Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented?


If you are close to Edinburgh, you can attend in person, if not it will have to be the private plane again, but remember the drinks reception is free. Otherwise, this will give you a pointer to a researcher working in the field. Symbol-digit is the quickest and most reliable test of memory problems in the elderly. Who says paper and pencil tests don’t have real life applications?

The first seminar in the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology's 2014-15 seminar series will take place next Tuesday, 7th October 2014 at 5pm in F21, Department of Psychology, 7 George Square. Admission is free, booking is not necessary and the seminar will be followed by a drinks reception in the department concourse.

The seminar will be given by Professor Karen Ritchie, senior Research Director with the French National Institute of Medical Research (INSERM) and Honorary Professor with the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Imperial College, London.

Title: "Putting your money where your mouth is: can we design programmes to prevent Alzheimer's disease?".

Summary: Once considered an inevitable part of ageing, the dementias are now recognized as pathologies distinct from the normal brain ageing process.
Consequently over the past three decades both clinical and epidemiological studies have aimed to demonstrate risk factors specific to dementia, notably Alzheimer's disease. Of the large number of significant risk and protective factors which have been found, many of these are potentially reversible and statistical modelling suggests that reducing exposure may have an even greater impact on future disease incidence than altering genetic predisposition. Most of these exposures occur in middle-age suggesting the need for a life-time approach, intervention strategies which target younger populations and a reconsideration of Alzheimer's disease clinical criteria.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Should educationalists be streamed?

There has long been a debate as to whether educationalists should be streamed, so that the brighter practitioners should not be held up by the slower pace of their less able colleagues. The contrary view is that educationalists of different levels of ability should be mixed together, so that the clever ones can lead the intellectually impaired to better things. It is not clear where the Institute of Education stands on this important policy matter.

This debate is remarkably similar to the question as to whether children should be streamed in schools. Before all else, do a thought experiment: when you stream children, what result would count as success? Certainly if all streamed children do better than un-streamed children then that would count as a clear win. It would show that “correct pace” teaching was good for all.  However, what if bright children race ahead whenever they do not have to wait for their less bright peers? Should that be counted a success, or a partial success, or a failure? The economic and cultural contribution of the brightest minds appears to be considerably greater than that of average citizens, so it might be best to give them a clear run, and settle accounts later with redistributive taxation. On the other hand, if you value the mean value of achievement for the group as a whole, then brighter children should be held back to encourage the others.

On the issue of streaming, Samantha Parsons & Sue Hallam, both at the Institute of Education have written “The impact of streaming on attainment at age seven: evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study” . Oxford Review of Education 24 September 2014. http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/core20

Their work has been prominently reported, which is a good thing. It is based on a very good sample, which is also a good thing. Most citizens will read the newspaper accounts only, so here is the Guardian headline as a guide:

School streaming helps brightest pupils but nobody else, say researchers: Splitting classes by ability undermines efforts to help disadvantaged children, finds research into English primaries

So much for what the public will read and believe to have been proved. What does the actual study reveal?

The Millennium sample a good size, is representative, and there is an increased representation of minority, poor and immigrant groups. The sample is somewhat better than the population averages.The sample studied in the paper was N=2544 of whom 83% were not streamed. The sample size is fine by social science standards, and much better than the modal values in publications, though negligible compared to the 70,000+ in the Deary et al (2007) education paper.

What is less satisfactory is that the authors do their study on the basis of Key Stage 1, when the children are 7.  These ratings are done by teachers on the basis of “informal tests”. I do not know if these are actual tests with published characteristics, or just an overall impression. They also have an earlier baseline teacher assessment called Foundation Skills Profile. For children at school in England these assessments are made on the basis of the teacher’s accumulating observations and knowledge of the whole child.

Seven years of age is rather early to come to any conclusions about teaching methods. This is the earliest age, from a psychometric point of view, that we can get an indication whether they have reading problems of any significance. It is also a little hard to believe that 7 year olds have achievements in science. These teacher assessments are somewhat weak, and insensitive to actual differences in ability. I have looked at them in relation to court cases, and would not put too much reliance on them. As a rule of thumb, if you want to know how well teachers teach, do not rely on teacher’s assessments of progress. Use national examinations marked by others.

Now we turn to the crux of the paper: the difference between schools that stream and schools that don’t. We need to know if schools that stream are different from those schools which don’t in terms of parental background, child ability, and other teaching methods. In particular, we need to know if the scholastic achievements of children in the un-streamed schools have the same means and standard deviations as the achievements of the streamed schools. Otherwise the differences between the overall score of un-streamed children and the overall scores of the streamed children may differ for reasons that are not directly due to streaming.

For example, schools which find they have a very broad range of child abilities (large standard deviation) might have to do streaming; schools with a narrower range of abilities (low standard deviation) might not bother. We need to check that a fair comparison is being made.

The results in Fig 1 suggest that those who were streamed (17% of this sample) were duller and more variable than the majority who were un-streamed. Looking within the streamed children, the brightest are only a little above the average of the un-streamed majority. Case proved that streaming is not worth it? Not at all.

This is yet another case when very simple statistics would be a great help. Showing the actual distribution of the Stage 1 total scores for the steamed 17% and the un-streamed 83% would be useful. The streamed children are out-numbered four to one. 222 children were in the ‘top’ stream, 130 in the ‘middle’ stream and 94 in the ‘bottom’ stream. These are reasonable numbers, but hardly substantial ones. We must check that the decision to stream children is not influenced by student heterogeneity. As far as I can see, these checks have not been done.

The authors have done regression analyses so as to predict the Key 1 scores. This potentially obscures the position in that it denies us a clear contrast between the streamed/un-streamed groups. Instead, you have to try to derive these differences from the beta coefficients.

The authors note: Standardised regression coefficients do not directly indicate the effect of a unit change in the outcome, they rather represent change in terms of standard deviations. The predictor with the biggest regression coefficient is the most important predictor of the outcome, regardless of the direction of the relationship.

One little-reported conclusion: The child’s earlier academic performance, as measured by the Foundation Stage Profile (FSP) score, was identified as the most significant predictor of later academic attainment as measured by KS1 performance.

Another little-reported conclusion: Among the family socio-economic characteristics, parental education remained significantly associated with the KS1 outcomes, after controlling for all other variables in the model. Household income appeared to be an independent risk factor for overall KS1 performance, as did lone parenthood for KS1 maths attainment.

Comment: This first conclusion is what Heiner Rindermann found in many international samples: parental education is more important than parental wealth. That raises the possibility that unmeasured genetic factors make a contribution.

Although the authors have not provided what I regard as a proper comparison between schools, they surprisingly say:

These differences have developed over a short period of time, since the children began compulsory schooling. The findings support the divergence hypothesis (e.g. Linchevski & Kutscher, 1998) which is of particular concern given that prior teacher rated ability at age five was taken into account, along with a range of child and family and school factors.

I am not persuaded on the basis of this paper that “these differences have developed” as a consequence of schooling. I will of course check to see what further analyses they may have done. There might be no differences in standard deviations between the two groups, so it may be a moot point.

Under “Implications” they write:  The evidence from this and earlier research demonstrates that streaming does not of itself raise attainment for all children (e.g. Barker Lunn, 1970; Ferri, 1971) and widens the gap between low and high attaining pupils. Schools need to take this into account when planning the ability grouping structures that they adopt.

I do not think they can argue that, on the basis of their results. They have already said that the prior measures of the Foundation Stage Profile account for a large part of the variance in children’s attainments. The foundation profile has a large gaping hole in it (see below). They have not fully explored the reasons for the possible differences between the streamed and un-streamed children, such that streaming might be applied where there are wide differences in ability.

What dog did not bark in the night? There are no cognitive ability measures reported. None. Why do so many authors fail to consider that intelligence may be a factor in educational attainment? Why leave this out, when it can be measured quickly, and always accounts for a significant proportion of educational outcomes?

Finally, here is my summary:

Although sample sizes are small and the prior measures of ability are weak, those prior abilities are the best predictors of attainments at age 7, and although we cannot be sure that streamed schools haven’t got a wider range of abilities than un-streamed schools, nonetheless it looks as if streaming does not lift the overall abilities  of students.

Snappy headlines are one of my most evident whole-person special skills.



I. J. Deary, S. Strand, P. Smith and C. Fernandes (2007) Intelligence and educational achievement. Intelligence 35, 1, pp13-21.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Slaves of defunct philosophies

I had almost forgotten about the London slaves, who were said to have been held captive in a house for 30 years, and then finally discovered in November 2013 when they were supposedly liberated by a charity.



Now it turns out that the authorities have finally come to a decision about the couple who allegedly held the slaves captive in a South London house. The wife has been told she will not be facing any charges, and the man has been remanded on a sexual charge. One presumes he is accused of having committed sex offences against some or all of the three women. The Police say: "A 73-year-old man arrested on Thursday 21 November 2013 in connection with an investigation into slavery and domestic servitude and further arrested in relation to serious sexual offences on Tuesday 29 July 2014 has been re-bailed to a date in mid-December."

As the jargon has it, this seems to be a case of Narrative Collapse. The women were not random citizen captured on the street, but members of a Maoist cult, and they are said to have gone out shopping during their supposed confinement. The Police originally spoke of “psychological handcuffs” to account for them not having escaped over the decades, until they did, indeed, escape by the stratagem of walking out the front door.

Why bother about this case? Credulity is inversely related to intelligence. The description of people being slaves brings to modern minds a black man captured in Africa, chained, transported to America, and beaten and abused on a sugarcane or cotton plantation.  Those journalists, politicians, charity and Police spokespersons who spun the narrative on this case and who ensured it was given wide coverage in the media for many days were keen to use the concept of slavery as a legitimate description of what was in fact an odd household of self-selected ultra-leftists. They took journalists for fools, with some success, and the public for fools, perhaps with a little less success. Nonetheless, they got their headlines, and most citizens are trusting, or gullible, and those crucial headlines helped them convince politicians. The Modern Slavery Bill was presented to Parliament a month or two after the story was splashed in the media, and the Bill is making good progress, and is now at the Committee stage. Job done.



Postscript: If you and some of your old lovers are still hanging on in a neglected house, waiting for the revolution, or indeed the counter-revolution, and have a room with an old photo of Hitler, Stalin, Mao or, at a pinch, Che Guevara, pasted to the wall, perhaps you would like to give the freedom charity a call. Show some courage, tell your story, and hope it gets made into a film.

Remember John Maynard Keynes’ remark: 

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

Monday, 22 September 2014

Don’t sweat the big stuff


In the last few days I have been a little quieter than usual. Naturally, the Scottish referendum took up some of my time, an important matter which should attract the attention of the chattering and commenting classes. Meditating on such high matters took up my time, even though I wrote nothing about it. I also spent a little time commenting on a string of beheadings in the Middle East, which led to a radio interview which posed the predictable question “Why do they do it?” and my predictable answer “To terrify their opponents”. On Sunday I was further distracted by the notion, promulgated by The Sunday Times that the Cheltenham codebreakers are recruiting dyslexics (and dyspraxics, and the differently neurally abled) to give their own, very special perspective on what the enemy is doing, which could not be afforded by those able to read and write. Here is a little detail on this great matter:

A 35-year-old IT specialist by the name of Matt is the chairman of the dyslexic and dyspraxic support community at the listening post. He told the Sunday Times: “What people don’t realise is that people with neuro diversity usually have a ‘spiky-skills’ profile, which means that certain skill areas will be below par and others may be well above.

“My reading might be slower than some individuals and maybe my spelling is appalling, and my handwriting definitely is… but, if you look at the positive side, my 3D special-perception awareness and creativity is in the 1 per cent of my peer group.” 

Read more: http://www.gloucestershireecho.co.uk/Code-breakers-GCHQ-dyslexic-just-like-Alan-Turing/story-22958534-detail/story.html#ixzz3E3eZkTeM

Baldly, the article claimed that Alan Turing was dyslexic. I think this is very silly. Can anyone direct me to the evidence? I have read what his Sherborne teacher said about him (“one of the two brightest boys I have ever taught”) and read some of his papers, in awe, and I see no such deficiency. By dyslexia I mean a specific reading backwardness once one has allowed for intelligence (so, in Turing’s case even a slight reading deficiency would potentially count as a disorder). 

However, none of these matters of great import (or great distraction) have been taking up my time. Instead I have been dealing with a very local matter, in which I am one of the representatives of the locals against a wave of property-developing deep basement diggers, who are making lives a misery in central London. This is a very parochial matter. In one way or another it has taken up bits of my time for four years, and now that the planning inspection is underway, I have spent four days, of eight hours each, listening to the local Council’s timid plan for restricting such major works (one storey basements allowed, multiple storey basements prohibited) being torn apart by the (paid) advocates of the basement constructors. Very local, very technical and of interest to intelligence researchers only because the actual battle is being fought on narrow points of planning law, while the protestors are naturally wanting to complain on broad grounds of principle and human emotion. It involves having to explain to my bruised confederates that the Council has gone as far as it dares (central government is in favour of all forms of house building, whatever the impact) and that we have to rally round the lesser evil to get a modicum of relief. (A mild consolation is that the other side are said to have spent £500,000 in order to try to get their way).

As you know, I often look for real life correlates of intelligence. I had always assumed that anyone of any intelligence would turn to Great Matters. For example, changing the (unwritten) British Constitution after the Scottish referendum is a very taxing and great matter. It requires brains as well as considerable historical knowledge. Sorting out the Middle East: who to bomb/kill/arm/pay ransom to, is another intellectual challenge. Explaining to the general public that if dyslexia is given an all-inclusive, low re-definition then it ceases to have nosological significance is another worthy great intellectual task (I might try that one later).  So, why spend any time on something small?

Local matters seem a distraction at such troubled times. Horrible as it may be to watch your walls crack because there is a bulldozer next door digging a basement, there is no intent to kill the neighbours, just to ignore them.

However, it may be intelligent to balance “global importance” against “probability of success”. The small stuff is worth sweating because you might be successful in achieving your aims. Put it at 1 in 150, but it is tangible nonetheless. 150 is said to be the fundamental modal size of human settlements and networks (more and it is hard to recognise everyone, and remember exactly how they have treated you), so that gives a rule of thumb. However, given that at most 4% of the populace are politically active in the most generous sense of that term, even in a small village you are probably having to convince only about 5 people, in order to swing that local group.

On larger matters, even with small populations the size of Scotland, 5 million is a big number to influence, and even the 200,000 activists a challenging number to convince. Sweating the big stuff may be a waste of effort. You will get excited, no doubt, and have a sense of importance, but a very low probability of impact. Somehow, the supposedly great matters assume a moral high ground: they pretend to rise above mere personal concerns. A beheading in a distant land must be of more consequence than a car crash in your own suburban street which has the same effect on a grieving family. Keeping up with the international news is seen as a duty, the local news an indulgent distraction.

Indeed, this may lead to a rule of thumb: activism about all social matters should be conditioned by a probability calculus, a cost benefit analysis of the issue itself, divided by probability of success.

Try sweating the small stuff.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Fingers, feminism, and bossiness


In the early history of science fiction, and indeed fiction as a whole since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there has been a fascination with humans who have been taken over by sinister forces. In one very early TV science fiction program the small American town was taken over by aliens (yet again: why don’t aliens take over towns in other countries?) who did their dastardly alien tricks on upstanding citizens, operating on them and then releasing them to carry out alien orders.

How to distinguish these interstellar traitors from fine, upstanding, 100% Americans? Even as a child I could see the answer: there were clear drill marks on the back of the necks of the zombies, where something had been implanted: Communism, most probably. However, in this drama, possibly because the drill marks were generally obscured by clothing, another test was applied by the besieged townfolk: the aliens implanted into the bodies of Americans were unable to properly flex their little fingers. Ask them to flex their pinky finger, and democracy is saved.

I have not been particularly interested in fingers. I concede that they are useful, and that to be without them would be a human tragedy, but even in my gratitude I have not accorded them high status.

Now young Woodley strides onto the scene, to remind me that much of great import may be derived from the study of finger length ratios.  Looking at your hands, palm downwards, you will note that when you compare your index finger (number 2, where your thumb is number 1) with your ring finger (number 4) you will find that….. that finger 4 is visibly longer than finger 2. Or perhaps not. The ratio of finger lengths may be a sensitive measure of pre-natal androgen, or a random variation which should not concern us very much, unless we are intrinsically interested in fingers.

Madison, Aasa, Wallert, and Woodley (2014) Feminist activist women are masculinized in terms of digit-ratio and social dominance: a possible explanation for the feminist paradox.


We measured the 2D:4D digit ratios (collected from both hands) and a personality trait known as dominance (measured with the Directiveness scale) in a sample of women attending a feminist conference. The sample exhibited significantly more masculine 2D:4D and higher dominance ratings than comparison samples representative of women in general, and these variables were furthermore positively correlated for both hands. The feminist paradox might thus to some extent be explained by biological differences between women in general and the activist women who formulate the feminist agenda.

They got 25 women at a feminist conference to have both hands scanned (so that finger length ratios could be calculated) and then 24 of them filled in a “Directiveness” questionnaire, which seems to measure dominance and a tendency towards bossiness.

In summary, the feminist activist sample had a significantly smaller (i.e., masculinized) 2D:4D ratio than the general female samples. The size of this difference corresponds approximately to a 30% difference in prenatal testosterone/estradiol ratio, which was the index found to have the strongest association with 2D:4D (Lutchmaya et al., 2004). Directiveness self-ratings also exhibit a large and highly significant difference in the predicted direction. It is notable that the feminist activist sample 2D:4D was also more masculinized than those of the male comparison samples, except for the left hand in the aggregate sample (see Table 2).

This is a small sample, though a big number of feminist activists, given their rarity in the population, and the association with dominance is intriguing.

So what, and what does this have to do with intelligence? Nothing directly. However, there have been claims that the 2d:4d ratio is weakly correlated with intelligence (in another small sample of people).

Marc F. Luxen and Bram P. Buunk.  Second-to-fourth digit ratio related to Verbal and Numerical Intelligence and the Big Five. Personality and Individual Differences 39 (2005) 959–966


There may be something in this finger business. It would be worth checking on a much larger representative sample which has already been tested for intelligence or scholastic ability, and ideally on which genomic data is available.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Processing speed: the even quicker version, going fast



On 6 May I posted up my notes on a talk given in Edinburgh by Ian Deary on processing speed, and now here is the written up version of that talk by Ian Deary and Stuart Ritchie which gives much better descriptions of the concepts and the findings.


If you click on the third item “10 quick questions about processing speed” you can download the pdf. I should warn you it contains photos of the participants at the conference, but those can be avoided by readers of a nervous disposition.

As you read the paper, reflect on the fact that it may be the last time you read something from Edinburgh while it is still part of the United Kingdom. Thus, it will have historical as well as intellectual significance.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Gene hunters and gene saboteurs


There is quiet satisfaction in some quarters that the search for the “intelligence genes” is not making much progress. I, on the contrary, am watching the publication of papers with excitement. We know that intelligence is heritable, because consanguinity is related to a similarity in intellect. We don’t know the names of the genes that bring about this effect, nor how they interact to do it. Given that there may be many hundreds of genes building the brain, each contributing a very small effect, finding them may be hard. For once, researchers are getting together the very large samples required, which may need 1,000,000 genomes. We are reaching towards the biological/social science version of CERN.

But, rather like all other activities, for every enthusiast there is an equal and opposite activist, rather like fox hunters and hunt saboteurs. This may need a little explanation for those readers who have the misfortune not to live in England. Fox hunting is a 16th Century country pursuit, commemorated in paintings of red coated, top hatted gentlemen on fine mounts jumping over hedges in pursuit of the red fox. Its association with the gentry makes it a status marker, implying that fox hunters are Conservatives, Protestants, fond of flagellation and possibly of wearing double breasted pyjamas in bed. Until I started living part of my life in the English countryside, I did not know that for every rider there is at least one countryman hunt follower in a small van. They are farm workers, electricians, plumbers, builders and shopkeepers. I join them by chance on country roads sometimes, and stand with them briefly as with their binoculars they watch the hunt work across the landscape and explain to me, in detail, what is going on. Tradition maintained.

On the other side are a largely urban species, the hunt saboteurs, associated with rabid socialism, multiply-occupied scruffy bed-sitters, vegetarianism and sleeping naked several to a bed. Some have the secret vice of having rich parents. They disrupt hunt meetings, lay false scents, and get into rows, which occasionally lead to minor violence. England being England, it has also led to romantic liaisons with the fox hunting toffs, and at least one marriage. Bless.

(For those still confused, watch Downton Abbey, and remove the small delivery vans).

Back to genetics. The gene saboteurs are defending the citadel of environmentalism, and probably regard each large scale genetic study of intelligence as a waste of resources. The gene hunters are, according to different views, either upholding the highest traditions of the Enlightenment, or dragging us into social Darwinism, nature red in tooth and claw. All these conflicting views contend in scholarly publications. Who really doubts that this is a great time to be alive?

The gene hunting enthusiasts are making progress, in my view. They are raising their standards, roping in even more researchers across the world, and using statistical approaches which are likely to minimise false positives. The gene saboteurs may be laying false scents, arguing that slow progress in phase 2 (gene identifying) means that doubt can be cast on phase 1 results (heritability estimates), but against their will they are driving up the standard of proof, though I very much doubt they want research on the genetics of intelligence funded, and certainly don’t want the databases opened up for racial comparisons, an obvious additional pathway to cracking the code.

Nature (the magazine) described the state of play as: Smart genes prove elusive: Study of more than 100,000 people finds three genetic variants for IQ — but their effects are maddeningly small.


The article says that 106,000 genomes have yielded 69 genes of interest for their links with scholastic achievement, of which 3 may be linked to intelligence. Every article should have a critical comment, in addition to the author of the study saying something, and in the sceptical box Nature says: “With effects this small, the chances that they represent false positives are vastly increased,” says Kevin Mitchell, a neurogeneticist at Trinity College Dublin who says he was decidedly underwhelmed by the study. “While intelligence — and proxy measures such as cognitive test performance or educational attainment — are quite heritable, the idea that this trait is determined by common variants in the population at large is really unproven,” he says.

Interesting that the response is “underwhelmed”. Very few psychological studies muster 106,000 subjects, and if you ensure that your statistics are rigorous then a small effect size need not indicate that the findings are false positives: they may be entirely true but weak positives.

To my mind the history of progress in science tends to oscillate between practice and theory. In my cynical moods I think that theory takes the back seat much of the time, because observation and plain data crunching can take you a long way. At the very least, you can work out the shape of the terrain, and often find flakes of gold. However, there comes a time when just working through the gravel pit looking at individual chips of stone has to give way to an engaging, broad impact but testable hypothesis. Someone is going to have to come up with a better theory as to how the genome builds the proteins that build the organism. The code breakers at Bletchley Park used cribs much of the time: they knew that enemy weather stations would have to report the weather, submarines the positions of shipping, and the very most important orders might include the sequence of letters “Hitler”. (I have encoded this sequence on an Enigma machine myself, wearing white gloves, not out of deference to afore-named assassin, but as a courtesy to the curator of the Bletchley Park museum, to protect the machine I was using). There must be genetic cribs of some sort, so that instead of looking at the limited 4 letter alphabet of the genetic code researchers begin to recognise the odd word, or even short sentence.

If a million genomes are required, then that should be the next step, and those who are “underwhelmed” with the current state of play should urge on the funding of a global program so that we be overwhelmed when we break the code of what makes us a thinking, knowing species.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Fat prejudice and slim conclusions


With the Woodley challenge on correlation still reigning supreme, what are we to make of a correlation between perceived prejudice against fat people (as reported by fat people), and their subsequent weight gain?

Of the 2,944 eligible participants in the study, 5% reported weight discrimination. This ranged from less than 1% of those in the ‘normal weight’ category to 36% of those classified as ‘morbidly obese’. There are somewhat more women in the fat category. Men and women reported similar levels of weight discrimination.  Those who reported prejudice were already fat, as weighed 2 years before; then gave their estimates as to whether they had been subjected to negative treatment (without actually having to say that it was on account of their being fat); and were then weighed 2 years later; by which time four years had passed and they had gained 0.95 Kg in weight, whereas the majority, who had not reported unfriendly treatment, had lost 0.71 Kg in weight.

They were all drawn from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, so we have a large and representative sample of over 50 year olds, and need not worry on that score.

Sarah E. Jackson, Rebecca J. Beeken and Jane Wardle. Perceived Weight Discrimination and Changes in Weight, Waist Circumference, and Weight Status 

Objective: To examine associations between perceived weight discrimination and changes in weight, waist circumference, and weight status.
Methods: Data were from 2944 men and women aged 50 years participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Experiences of weight discrimination were reported in 2010-2011 and weight and waist circumference were objectively measured in 2008-2009 and 2012-2013. ANCOVAs were used to test associations between perceived weight discrimination and changes in weight and waist circumference.
Logistic regression was used to test associations with changes in weight status. All analyses adjusted for baseline BMI, age, sex, and wealth.
Results: Perceived weight discrimination was associated with relative increases in weight (11.66 kg, P<0.001) and waist circumference (11.12 cm, P50.046). There was also a significant association with odds of becoming obese over the follow-up period (OR56.67, 95% CI 1.85-24.04) but odds of remaining obese did not differ according to experiences of weight discrimination (OR51.09, 95% CI 0.46-2.59).
Conclusions: Our results indicate that rather than encouraging people to lose weight, weight discrimination promotes weight gain and the onset of obesity. Implementing effective interventions to combat weight stigma and discrimination at the population level could reduce the burden of obesity.


So, let us look at this work from the Woodley perspective of correlation and causation. We have fat persons and normal weight persons. These probably differ in many ways, which probably include intelligence and personality, social class and wealth, and genetics. We could study these differences, including looking at how many people in each category report prejudice.

I have already discussed some of these matters in “Fat is an intellectual issue” and “Diet is an IQ test”



However, the authors do not compare fat and normal weight people. They compare those that report prejudice versus those who do not. They find that the prejudice reporters are fatter and poorer than the large majority who do not report prejudice. Then, they conclude:  Our results indicate that rather than encouraging people to lose weight, weight discrimination promotes weight gain and the onset of obesity.

How do they conclude that?

Senior author Professor Jane Wardle, director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL, is reported as saying: “Our study clearly shows that weight discrimination is part of the obesity problem and not the solution. Weight bias has been documented not only among the general public but also among health professionals; and many obese patients report being treated disrespectfully by doctors because of their weight. Everyone, including doctors, should stop blaming and shaming people for their weight and offer support, and where appropriate, treatment.”

It is a bit of a jump from a person feeling discriminated against, to concluding that they have actually been named and shamed.

Dr Sarah Jackson said: “Most people who are overweight are aware of it already and don’t need it pointed out to them. Telling them they are fat isn’t going to help - it is just going to make them feel worse.

“There are lots of different causes of obesity, yet a lot of blame just seems to be on individuals and a lack of will power. Raising awareness of some of the factors involved might make it easier not to blame people.”

In deference, I should say that although all three authors are credited with this argument, one or more of them know it to be in error, because in the paper itself they say: We cannot be sure whether discrimination preceded weight gain or vice versa. It is therefore not possible to establish causal relationships; i.e. whether people gain weight as a consequence of experiencing weight discrimination, or whether gaining weight makes people more likely to experience weight discrimination or attribute experiences of discrimination to their weight.

The Press Office at UCL correctly say: “Because this was a population survey and not an experimental study, it cannot conclusively confirm that the positive association observed between discrimination and weight gain is causal”. However, they still give it the headline ‘Fat shaming’ doesn’t encourage weight loss and the Press have picked that line as their lead in widespread reporting.

Notice the obvious: a person’s perception that they are being treated unfairly (probably because of being over-weight) is not an objective measure like their weight. They may be being over-sensitive. Their perceptions about unkind treatment may be part of a set of distorted judgments about food, body image and self worth. The measures taken do not allow us to come to any judgment about this. Neither are there any intelligence or personality measures, which would have been instructive, even if they showed no difference, because we could have discarded them as possible causes of the difference.

Remember, the perception that “people treat me badly (probably because I am fat)” is held by only 0.7% of normal weight people (interesting it should be that high) but as many as 36% of the very fat people. I assume that a Chi square would reveal a strong association between heavy weight and perceived prejudice.

Let us compare the 150 people who report prejudice against them with the 2794 people who do not. The differences are shown in terms of p values, but this reliance on statistical significant might obscure the sizes of the differences. They do not differ in height. They differ massively in weight: 97 Kilos versus 75 Kilos. Just pause a moment on those figures. That is an effect size of 1.44. Wow. The no-discrimination group are hardly slender, with a BMI of 27.17 where 25 is the official preferred figure (and in fact 22 is the most conducive to normal health). The discriminated against have an average BMI of 35.46 They are also quite a bit poorer. Do they differ in intelligence or personality? Likely, but no measures of these variables are given.

Incidentally, the authors assume that not liking fat people is a fallacious pre-judgement. The also assume that “fat-shaming” is actually widespread as an activity. Fat avoiding is part of freedom. So is thin avoiding. So is avoiding psychologists. Preferences must not always be crimes.

I think that the authors have shown caution in the paper, but far less caution in their public statements as to what is in the paper. Perhaps their cautions were ignored, but the UCL Press Office is punctilious in letting authors vet their own statements for use by the Press. Of course, being unkind to over-weight people is uncivil and bad manners. One should not even be uncivil to psychologists. However, I think that it would have been better to report the correct conclusion:

People who think that others are prejudiced against them because they are fat don’t lose weight.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Steven Pinker on university standards: Harvard


It would be great if Prof Pinker had decided to reach out to Psychological Comments in order to join our occasional series on university standards, but he has done the next best thing: he has written a heartfelt account of teaching at Harvard, which serves our purpose very well. My thanks to an alert reader for this:


In brief, Pinker is arguing against those who would have university entry be based largely on holistic criteria: general enthusiasm, good works, helping the unfortunate (excluding unfortunate academics), playing sports, and being diverse in some required manner. The latter loophole allows you to encourage or prevent racial and religious groups, and to make special provision for those whose parents have donated large sums.

Pinker makes an admission I find quite shocking: A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam. I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do.

Well, I thought I was the only one. I was highly ranked as a teacher in my medical school, but I assumed that the more-than-slightly-better-known Prof Pinker would command a full lecture hall. Other psychology teachers happily go to talks by Steven Pinker, and read his many books. Why not these brats?

Pinker argues that they are not at lectures because they are following the holistic pursuits that gained them entry: music, drama, sports, dance, comedy. What is to be done with these all-too-well-rounded but thoroughly anti-intellectual, uncultivated , and wilfully untutored minds?

Pinker muses:

If only we had some way to divine the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system. If only we had some way to match jobs with candidates that was not distorted by the halo of prestige. A sample of behavior that could be gathered quickly and cheaply, assessed objectively, and double-checked for its ability to predict the qualities we value….

We do have this magic measuring stick, of course: it’s called standardized testing. []test-based selection used to be the enlightened policy among liberals and progressives, since it can level a hereditary caste system by favoring the poor and smart over the rich and stupid.

So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.

Pinker goes on to show that these claims are wrong: ability and scholastic tests are our best predictors overall, and are little influenced by tuition. Standardized testing would be fairer than Harvard’s messy current system. Students selected on that basis might even have intellectual interests.

How strange that we even have to argue that entry to an academic establishment should be on academic aptitude, when that should be obvious. Stranger too that the inept entry system confers advantages to graduates because employers assume that if they went to Harvard they must have done so on merit, and be bright and well educated.

Finally, if you wondered why people read Steven Pinker, look at these two paragraphs, given early in his essay in reply to the suggestion that, instead of the usual objectives, education should be focussed on the holistic goal of building a self, a unique being, a soul. Pinker reports he doesn’t know how to do that, but suggests:

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

A virtuous prospectus, uncluttered by priests, and within the bounds of the possible. As Burke observed in A Vindication of Natural Society, all happiness is connected with the practice of virtue, which necessarily depends upon the knowledge of truth.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Altruistic Ebola Yo-Yo’s




The British nurse who caught Ebola and had to be flown back to a hospital in London to get treated plans to return to Sierra Leone:

“It's the least I could do to go back and return the favour to some other people, even just for a little while,” Mr Pooley told the Guardian.

“The more help they get the less chance there is they get sick. If they get sick they are just going to end up in a ward in Kenema with less chance than I had."

Usually, I am in favour of people being helpful. It certainly beats breaking into an Ebola treatment centre and stealing the mattresses. However, I feel uncomfortable about Western health workers going to Africa, catching a disease they catch only if they don’t take the necessary precautions, and then being flown out for treatment which is not available to their work colleagues in Africa. They have a “get out of jail” card that other nurses do not, and many have died as a consequence.

Furthermore, if Mr Pooley gets some other disease in Sierra Leone, will he be flown back to London again, and then fling himself back into his own version of helping in Africa? He seems to have a predilection for solo working outside well organised treatment facilities. There seems to be a very strong case for examining his skills at barrier nursing before letting him go anywhere. There is no specific treatment for the average African patient (as opposed to Western health visitor) other than standard nursing, plus precautions for staff. Bluntly, what can he do that an appropriately trained and managed West African nurse cannot do? His treatment costs and plane fares would probably hire lots of local workers, and would also pay for lots of rubber gloves which West African nurses lack, plus unpaid wages.

His nursing task is not a highly technical one, like sequencing the Ebola virus and checking the mutation rate. He will not be designing new drugs of the sort he took himself. He will not be guiding a computer-driven laser into an afflicted patient. All he will be doing is administering standard nursing care and, with any luck, avoiding getting and spreading the disease.

I am perfectly willing to accept European exceptionalism as a general principle derived from five centuries of notable achievement, but in this instance I think Mr Pooley should listen to his mother: she was very relieved when, as part of infection control, his passport was incinerated.

250,000: The allure of round numbers.




For some weeks I have been looking forward to announcing that I had achieved 250,000 readers. Why did I not feel 97.61% of the pride at the point of having 244,013 readers a week ago on the morning of 3 September? This blog is supposed to be a gathering of rational beings: readers who are able to make considered judgments and assess relative positions with numerate nuance and restrained precision. Is Daniel Kahneman right that rationality is an illusion? (No, and I don’t think he said that either.)

Given that this pleasing roundness is achieved some 22 months since the blog began, it would be cleverer to fit an exponential curve to the rise in readership and express the achievement as a mathematical function. Cleverer, but somewhat harder: the page views have had peaks and falls, the former coinciding with much read conference proceedings, the falls with posts on technical matters which interested me, less so my readers.

The allure of rotundity may have a prosaic explanation: when a number achieves a completion point the details of the smaller trailing digits can be set to zero, and the burden on memory is the less. It becomes not a jumble of numbers but a more memorable symbol of something attained, as when stocks go above “the psychologically important 6000 figure”. That same rounding simplifies our own recall of personal events. A UCL team studying sexual behaviour found that most respondents remembered their sexual conquests with precision, which was not a great difficulty for the majority, since the mean number of their lovers ranged from 1 to about 18 with a median of 10. The most sexually active 5% reported their amours in the hundreds, and for those frenetic fornicators the demands of passion on memory meant that they rounded their numbers up to the nearest 10. Incidentally, how can anyone not be interested in individual differences?

Rounding assists understanding, and brings numerical matters into the quasi-spatial domain, with key findings accessible at a glance. I know there are people who take the car out so that the whole family can witness the odometer work its way past the 100,000 mile mark, but I assure you I am not one of them.

Still, 250,000 is a milometer event on the blog journey, or I would not have mentioned it. If every one of you could please invite a colleague to have a look at the blog, and advise two students to comment on one of the posts…….then working together we could boost readership to 500,000 very quickly, an effect which would probably achieve significance at, yes the very round and psychological important barrier of p<.05

Keep reading.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Draw a man, draw a useful conclusion

In what must now seem ancient times, namely the late 1960s, it was still usual to begin psychometric testing by asking the child to do the Goodenough Draw a Man Test. What was good about it was the instruction: “Draw me a picture of a boy. Do the best that you can. Make sure that you draw all of him.” (Girls were asked to draw girls). Kids understood, and took the proffered pencil and paper and got started. Mother and child were relieved to find that there were to be no injections (working in a hospital setting, we had to make that point several times). I would then give a few explanations to the mother, and she would leave in relief, without any distress on the part of the vast majority of the children. It was a settling down task, but had a good, understandable marking system which listed the adequacy of the depiction in conceptual terms, and a total score which tracked child development and provided an intelligence estimate. It was a productive use of time.


Now the South London King’s College gang have found that this task is a good predictor of later intelligence and has a genetic component. Yes, the old tests are the best, and there is nothing wrong, and much right, with the twin control method.

Rosalind Arden (an intelligence researcher, not a Shakespearean character) and colleagues have looked at over 14000 participants in the Twins Early Development Study ,comparing their drawing prowess at 4 years of age with later achievements.
Rosalind Arden, Maciej Trzaskowski, Victoria Garfield and Robert Plomin. Genes Influence Young Children's Human Figure Drawings and Their Association with Intelligence a Decade Later. Psychological Science published online 20 August 2014. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614540686
Drawing is no laughing matter: the cave drawings of Chauvet and Lascaux 40,000 years ago are an early instance of when we humans may have started getting thoughtful, able to depict ourselves in a conceptual world, and consequently becoming a little odd, confused and self-conscious. In a word: Arty. I am convinced that Art Criticism started immediately afterwards, with Art History not far behind. Why such a fuss about putting pictures in chronological order? Anyway, humans became self-conscious.

In Florence Goodenough’s test, a drawing receives 1 point for the presence and correct quantity of each of the following bodily features: head, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, body, arms, legs, hands, and feet. The inter-rater reliability for this test is .93 (Naglieri & Maxwell, 1981). The internal consistency of the test (Cronbach’s α), calculated empirically from our sample, was .79. Published test-retest (1-month) stability coefficients for this test, combined with another test of perceptual performance, were .78 in 3-year-olds and .84 in 5-year-olds (McCarthy, 1972, p. 34).
At ages 4 and 14, the children were administered verbal and nonverbal tests of cognitive ability (Oliver & Plomin, 2007; Spinath, Ronald, Harlaar, Price, &Plomin, 2003). At age 4, these tests comprised a sentence-construction test derived from the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory adapted for the United Kingdom (Fenson, Pethick, & Cox, 1994) and nonverbal tests: an odd-one-out test, a design drawing test, a puzzle test, and 12 items testing conceptual knowledge (taken from the hour-long Parent Report of Children’s Abilities; Price, Eley, Dale, Stevenson, & Saudino, 2000). At age 14, the children were administered (over the Web) 30 items from Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (Raven, Court, & Raven, 1996) and a 27-item vocabulary test from the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (Kaplan, Fein, Kramer, Delis, & Morris, 1999).

Surprisingly, the drawing scores correlated almost as much with g at age 14 as did g at age 4, which was measured from a larger test battery.
Table 1. Zero-Order Phenotypic Correlations Among the Key Measures (N = 7,752 pairs)
Variable                Drawing at 4         g at age 4
g at age 4               .33 [.32, .35]
g at age 14              .20 [.17, .22]        .24 [.21, .27]
Table 2. Heritability of the Key Measures (Estimated From Univariate Models)
Measure                                            Heritability
Drawing at age 4 (n = 14,874)       .29 [.22, .35]
g at age 4 (n = 14,461)                    .29 [.27, .32]
g at age 14 (n = 4,695)                    .50 [.38, .61]
Note: The values in square brackets are 95% confidence intervals.

We found that drawings done by MZ twins were significantly more similar than were drawings done by DZ twins. Finding that a behavior is heritable is no longer news; yet if the data had shown that any siblings’ drawing scores were alike, irrespective of zygosity, we would not have been surprised because it seems so plausible that young same-age siblings would emulate each other’s drawings or be guided by parents (irrespective of zygosity). For that reason, we were intrigued to find that scores for a single drawing were as heritable as was g estimated from several different indicators (verbal and nonverbal tests).
In this large sample, a single picture of a 4-year-old child, drawn in around 5 min, had a significant positive phenotypic association with g measured a decade later, and this correlation was as high as the correlation between g at age 4 and g at age 14. This phenotypic association was caused partly by a genetic correlation between drawing at age 4 and g at age 14.

Our data show that the capacity to realize on paper the salient features of a person, in a schema, is an intelligent behavior at age 4. Performance of this drawing task relies on various cognitive, motoric, perceptual, attentional, and motivational capacities. Our estimated positive phenotypic correlation between drawing and contemporaneous intelligence is consistent with estimates from 40 small studies in which the correlations (rs) ranged from .24 to .83 (Scott, 1981; see Willcock, Imuta, & Hayne, 2011). The correlation we observed is also consistent with a large phenotypic study of 7-year-olds that found, perhaps surprisingly, that figure-drawing scores correlated with arithmetic performance (r = .33, n = 14,522) to about the same extent as they correlated with pattern copying (r = .37, n = 14,545; Shepherd, 2012, p. 21).

There is some evidence in the archaeological record that figurative art is more recent than geometric patterning (Pike et al., 2012). If this is correct, then figurative art may track, to some extent, increasing cognitive ability in the human species. Drawing is an ancient human capacity; 32,000 years before the children in our study sat down to draw, unknown people made surviving drawings of great skill and beauty. These images (see Bradshaw Foundation, 2011, for photographs) are among the oldest examples of a human behavior that continues in the same form today. This long history endows the drawing test with ecological validity and relevance to an extent that is unusual in psychometrics.

Drawing marks called finger flutings, made by dragging fingers across wet clay or on soft cave walls, are the oldest known direct evidence of children’s behavior, aside from footprints. Archaeologists have dated these marks to the Upper Paleolithic and ascribed them to young children on the basis of detailed measurements of the groove widths (Sharpe & Van Gelder, 2006). The longevity of children’s drawing behavior indicates that drawing is a natural part of the human species-typical repertoire. Given that drawing enhances the fine-motor skills that children use in writing (Saida & Miyashita, 1979), it may have contributed to the development of pictograms, and eventually writing.

For all we know, Stone Age children were asked to draw on the walls as a settling down procedure before being given a comprehensive test battery of hunting, tracking, spear throwing and long distance communication skills.

In summary, a simple bit of drawing at age 4, scored in a simple manner, provides a small but significant prediction of intelligence at age 14. Truly, intelligence is like carbon in biology: you find it everywhere.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Ebola: 3069, West African Governments: 0


The best way to test Government promises is to count dead bodies. Governments in West Africa (perhaps in talking of governments I am being too generous) have not covered themselves in glory when purporting to look after their citizens. They neglect to provide their health workers with adequate facilities, and often don’t pay their salaries, and are better at public bombast than local practicalities. In the years before this outbreak they have not put in the health infrastructure that even a poor country like Cuba was able to do five decades ago, though Cuba was better off to begin with, and has risen since. They have not managed their economies with sufficient foresight to have plans in place for a disease which has been known since 1976 and which has mutated very little over that period. They don’t appear to have been able to teach their citizens about disease control. Black citizens in Cuba are doing better than black citizens in West Africa, even though several of those countries have had black leadership since 1792 and full independence since 1961. These governments do not appear to behave intelligently and altruistically. The leaders may simply be dull.

A new paper by Rindermann, Kodila-Tedika, and Christainsen shows the relationship between governance and intelligence:


Good governance is a critical factor for the wealth of nations insofar as it shapes political and economic institutions and affects overall economic performance. The quality of governance, in turn, depends on the attributes of the people involved. In an analysis based on international data, government effectiveness was related to the cognitive human capital of the society as a whole, of the intellectual class, and of leading politicians. The importance of cognitive capital was reflected in the rate of innovation, the degree of economic freedom, and country competitiveness, all of which were found to have an impact on the level of productivity (GDP per capita) and wealth (per adult). Correlation, regression, and path analyses involving N=98 to 201 countries showed that government effectiveness had a very strong impact on productivity and wealth (total standardized effects of beta=.56-.68). The intellectual class’s cognitive competence, seen as background factor and indicated by scores for the top 5 percent of the population on PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, also had a strong impact (beta=.50-.54). Cross-lagged panel designs were used to establish causal directions, including backward effects from economic freedom and wealth on governance. The use of further controls showed no independent impacts on per capita wealth coming from geographical variables or natural resource rents.

The citizens of West Africa may be right to doubt every word their Governments say, but in doubting the means of transmission of Ebola they are not behaving intelligently themselves. Currently, West Africa is behaving in line with the predictions of those much maligned measures, intelligence tests. Governments and populace alike are making a mess of their response to an infectious disease, a threat which usually tests the ability and morality of a society:

Prof Peter Piot, who found the virus in 1976 said on 29 August: "We have a situation where Ebola finds an enormously fertile ground in very poor countries with very dysfunctional health systems."

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gave a lengthy press conference immediately after returning to the US (2nd September) from a visit to the Ebola zone. The whole transcript is on this page, and it is worth a read, but here are some highlights:

“Despite tremendous efforts from the U.S.  Government, from CDC, from within countries, the number of cases continues to increase and is now increasing rapidly. I’m afraid over the next few weeks those numbers are likely to increase further and significantly.  There is a window of opportunity to tamp this down, but that window is closing. We need action now to scale up the response. We know how to stop Ebola. The challenge is to scale it up to the massive levels needed to stop this outbreak.”

“The number of cases is increasing so quickly that for every day’s delay, it becomes that much harder to stop it. There are three key things that we need. The first is more resources.  This is going to take a lot to confront. The second are technical experts in health care and management to help in country. And the third is a global coordinated unified approach because this is not just a program for … West Africa, it’s not just a problem for Africa, it’s a problem for the world and the world needs to respond.”

“In some ways the most upsetting thing I saw is what I didn’t see.  I didn’t see enough beds for treatment.  So in one facility which had just opened with 35 beds, there were 63 patients, many of them lying on the ground.  I didn’t see data coming in from large parts of the country where Ebola might be spreading.  I didn’t see the kind of rapid response team that’s needed to stop a single cluster from becoming a large outbreak.  I didn’t see the kind of efficient management systems and support and transport and jeeps that are essential for a rapid and effective response.”

“Everything I’ve seen suggests over the next few weeks it’s likely to get worse.  We’re likely to see significant increases in cases.  Already we have widespread transmission in Liberia.  In Sierra Leone, we are seeing strong signs that that will happen in the near future.”

“There’s a real risk to the stability and security of societies as governments are increasingly challenged to not only control Ebola but provide basic health services, security services, and keep the government running, the stability of these countries, of their economies, of their neighbors and of others is increasingly at risk.”

“There is a theoretical risk that may be very low: we simply don’t know that Ebola could become easier to spread through genetic mutation.  That risk may be very low, but it’s probably not zero.  The longer it spreads, the higher the risk.”

“In theory it’s not hard to stop Ebola.  We know what to do.  Find patients quickly.  Isolate them effectively and promptly.  Treat them.  Make sure their contacts are traced and tracked for 21 days, if they develop fever, do the same thing and make sure they’re tested and treated.  Make sure health care is safe and that burial practices are safe.  The challenge is not those efforts, it’s doing them consistently at the scale that we need.”

“One of the most experienced Ebola experts in the world was there on one of my site visits, his comment to me summed up my visit.  What has worked to stop every Ebola outbreak until now will work here if we can get it to scale.”

“The window of opportunity really is closing. I could not possibly overstate the need for an urgent response.”

To make the most of the window of opportunity the governments of West Africa should be giving all of their citizens the following advice:

1 Wash your hands with soap and water as often as possible;

2 Air dry your hands rather than use a towel;

3 Don’t shake hands;

4 Don’t touch someone suspected of having Ebola, not even a family member;

5 Get medical help for suspected Ebola patients and afterwards burn their clothes, sheets and mattresses;

6 Do not touch the body of someone who has died of Ebola, not even as part of a respectful burial ritual; bury the body deep in the ground.

7 Above all, no bushmeat: don’t eat or even touch bats, monkeys and chimpanzees.

None of this is very complicated, and getting these things right should help with the control of all infectious diseases.

How do we deal with governments? If you know someone with contacts in West African governments, see if you can get them to take in and implement the following requirements:

1 Find patients quickly. 

2 Isolate them effectively and promptly. 

3 Treat them. 

4 Make sure their contacts are traced and tracked for 21 days.

5 If those contacts develop fever, do steps 2 and 3 with them. 

6 Make sure health care is safe and that burial practices are safe. 

Finally, a note about heroic doctors and nurses who have died of Ebola. Dead doctors help no patients. Medecins Sans Frontiers has not lost any doctors. There is absolutely no point sending doctors or nurses to work in circumstances where they are exhausted, under-staffed, and under-resourced. There is no point in extremely altruistic medical volunteers going to work in settings where they will eventually fail to follow barrier protocols and become ill themselves. They are not helping, particularly when they have to be specially air lifted back to the West to be treated. Catching something you don’t have to catch if you take basic precautions is not heroic. It is not intelligent either.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The United States of Mexico

Have the lower classes been at it again, breeding like rabbits, to the detriment of the gene pool? Have the upper classes, far from defending their own fold, been inviting in hordes of lower class foreigners, to breed like even more fecund rabbits, thus lowering the gene pool even further, and in the process undercutting the wages of their local proletariat, to the benefit of the rentier class? According to Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, and Kentaro Yamamoto, and Andrew Sum something of that sort may be happening in the USA, that Western outpost of Europe set up by English non-conformists and free thinkers. The authors have written a policy report for the Education Testing Service with the uplifting title America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future.


The three forces they identify are: race gaps in educational achievement; the high premium paid to the well-educated; and immigration.

The policy paper is well written, clear, and cautious in what it says, despite the dramatic title. Their language is absolutely nothing like my introduction to their paper, because in line with contemporary sensibilities it is written in a vacuum as regards intelligence and educability. For example, they describe the three threats as: divergent skill distributions, the changing economy, and demographic trends. However, when you look at their data they are talking about intelligence and racial differences, the premium on intelligence, and the inflow of Mexicans to the USA. Stripped of circumlocution, they are perturbed by African Americans and Mexicans who are going to create problems which are difficult to solve by conventional means. Nonetheless, they say the accepted right things, which is that steps must be taken to make the convoy of different ability tribes stick together. Far from being a total melting pot, Americans tend to spread out a bit, putting some distance between disparate groups, something the wide expanse of the continent facilitates.

Here are the author’s words, drawn from different sections of their report:

Given our country’s growing demographic diversity, [we could] imagine our nation as a convoy. Some of the boats are large, well built, and able to ride out the heaviest of seas. Others are somewhat smaller, less well-equipped, but still quite sturdy. But many are fragile, meagerly equipped, and easily swamped in rough waters. That convoy — the individuals, families and communities that make up our nation — is in the midst of a “perfect storm,” the result of the confluence of three powerful sets of forces: divergent skill distributions, a changing economy, and demographic trends.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that between 1984 and 2004 reading scores among 13- and 17-year-olds remained flat, and the achievement gaps were large and relatively stable. For mathematics the story is only slightly different. While the mean scores for both the nation’s 13- and 17-year-olds improved slightly, they did so across all groups, with the result that the average size of the Black-White and Hispanic-White achievement gaps remained large and relatively stable.

Comment: Heiner Rindermann and I had a look at these scores, and found that although scores did improve in the early 80s (for no very clear reason) the differences between Hispanics/African Americas and Whites/Asians remains large.


National surveys of our adult population indicate that large numbers of our nation’s adults, 16 years of age and older, do not demonstrate sufficient literacy and numeracy skills needed to fully participate in an increasingly competitive work environment. These skills are also needed to function effectively in our complex society, with its large bureaucratic institutions and its complex legal, health care, and retirement systems.

• More importantly, these skills are not evenly distributed across groups defined by race/ethnicity, country of birth, and socioeconomic status. In fact, there are substantial differences in average proficiencies among these groups that influence their social, educational, and economic opportunities.

• International surveys of student and adult populations indicate that while our average performance is no better than mediocre, our degree of inequality (the gap between our best and least proficient) is among the highest in OECD countries.

The second force comprises the seismic changes in our economy that have resulted in new sources of wealth, novel patterns of international trade, and a shift in the balance between capital and labor. These changes have been driven by both technological innovation and globalization, resulting in a profound restructuring of the U.S. workplace. Indeed, the labor markets of today are markedly different from those of earlier decades. For example:

• In 1950, manufacturing’s share of total employment in the United States was 33.1 percent. By 1989, it was down to 18.2 percent and, by 2003, it was 10.7 percent.

• Between 1984 and 2000 the number of employed persons 16 years of age and older grew by 29 percent, or some 30 million. At the same time, employment in jobs associated with college-level education grew by some 20 million, accounting for two-thirds of the job growth.

• The country’s employment growth is expected to continue through the rest of this decade and into the next, with college labor market clusters (professional, management, technical, and high level sales) expected to generate about 46 percent of all job growth between 2004 and 2014.

Fuelled both by higher birth rates and by immigration, the Hispanic share of the population is expected to grow from 14 percent in 2005 to slightly more than 20 percent by 2030.

In 2004, nearly 57 percent of the 16- to 64-year-old Hispanic population in the United States was foreign-born, up from 46 percent in 1990. More than half of these immigrant Hispanics lacked a high school diploma.

• The lack of a high school diploma by such a large proportion of Hispanic immigrants is of concern given the fact that almost 80 percent of immigrants who have not earned a high school diploma report not speaking English well or at all.

Comment: Mexicans are unlikely to bound ahead scholastically if the last 6 generations are any guide to the future. Greg Cochran has an interesting post on this, with a long term sample which at least measures college level qualifications. This is in line with other findings on Hispanic progress.


The authors show the result for “literacy”, for which the better description would probably be everyday intellectual ability. Levels 4 and 5 have been merged because of their rarity, but the white figures trace the familiar bell curve even on four categories.


Those in the 4/5 high ability level: White 17%, Asian 9%, Black 3%, Hispanic 3% give you a relative indication of what proportion of each race will flourish in the global economy. If you want to be gloomy, look at those in the low 1 and 2 categories, which are those who will flounder in any modern economy: Hispanic 82%, Black 77%, Asians 61%. (Asian scores seem a bit low in this survey).

Having shown these results, the authors then forget about them, and in Tables 1 and 2 talk about the relatively low standing of the US compared with other nations on the PISA scores. This is all very well at the national level. However, the racial breakdown of those scores shows that White kids are doing pretty well: the national scores are dragged down by Blacks and Hispanics.

The authors then project what the figures might be like in 2030 if current trends continue. That is a big “if”, but illustrative nonetheless.


There will be significant losses of ability at the higher levels. The US will become dumber.


Figure 5 shows the figures for out of wedlock births, often seen as a proxy for absent fathers. The economist Thomas Sowell point out that these figures were much lower for Black families decades ago. However, the current picture is unlikely to boost scholastic

I am in sympathy with the points that the authors have made, and agree that they are raising important issues. I also think that this paper has been written in hostage language. The captive is led before the cameras and with unconvincing passions sings the praises of his captors, praises their humane treatment, heaps criticism on unrelated parties, usually focussing on his home government, and then get decapitated. He cannot talk straight because he fears, quite rightly, the horrors which threaten him.

These authors know full well that the educational system is not going to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat. That hope was a bit of a stretch even in the early 70s when funding for compensatory education increased significantly. The 80’s showed some improvements, for unclear reasons, but after that very little gains were made. It seems that such low hanging fruit as was available has been picked already. Education cannot compensate for differences in ability. Rather as a hostage blinks out the Morse code message “Help Me” the authors are begging for change (and I think they don’t mean cunning new ways of getting rap artists to teach English Literature).

Unless we are willing to make substantial changes, the next generation of Americans, on average, will be less literate and have a harder time sustaining existing standards of living.

These are stirring words, but the authors do not spell out the substantial changes which would be required. These might include screening would-be immigrants for educational achievements and intellectual abilities. They might include giving up racially-based compensatory education policies and putting those funds into the general education budget, with the stipulation that the amount of public money spent on each child should be roughly the same. They might include strengthening the examination systems to ensure absolute rigour, and entry to college based on common, exam-based criteria. Perhaps some of you can provide some more detailed policy suggestions.


I seem to remember that in 2013 some guy said that Hispanics were not achieving the scholastic standards of white Americans, and was drummed out of his job.


As far as I can see, these three authors are raising the same issue, but have wisely, for their own preservation, done so using “demographic diversity” as a code for race, and “literacy” as a code for intelligence. I hope they will not be incommoded by the uncouth rabble.

Can a society which cannot bring itself to mention intelligence continue to be an intelligent society?