles in Europe were really physically superior. I'd say it was more of a nutrition thing.

Anyway, no-one has mentioned regression to the mean (of their particular ancestors, not the whole population). If you have a really sticky pyramid, you'll have a dynasty type of thing, where the first guy is brilliant, their kids are less so, and eventually you get to a guy that is so incompetent that society falls apart.

Posted by: SC on April 30, 2004 3:28 PM

From Number Watch's Number of the Month for April:

[Professor Richard Wiseman's] latest foray into the higher reaches of scientific thought is covered by the BBC (April 5th), recycling the birth month fallacy. Is your birthday linked to luck? asks the headline. Followed by Are you born lucky? "Scientists" are trying to find out if your birthday determines how successful you are. You can even participate in the experiment on line.

This is what passes for research in our new universities.


A nice traditional journalistic touch [in one newspaper report] was the citing of four examples each of summer born and winter born people. What about the other millions? The celebrity cult is so strongly established in the British media that they cannot even report a bit of run-of-the-mill junk science without introducing these dubious examples of people who are mostly famous for being famous.

For a further discussion of the "birth month fallacy" and other "extreme value" fallacies, see Number Watch. John Brignell's site is one of the best on the web for numerical fallacies in the press (though it tends to concentrate on the UK).

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 30, 2004 3:31 PM

More on this new-pyramid-becomes-sticky theme from the NYTimes, here.

Excerpt: :In pursuit of competitive advantage, well-off parents spend thousands of dollars on test prep courses, college admission summer camps and "dress for success" counseling. They are more adept than their less well-heeled rivals at working the system; that brings results, especially at prestigious universities."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 30, 2004 3:44 PM

aliental, these people are simply Leos by Zodiac [I should know, I'm one of them]
...Leo is Fire to the core! Fire brings a desire to create, innovate, and lead. The sign radiates mega-confidence. Of course, the Lion must have an audience. Without applause, what else is there? The fixed motivation adds self-reliance, a characteristic that works well in leadership positions. Leo is a formative energy, with the ability to consolidate and stabilize. Fire can rage out of control, so it helps to balance self-confidence with humility! Leo needs to become a humble but lovable lion. The playfulness associated with Leo can regress to childish demands for attention, as opposed to healthy recognition and encouragement. Leo benefits by allowing peaceful receptivity to surface. The mature Leo exudes big, beautiful heart and sheds sunshine on all who care to enjoy this bold spirit...

See, we're born with it!

Posted by: Tatyana on April 30, 2004 3:55 PM

Thanks for the link, David Sundseth -- I'll go check it out. The urge to believe there's some way of tapping into luck or regarding it as an inheritable talent (as did the Puppeteers of Larry Niven's "Ringworld" series) is deeply ingrained ... I would find it so much easier to be gullible if the numbers involved weren't so awesome: "summer born people are lucky" -- just how many people fall into that category, huh? It's the same with astrology, I feel, Tatyana. It's just hard to believe that all the hundreds of people in the world all born at the same instant are going to, willynilly, experience similar life-patterns. Twin studies have appeared to show amazing similarities in the lives of identicals who grow up apart; but there are enough dissimilarities to suggest that coincidence is, after all, the only true magician.

Posted by: aliental on May 1, 2004 3:36 PM

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