Friday, March 27, 2009

Majorly demanding

Paul Gowder mentions "the fact that econ is more demanding than, say, an English major, and econ majors know it, encouraging the kind of intellectual arrogance displayed by this type of person." Having never taken an English or economics class past high school, I can't speak to the difficulty of those particular courses of study, but his "[...], say, [...]" allows me to* infer that, as a former French major who took some but not heaps of college math, I have authoritah on the matter.

Strictly speaking, yes, anyone literate in a given language can read a book and write something about it. Whereas once numbers are involved, different people hit that wall where everything stops making sense at different levels. (Honors Calculus, Week 2, oh the memories.) But in terms of what's actually looked for in a humanities class, there too, different people hit that wall at different levels. If you've hit such a wall, it might well feel like your classmate's paper got an A because he's better at BS-ing, that there's no objective difference between what you handed in and what he did, but it could also be that he had an interesting take on Huis Clos and you didn't. It could be that you didn't hit any sort of wall, and are in fact an under-appreciated critic of Sartre, and the grading really was subjective, but that's the case far less often than students tend to think.

Also: if some college majors are more demanding than others, it's not necessarily that one field is inherently easier than the other, but that, for structural reasons, certain fields have 'weed-out' classes, whereas others are more self-selecting. With French, at least, if you were uncomfortable reading novels and writing papers in that language, you didn't pick that major; consequently the average grade in a French literature class might well have been higher than in an econ or pre-med class.

Then again, I don't at all understand what my boyfriend works on (astro-something), and he understands perfectly well what I work on. So who knows. But I'm more inclined to think means he's sharper than I am than that the humanities on the whole are for the relatively slow-witted.

* Typo fixed! No, French-majoring did not knock English out of my brain entirely.

36 comments:

salacious said...

As someone who saw both sides of the divide in college, I don't think any real difference will show up in people who are truly invested in the subject. As you say, everyone caps out at a different place, and dedicated students will push as far as they can go in their respective fields. The real difference in difficulty is for the median, B/B+ students. For the humanities, it is often possible for a decent writer to score an acceptable grade without putting any significant effort into understanding the material. On the other hand, in science courses getting an adequate grade usually requires an adequate understanding of the material. It's harder to slink through with almost no effort.

Paul Gowder said...

No aspersions on French intended! (Not least because doing work in a foreign tongue is at least as difficult as doing the kind of math required for undergrad econ, and, indeed, I find the latter much easier than the former, though primarily because I'm too lazy to make languge investments.) And certainly no aspersions on the humanities in general -- philosophy, in particular, requires lots of work and ability.

That aside, though, the number of people in all kinds of disciplines who have math issues does seem to suggest that it is a bigger barrier. Also, the infestation of literature departments with vapid continental theory (which, note, does not imply that it is all vapid, it isn't) exponentially increases the opportunity for people to get away with bullshit. Where Lacan is taken seriously, anything goes.

Dara said...

My boyfriend and I are both in social sciences; he studies Political Science, I Anthropology. I generally readily understand his work, even when I don't have anything close to his command of information on the topic. He has a really hard time grasping anthropology in general, and when I start talking about my work in particular, fuhgeddaboutit. But I feel as if he's the more intelligent one, studying in the more "legitimate" field, and I'm studying something whose obtuseness is taken as evidence that it's populated by solipsists and frauds. So I don't know that the denigration of the humanities is a natural consequence of people's own experience--or, at least, it seems to me that expectations of what the humanities/"soft" social sciences are supposed to look like shape those experiences. If your work is readily intelligible to laymen, it's obvious and trivial; if not, it's obtuse and obscure. No-win situation.

Miss Self-Important said...

If a French major were a surefire route to a lucrative career in finance or medicine, I'm sure they'd develop some weed-out courses for it too. It seems true too that, at the highest levels of any discipline, assuming one's foundation in it is solid, success mostly comes down to having a really good idea about a problem. Having good ideas seems like it would be about equally hard in physics as in French history. Especially since, ahem, everyone has already thought everything there is to think.

I'm impressed that you made it to week 2 of honors calc. I didn't even pass the test to get in.

Phoebe said...

Salacious:

It depends on the school, the course, etc. I don't remember too many classes in college, humanities or otherwise, that could be gotten through with no effort.

Paul Gowder:

I'm not sure at what level you place "math issues" - I'd imagine most people in my field got at least as far as calculus (I have one classmate who actually double-majored with math), and thus could probably do something finance-y - not necessarily math or physics grad school, but something that used some math - if they wanted to. But could most in math grad school succeed in literature programs? The obvious answer is, 'they could, but they'd find it uninteresting and choose not to.' I think you underestimate the number of people who could do something that used a lot of math but find something else more interesting. (My math these days is probably middle-school level, given that the most complicated problems I need to do involve calculating students' grades.) My sense is it's only at the very high levels that the "math issues" you refer to are an issue.

Dara:

"If your work is readily intelligible to laymen, it's obvious and trivial; if not, it's obtuse and obscure. No-win situation."

Well put.

MSI:

"If a French major were a surefire route to a lucrative career in finance or medicine, I'm sure they'd develop some weed-out courses for it too."

Also true. I was going to mention something like that, but was busy with French-majory stuff and didn't get around to it. But yes, there's the fact that majoring in the humanities might in itself be a less 'smart' choice. How to assess how much that matters versus the fact that many in the weed-out classes are there because their families urged them to be there and not because their talents happen to lie in fields that happen to be lucrative... who knows where that leaves a top or middling student in one field versus another.

But considering that law school can also lead to high-paid work, and law schools look at grades, without knowing a thing about what law schools think re: majors, I'd imagine an A student in humanities would have a better shot than that same student with C's in econ. But, of course, on this I have no idea, having not used my French major for that purpose.

"Especially since, ahem, everyone has already thought everything there is to think."

Argh, that just keeps being true.

And yeah, the day of the math placement test was one of my brain's best. But I don't regret switching down to the 150s.

Daniel Goldberg said...

As a graduate student in the humanities whose work involves a lot of attention to and focus on scientism, the dominance of quantification at all levels of Western society cannot be understated. The idea that, if it cannot be quantified, it must have less value, is so pernicious, and has caused so much ill, especially in the circles I move in, that I would barely know where to begin.

I have no idea whether, as Paul may or may not be surmising (not sure, based on his last comment here), humanities graduate programs are the last refuge for those allergic to math. But I certainly do not agree with the notion that grad programs requiring significant numeracy are qualitatively harder than many kinds of humanities degrees. That's both specious as a generalization and scientistic, in my view.

I spend many hours in the week teaching students who have more math capacity than I will ever dream of, and the lack of facility I perceive in dealing with some of the most basic ideas in the medical humanities -- i.e., that the experience of cancer (what it is like for a person to have cancer) cannot be meaningfully understood by reference to rogue cells -- is shocking to me.

I doubt very seriously whether many of these students could flourish in a humanities graduate program. The ambiguity and the uncertainty of health and illness would, IMO, swallow them whole, and they would be unlikely to understand the many ways in which various disciplines of the humanities thrive on such ambiguity.

That's anecdotal itself, but there is decent evidence to back up similar impressions.

(And for the record, Paul, I entirely agree with you on Lacan).

Jeff said...

Also, the infestation of literature departments with vapid continental theory

Every so often a science-minded person wanders into literary theory, to help clear the air.

Matt said...

How did you manage to not take any English classes as an undergrad? Did you not have distribution requirements, or did French lit classes fill them?

Phoebe said...

Matt:

"How did you manage to not take any English classes as an undergrad?"

UChicago has a required humanities sequence. I took a philosophy class whose emphasis was, like all Hum classes, getting basic reading and writing skills in English. But it wasn't an English department class, nor was the topic English (or American) literature.

French doesn't count for any of that.

Withywindle said...

One does really need to distinguish between elite and non-elite universities here ... yes, I would take humanities majors to be easier: we professors ignore the fact that the majority of our students are incapable of writing a grammatically correct sentence, much less an essay. I don't suppose it's possible to dumb down the math requirements quite that much.

Phoebe: Why didn't you want to take any English lit classes?

Miss Self-Important said...

I never took any English classes at Chicago either. I shopped a couple, but they seemed lame so I didn't register. (Example: The Social Novel, which began with the following speech by the professor: "What is a social novel? Actually, I don't know. Every novel is kind of a social novel, isn't it?") I still read literature in other courses, some of it even English. What's the big deal?

Phoebe said...

Withywindle:

"I don't suppose it's possible to dumb down the math requirements quite that much."

For a math major perhaps not. But the amount of math needed for a science or econ class certainly varies.

Re: English.:

Like Rita, I managed to read English-language literature during college, both in and out of courses, without taking an English class. With French, it took a number of lit classes before I had the comfort level to pick up books in French of my own choosing and not find the whole thing too daunting. (I also attribute my ability to run on my own to the masochistic captains of my high school track team. Sometimes a metaphorical kick in the backside is just the thing. For me, at least.)

PG said...

I double-majored English and econ (I was in a program where there were no required courses, so I also had enough credits in bioethics to constitute a major had triple-majoring been allowed), and I would say that math-heavy economics courses (intermediate micro and macro, econometrics) certainly felt more difficult for me than any of my English courses did. The giving of homework created a frequent reminder that I was just barely getting it, whereas I generally felt like I was getting it in my English classes.

But knowing my strengths, except for courses required for the major I took only econ classes that were theoretical and preferably legal (antitrust, law & econ, regulation, welfare reform, gender), which still necessarily had math elements but didn't require calculus. The aforementioned exam for the Bureau of Labor Statistics had regression analysis and that question utterly stumped me and was the reason I assumed I'd failed the exam, but they offered me a job anyway. So I wouldn't make any categorical assumptions about the quantity of math skillz necessary for a decent econ GPA -- balance three courses in which I made Cs against the rest in which I could make As and B+s. (Admittedly, if you're so math illiterate you can't do the arithmetic for surplus utility once you've drawn the graph, you might be in trouble, but I'm assuming an at least SAT I level of math ability here.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I work in mathematics, but my avocational interests are in the humanities, particularly history and philosophy, so I may have some perspective to offer here.

Undergraduate economics doesn't require all that much math. If you want a B.A. in economics at your average university, you can get away with taking calculus, statistics, and linear algebra for business majors which, as you might imagine, is rather dumbed down. (Withywindle is correct, though, in that there's only so far you can go. Students expecting to coast without doing much in the way of studying are not notably successful.) A B.S. is generally more rigorous, requiring calculus and statistics for real. Science is variable. Biological sciences aren't that hard on the quantitative stuff, either. Biology majors also have their own calculus courses which are halfway between the course that business majors generally do and the course that mathematics and physics/astronomy/chemistry majors do. Engineers are usually something else entirely. They too have their own calculus courses which are lighter on theory than the pure mathematical ones, but heavier on applied. As far as difficulty goes, I'd call it a wash, although I regard chemical engineering as the hardest undergraduate major there is.

But calculus isn't too hard, if you have a fair amount of mathematical aptitude, so economics majors still have it fairly easy. I saw plenty of students get by without really understanding it simply by memorizing the hell out of all the techniques and practicing, practicing, practicing. It is easier, by the way, to understand it and then you don't have to memorize anything. (Some amount of practice is still recommended though.)

By the way, while economics may need "weed-out" courses, pure mathematics is about as self-selecting a field as there is and nobody thinks it's easy when they get to the proof courses. The first level of proofs is usually the hardest course required for math education majors and actuarial science majors and it generally brutalizes them. Only the pure mathematics majors aren't struggling yet.

For what it's worth, here's a ranking of fourteen undergraduate majors by their performance on the LSAT and GMAT tests. This data doesn't necessarily tell us anything worthwhile since it's based on a self-selecting sample. (It's possible that only the best students of some majors go on to law or to get their MBA, while only the worst of other majors do.) It is based on a sample of 550,000 students, though, so even small differences are significant.

1) Mathematics (+13.05% over mean)
2) Philosophy (+9.85%)
3) Economics (+8.45%)
4) Chemistry (+7.55%)
5) English (+4.85%)
6) Foreign Languages (+4.50%)
7) History (+3.75%)
8) Biology (+3.65%)
9) Psychology (+0.85%)
10) Arts and Music (-0.63%)
11) Political Science (-0.77%)
12) Business (-2.65%)
13) Sociology (-6.00%)
14) Education (-6.45%)

Similarly, we can look at GRE scores, again keeping in mind that it's self-selecting. Moreover, it's only based on a couple of years data and it was done way back in '81-'82. On GRE-Verbal, we have:

1) Philosophy (+17.6%)
2) Anthropology (+16.4%)
3) English (+14.5%)
4) History (+10.8%)
5) Foreign Languages (+7.9%)
6) Other Humanities (+7.3%)
7) Physics (+6.6%)
8) Journalism (+5.7%)
9) Biology (+5.4%)
10) Political Science (+3.5%)
10) Other Science (+3.5%)
10) Finance (+3.5%)
13) Psychology (+3.1%)
14) Mathematics (+2.7%)
15) Chemistry (+2.1%)
16) Arts and Music (+1.7%)
17) Economics (+0.8%)
18) Other Social Science (-0.4%)
19) Computer Science (-1.5%)
20) Sociology (-5.0%)
21) Speech/Communications (-6.0%)
22) Engineering (-7.3%)
23) Business Administration (-9.1%)
24) Social Work (-9.1%)
25) Education (-10.4%)

On the GRE-Quant, we have:

1) Physics (+29.5%)
2) Mathematics (+26.3%)
3) Engineering (+25.1%)
4) Computer Science (+22.9%)
5) Chemistry (+18.3%)
6) Other Science (+14.5%)
6) Finance (+14.5%)
8) Biology (+8.0%)
9) Philosophy (+4.6%)
10) Economics (+1.4%)
11) Anthropology (-1.7%)
12) Business Administration (-2.3%)
13) Psychology (-4.0%)
14) Foreign Languages (-4.2%)
15) Political Science (-5.0%)
15) Other Humanities (-5.0%)
17) History (-5.5%)
18) English (-5.7%)
19) Speech/Communications (-6.0%)
20) Other Social Science (-7.2%)
21) Arts and Music (-8.4%)
22) Journalism (-8.6%)
23) Speech/Communications (-14.3%)
24) Sociology (-15.0%)
25) Education (-15.8%)
26) Social Work (-20.8%)

Separating out social sciences (defined as anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology) and humanities (defined as art and music, English, foreign languages, history, and philosophy), we find that social sciences people do far worse than humanities majors (even though humanities has to include art and music majors) with two major exceptions - economics and anthropology, both of whom do well (and anthropology's beating English on the verbal is a surprise). So Dara may well be more intelligent than her boyfriend, after all. Political science and psychology aren't too bad, but sociology is abysmal. Physics majors win the overall competition, followed by mathematicians, and then chemists. All the hard sciences (defined as biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics) do better than average even on verbal and only engineering, computer science, and finance intrude on hard science dominance of the quantitative. So the tongue-tied scientist is not an accurate stereotype. The tongue-tied engineer stereotype, however, appears to be accurate as they do quite poorly on the verbal (and you have to do pretty poorly to trail computer scientists). Philosophy has all the other humanities beat as they are the only non-quantitative field to beat average quantitatively and they beat everybody (even the English majors) verbally. Finance majors are the only business students who do well, but they do very well. Education, social work, and speech/communications do terribly.

For what it's worth, I agree with Daniel Goldberg on the evils of scientism, but disagree with his conclusion that the quantitative people he meets who are infected with it therefore wouldn't have done well in the humanities. (They very well might have, unless they're all engineers.) If we decide to conclude that the hard sciences really are harder and/or more demanding than the humanities (and I think they are, in general), this doesn't at all mean that hard sciences are more valuable than the humanities or that it's a good idea to encourage all our best students to neglect the humanities and go into science instead. And, of course, I agree with Paul Gowder on Lacan.

Andrew Stevens said...

For what it's worth, by the way, foreign languages beat all the other humanities except philosophy on the quantitative section.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

The statistics you cite tell us only that these standardized tests are closer to measuring the skills/talents needed for some fields than for others. This isn't like saying the GREs 'favor' the wealthy, the male, the white (and I'm not weighing in on this, having never looked into it), simply because the results differ. It stands to reason that, given that the GRE tests math and English, people in either math or English or very related fields would do better on the test. If your skills are less directly about those fields, you're bound to test 'dumber.'

Andrew Stevens said...

That's partly true. I have no doubt that it gives a bit of an edge to the English and mathematics majors. However, the reason those particular skills are the ones tested is because they're g-loaded.

Anonymous said...

For many humanities majors, math dementia sets in as soon as math coursework ends, which could be as early as junior year of high school. "Everyday math"--paying bills, buying groceries--is not the equivalent of, say, reading the Times or the New Yorker.

Andrew Stevens: What does "g-loaded" mean? Please tell me it is something mathematical.

Andrew Stevens said...

Only sort of. It's a psychometric term. g is the "general intelligence factor" that IQ tests are trying to get at. If a test correlates highly with g, it's called g-loaded.

The theory for g is based on the observation that people who do well in an academic subject generally do well in all subjects, no matter how unrelated, and people who do poorly in an academic subject tend to do poorly in all of them. (Some exceptions exist, of course, but savants are rare.) E.g. it's easy to say that there are "math people" and "language people," but people who are strong at math are not weaker than average at languages, but stronger and people who are strong at languages are also stronger than average at math. (The humanities people who do worse than the average GRE taker on the quantitative section would actually crush average if everybody took the GRE.)

g is controversial and I'm perfectly willing to accept that there may be no such thing, but if we think that, then we can't be talking about what subjects are or are not "for the slow-witted" anyway, since there ain't no such thing as "slow-witted," just people who are good and bad at particular subjects.

Phoebe said...

"g is controversial and I'm perfectly willing to accept that there may be no such thing, but if we think that, then we can't be talking about what subjects are or are not "for the slow-witted" anyway, since there ain't no such thing as "slow-witted," just people who are good and bad at particular subjects."

I don't really see that. It's quite reasonable to believe both that overall intelligence exists and that the standardized tests meant to get at that intelligence are imperfect at best, useful for estimating intelligence on a large scale, but not the best way to figure out if a given person is or is not that sharp.

PG said...

"not the best way to figure out if a given person is or is not that sharp."

What is the best way? In a recent post, you seemed to be even more skeptical of holistic admissions policies than of GPA-test based ones.

Phoebe said...

There's a huge difference between a 'holistic' approach to college admissions (which is no more than taking grades and test scores and adding on as factors nonsense like whether someone played a sport, whether they 'displayed leadership' via heading some club that never actually met, but that they'd thought would look good to put down on apps, etc.) and the one-on-one impression you get when you know a person (in a personal or professional setting) of how smart they really are. Elite colleges have to look at things on the large scale, without too much nuance, because they're looking at so many applications. When they pretend to have somehow gotten to know each applicant personally, and to be basing their decisions on assessment of individuals in their entirety, that's when the contemporary admissions process is at its most objectionable.

Andrew Stevens said...

and the one-on-one impression you get when you know a person (in a personal or professional setting) of how smart they really are.

What you appear to be saying is that it's really difficult to peg a particular person's intelligence down with objective measures such as tests, but that people know it when they see it. This strikes me as the most implausible position. There are obvious problems with trying to estimate intelligence just by talking to someone. 1) Rhetorical skill is going to be systematically overrated compared to analytical skill. 2) Confident people are going to be systematically overrated compared to unconfident people. 3) People with strong social skills in general will be systematically overrated compared to people with poorer ones. (Note: if you said that the purpose of the interview was to judge social skills, because those are just as important as intelligence for letting someone in to the elite university, then I withdraw my objection.) 4) Attractive and healthy-looking people will be systematically overrated compared to unattractive and unhealthy-looking ones. (For someone with a really obvious disability or health problem, this could conceivably bias things the other way as people bend over backwards to be more sympathetic.) Now, you can say that a really good judge of intelligence can account for all of these biases (though I'm sure there are many more that I haven't listed). You can say that, but I don't believe you. Research into the hiring process shows that interviews are one of the least reliable methods to use for hiring. This doesn't rule out the existence of interviewers who are actually good at it, of course, but such people must be quite rare.

For what it's worth, I am certain that I have no ability to judge the intelligence of people I have known for years, nevertheless minutes, or people I don't know at all (such as celebrities, politicians, or people whose blogs I read). At best, I might be able to segregate them into very crude categories, with error margins so wide that I might as well not have guessed at all.

By the way, none of this is to say that the GRE, LSAT, or GMAT is a great measure of intelligence for a particular person. I was using it above just to discriminate between large groups of people. Unlike IQ tests administered by a psychologist, it is not the sole purpose of any of those tests to get at a person's intelligence, which is why I granted some advantage to English and mathematics majors since it gets hard enough that it's not really testing g, but testing certain specific skills. The only really reliable intelligence test is one administered one-on-one by a psychologist.

When they pretend to have somehow gotten to know each applicant personally, and to be basing their decisions on assessment of individuals in their entirety, that's when the contemporary admissions process is at its most objectionable.

I'm with you on this.

Phoebe said...

Considering that the people I've met who struck me as most intelligent do not fit into the categories you mention (rhetorical stars, great beauties), I'm inclined, for anecdotal reasons, to think they might be flawed. But also, if anything, there's a stereotype that the truly brilliant are socially inept and physically unattractive. As well as a related stereotype, that those lacking in social graces or beauty (not the severely deformed or disabled, just garden-variety awkwardness) are especially smart. So there may be errors in interpersonal assessment, but they would if anything work in the opposite direction from the one you describe.

PG said...

Phoebe,

There might be the cultural stereotype that you describe that manifests itself in novels, movies, etc., but I think Andrew is referring to empirical studies of interviewing, of the sort that have indicated that interviewees with "black" names but otherwise identical resumes will be lower rated than those with "white" names. I also have seen empirical studies indicating that attractive people are more likely to be admitted/ hired. Traits that contribute to lack of conventional attractiveness, such as being overweight, often are interpreted as indicating a lack of discipline.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe makes a good point, though, in that individual people will have different biases and I don't think anyone's going to dispute that. (Phoebe might, for example, systematically overestimate people who like dachshunds or who speak French as a foreign language.) Phoebe is also correct that there is a general stereotype that smart people are unattractive and socially awkward. I don't think that even believers of this stereotype are actually captive to it though. It's the sort of thing that people believe in general, but they don't actually think, upon meeting a socially awkward, unattractive person, "hey, that person must be brilliant" so it never really works to anyone's advantage. However, in one specific case, it probably is the case that strikingly beautiful women are systematically underestimated in intelligence for stereotyping reasons. The same does not apply to strikingly handsome men.

By the way, these biases all have good reasons. Rhetorical skill, confidence, strong social skills, good health, and, yes, even attractiveness really are correlated with g (assuming that exists), but the correlation is weak. The reason why they're overestimated is because they're correlates which jump out at one in social interactions, while stronger correlates do not.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I doubt if anyone interviews for -or thinks they're interviewing for - intelligence alone. And after all, a more attractive coworker will be more easy on the eyes, one of the same race as the majority less off-putting to the office racists, etc. Even if the truly offensive choices - looks and race - are eliminated, the ideal hire is rarely going to be chosen on the basis of intelligence alone. Social skills, speaking skills, these will always matter in that situation.

Andrew Stevens,

"Phoebe is also correct that there is a general stereotype that smart people are unattractive and socially awkward. I don't think that even believers of this stereotype are actually captive to it though."

I don't know, I have seen plenty of this. Especially in elementary and middle school, where the unpopular kids were always rumored to be secret geniuses, as though to admit that someone lacked social and math-and-language skills would be all too tragic. I can't prove it ever happens, but I would not be shocked if teachers sometimes grade up on students rumored to be smart due to lack of other strengths.

"The same does not apply to strikingly handsome men."

Sure it does! See the "mimbo" episode of Seinfeld, the phenomenon of male models, etc.

PG said...

But how do you disaggregate social skills, especially speaking skills, from your experience of someone as intelligent? Do you base it on other cues ("he's an astrophysicist, therefore he must be smart, even if I've never heard him speak intelligently in conversation")? My dad is one of the more broadly intelligent people I know (despite having no interest in philosophy or fiction), but he's also quite articulate even with things that aren't humanities stuff; e.g., he could calculate my monthly payment on two mortgages in his head when I told him the sale price, down payment and interest rates. The intelligent person has to express their intelligence in a venue where you hear it, or else you're going on reputation.

PG said...

Also, it's not just hiring; you refer to teachers giving unearned grades to unattractive kids, but one of the links in my prior comment notes that the studies indicate teachers actually give higher estimates of the intelligence of attractive students.

salacious said...

I'm going to venture that any attractiveness-intelligence stereotype will vary across the intelligence distribution. For a person who is quite smart, unattractiveness might cause others to overestimate just how intelligent he or she is--it plays into the "wierd looking genius" stereotype.

On the other hand, for the bulk of the intelligence distribution--slightly above average on down--the actual intelligence of unattractive people will be routinely underestimated.

The thing is, this second effect will completely swamp any ugly-genius stereotype. There are just so many more about-average people than there are geniuses. That is what drives Andrew Stevens' data, and still allows it to be consistent with Phoebe's intuitions. Further, I suspect that Phoebe's educational background means she has a wildly disproportionate exposure to very smart people, so the ugly-genius stereotype will be an outsize feature of her experience relative to the population as a whole. Availability bias and all that.

Phoebe said...

PG:

"But how do you disaggregate social skills, especially speaking skills, from your experience of someone as intelligent?"

I don't consider speaking skills or social skills as witnessed among strangers - at a party, a job interview, etc. - to be the same as the capacity to communicate with those you are comfortable around, say, at work or at home. It's not that other cues are at play, just that the ability to perform and charm is not central in all forms of verbal communication.

"Also, it's not just hiring; you refer to teachers giving unearned grades to unattractive kids, but one of the links in my prior comment notes that the studies indicate teachers actually give higher estimates of the intelligence of attractive students."

OK, there's a study whose findings contradict what I imagine might be the case. I'm not sure how definitive I'm supposed to be considering this study. (I'm not finding the link...) But I'd imagine the age of the students would matter (as in, a teacher with a 23-year-old student might, if we're talking Roth novel territory, be attracted to the student and want to believe her smart, whereas in elementary school, that would be unlikely, not to mention creepy and wrong.

Salacious:

"Further, I suspect that Phoebe's educational background means she has a wildly disproportionate exposure to very smart people, so the ugly-genius stereotype will be an outsize feature of her experience relative to the population as a whole."

Yes, it's a great joy to always be the most dim-witted in the room.

But in terms of awkwardness-read-as-brilliance, I was mainly thinking of classroom situations pre-high school (and of cliches outside my personal experience), not of settings where everyone scored ridiculously high on some standardized test.

PG said...

It was the first link in my 2:33PM post, and it's not referring to college professors' attraction to their students; it was of elementary school teachers and fifth graders. Also, it's not a single study; the Clifford & Walster 1973 study mentioned in that article has been replicated by Salvia et a. (1977) among others:

"Several investigations have shown that teachers expect physically attractive students, in comparison to unattractive students, to be more academically successful and socially responsive (Adams & Cohen, 1976; Clifford & Walster, 1973; Dion, 1972; Rich, 1975). Adams and Cohen (1976) found that teachers interacted more frequently and positively with attractive children. Clifford and Walster (1973) found that attractive students were perceived by teachers to possess a higher IQ, greater educational potential, and more interested parents. Dion (1972) found that attractive children were less likely to receive punishment for incorrect responses in a learning task. Rich (1975) found that attractive children were rated more favorably on personal and academic development, intelligence, and competence."

"To appreciate the pervasiveness of the attractiveness bias, consider that the bias has been demonstrated in ... adults' perception of infants, parents' and teachers' perception of children (Adams 1978, Adams & Cohen 1974, 1976; Adams & Crane 1980; Adams & LaVoie 1974, 1975; Clifford 1975; Clifford & Walster 1973; Felson 1980; Lerner & Lerner 1977; Martinek 1981; Murphy, Nelson & Cheap 1981; Ross & Salvia 1975; Tompkins & Boor 1980)."

I think salacious probably has the right of it, such that the bulk in the middle of the bell curve are what drives the results of studies.

Phoebe said...

OK, I'll accept my guess re: grading was way off. But a question: "I think salacious probably has the right of it, such that the bulk in the middle of the bell curve are what drives the results of studies." Do you mean the bell curve of intelligence, beauty, or both?

Another possible angle on this occurred to me, of all places, on line at the supermarket: Maybe what happens is, we expect the beautiful to be dumb, making it easy for the beautiful to exceed our expectations. When they do, we can't get over how 'brilliant' they are. An example that comes to mind: the "anonymous model" blogger at Jezebel. Commenters are always blown away by how articulate she is, not because she writes better than the others posting on that site, but because she is (we are led to believe) someone who makes a living based on her looks.

PG said...

I hadn't thought about the beauty bell curve (I was sort in an attractive/ unattractive binary), so I meant the intelligence distribution to which salacious referred: "for the bulk of the intelligence distribution--slightly above average on down--the actual intelligence of unattractive people will be routinely underestimated."

Maybe what happens is, we expect the beautiful to be dumb, making it easy for the beautiful to exceed our expectations.

That wouldn't fit well with the studies I noted, as those involved having teachers who didn't know the students get report cards with the kid's photo clipped to the report, and then answer questions about what they would predict the kid's intelligence and future educational achievement to be.

Your use of the word articulate makes me wonder if you've observed this occurring for other groups whose intelligence we know empirically tends to be underrated, e.g. African Americans. If there's "anonymous black person" blogger on a site, will that person also receive excessive praise?

The "anonymous model" reminds me of the blogosphere flap several years ago over Hot Abercrombie Chick, who turned out to be Daniel Zeigenbein, a libertarian philosophy major who knew that long posts about the nature of evil would attract a lot more attention if they purported to be authored by a cute blond in a tight T-shirt. (I didn't have an opinion on whether it was a hoax at first, but at the point that "Amanda Doerty" claimed that she was trying to prove that pretty girls could be smart, I knew it was a fake of some sort. If she'd actually been trying to prove that, she would have posted the philosophy first and the photos later after she's already established her intellectual credentials.)

Anonymous said...

My question is--how smart are all these teachers? I would guess the elementary school ones are of average intelligence. So you've got the lowest GRE scorers (of those taking that test) taking looks into account when evaluating the intellect of children. Do the same biases hold where teachers are better-educated? Does an AP calculus teacher leap to the same looks-based assumptions as a first-grade teacher with a not-very-demanding degree in elementary education?

Anonymous said...

In regards to your comments about grading differences, it appears that there are very large structural differences in grading that do make the humanities easier than the sciences.

A rigorous study carried out on this page: http://higher-ed-reform.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-big-is-grading-gap.html demonstrates precisely how big the gap is.