Saturday 9 July 2016

The Economist is economical about intelligence


The Economist is not a reliable guide to human ability. It believes in homo-economicus: all-purpose, equipotential beings without inherent differences, any such adventitious peculiarities to be smoothed away by compensatory education and the amelioration of unfavourable circumstances.

Very occasionally, like a maiden aunt reluctantly acknowledging the existence of sexual arousal, they refer to genetic differences, but soon revert to their standard mantra: with more education, earlier education, and more flexible education those nasty gaps between one person and another, and one group and another, can be washed away. Perhaps so.

As part of a holiday ritual I buy The Economist to take to the beach and find out if it has improved. The issue of June 25th looked promising, in that it had a special report on artificial intelligence, in which they said that the intelligent response to the dislocation caused by this development would be “making education and training flexible enough to teach new skills quickly and efficiently”. Quite so. They should have added “but the intelligent will always learn more quickly and will generalise their learning more widely, and to greater advantage”. Learning speed is correlated with general ability. The US armed forces have all the data, and Linda Gottfredson has dug it up. The Wonderlic data also show that training a person in one simple task in one ability domain does not generalise to improved ability in simple tasks in other ability domains. A task is learned, but the individual is no brighter or faster at learning the next task.

They also champion social skills, which they say will be particularly required when robots strip out many humdrum jobs from the economy. However, social skills and character are largely personality characteristics which are heritable, and not easy to alter. (Heritability estimates for personality variable may be lessened by the poor reliability of self-assessed personality, so the use of better tests may show even higher heritability than the current 40% or so). Some social skills can be trained, and this is currently very popular, because it is cast as “emotional intelligence” and everyone likes being intelligent in some way. Moving in a mysterious way, for example.

Measures of emotional intelligence turn out to contribute little to job success and response to training. Hunter and Schmidt.

Being one standard deviation above the norm leads to 60% higher wages. These are OECD results, though they make absolutely no mention of intelligence.


The special report on artificial intelligence is worth reading. They point out that advances in technology usually create new jobs of different sorts, usually more complicated and demanding service jobs. Most people keep busy and are in work. The authors don’t mention that the current elite belief that mass immigration is required to provide low skilled workers does not sit well with the promises of artificial intelligence: governments seem to be hell-bent on bringing in people to do jobs which , if the advances of artificial intelligence are to be believed, shortly will not exist.

Although the report is interesting, one needs to fill in the empty spaces. It shows US employment by type of work (US Population Survey, Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis). The graph shows that the greatest increase since 1983 is in “non-routine cognitive” jobs, with routine cognitive and manual jobs stagnant, and even non-routine manual jobs increasing. They fail to point out that routine jobs are for those who need training on every step of a simple job, and that these people find departure from routine challenging, because those non-routine problems require higher ability. “Non-routine” jobs are where brighter people flourish because they do not need to be trained on each step of a task, but can grasp the general principles. This is increasingly the case at IQ 115 and above.

It is findings of this sort which make me question the predictions of Frey and Osborne (2013) as to which jobs are at risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence. They list many complicated non-routine jobs as being at risk: typists, technical writers, and accountants and auditors. Typists have already been reduced in number, but highly paid busy people still employ them, because on Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage it is worth while for a highly skilled, highly paid individual to employ one so as to free up their own time. In this way digital secretaries can proliferate in Scottish islands while executives fret in central London: these assistants are not strictly necessary but very useful. Equally, global job clearance centres (oDesk and others) can provide people to spruce up websites, enter data, draw graphs and generally tidy up stuff so that higher paid workers can get on with their higher paid enterprises. Will auditors become redundant? Seems unlikely. More likely that they will extend the scope of the feedback they give their clients. We shall see.

By the way, self driving vehicles, all the rage at the moment, may turn out to be something of a waste of time, except perhaps in slow moving traffic jams. Incidentally, such jams might be better dealt with by road pricing systems: charge by the minute rather than the mile and road users will stagger their journeys or use satnavs and local knowledge to work round traffic jams.

The main point is that driving is too easy. Most people can do it. The better thing would be to automate motor maintenance and repair. Drivers are cheap, mechanics expensive.

Further into the magazine another story caught my eye. “A running start: Poor children fall behind early in life. Better pre-school education could help”. This notes with dismay that “By the time pupils begin primary school, there is a huge gap in achievement between rich and poor”. It further notes that the plus one standard deviation between 10th and 90th income percentiles in school achievement has barely diminished by age 18, equivalent to several extra years of secondary schooling. How to explain this? Perhaps brighter parents earn more and have brighter children, with some drift downwards because of regression to the mean. Perhaps duller parents earn less and have duller children, with some drift upwards because of regression to the mean. This obvious genetic hypothesis is not mentioned. Instead (brace yourself) poor parents don’t talk to their children, because of poverty. “By the age of 6 children of wealthy parents have spent as much as 1,300 more hours in enriching activities than those of poorer families.”

How to test this, avoiding the blindly obvious confounder that the bright and wealthy parents are bringing up their own genetically brighter children? How about something more powerful than necessarily part-time pre-school activities? How about full time adoption?



The article then goes into the Perry Pre-school project and a few selected Head Start programs. I sympathise. I could have written such an article 4 years ago, based on my favourite examples of early pre-school intervention, until I knew better.  The general drift of the findings on pre-school intervention is disappointing. Interventions do not have lasting large effects on intelligence, and the welcome general beneficial effects are not often found, apart from the frequently mentioned star projects, which turn out to be outliers. Andrew Sabisky found the paper and the link is below:

Although the trend shows little effect, the outliers need further investigation. Ramey, talking at the ISIR conference in San Antonio, said that they reason he got results with the Abecedarian project whilst others did not, is that he made his teachers understand that if they didn’t get results they would not have a job. They followed protocols carefully, was his argument. He is running replication studies, this time with a full genome on each child, so we should have better results say 25 years from now.

There is nothing malign in offering compensatory education to young children, just significant doubt that it is effective and can be scaled up across entire education systems to smooth away real individual differences.

The Economist has massive reach among influential people in the world’s economies. The magazine, popular as it is with readers wanting to understand the ways that economies work,  is resolutely behind the curve of contemporary research on human ability. One day The Economist may commission articles from people who know something about intelligence, education and genetics. For example, Ian Deary, Robert Plomin, Stuart Ritchie, and Tim Bates for a start. Until then, blogs like this one will be bringing the most recent findings to a small but highly select group: my dear readers. If your friends sometimes read The Economist, can you direct them to this post, in the hope that they can avoid the torrent of misunderstanding purveyed by the mainstream received wisdom? It would be a small mercy.

The Economist is confused about human beings, but if we are to accept their shaky presumptions about the power of pre-school education, then even journalists can be educated, if they can be caught young.


  1. good luck with the Econ. It's down the drain. Was it ever any good?

    1. I gave up reading the Econ decades ago. I wearied of its account of itself as always being right.

  2. Great piece. The Economist has long been just another promoter of the multiculturalist narrative for decades--Walter Bagehot is spinning in his grave...

  3. You are probably wrong about self-driving cars.

    1. Agree with you

    2. Last week I test drove a car which has a self-driving option. The salesman said the option was not worth it. Too early to tell whether it will prove popular.

  4. Agree with the other commenters about self driving cars.
    If they are completely autonomous we will see massive changes both car design, car ownership and even city design.
    The lilkely endpoint to me looks like the end of private vehicle ownership replaced by subscription to transport as a service where (for example) Uber has a fleet of autonomous Google cars of various configurations.
    The big advantages for the transport system will come from right sizing the fleet to match demand, and the much greater utilization of individual vehicles. Currently vehicles are purchased with the maximum capacity and performance the user could anticipate, meaning that most vehicles are grossly oversized and over specified for their core task of single person commuting.
    When frequency of crashes are reduced sufficiently, and traffic flows are smoothed by more precise acceleration and braking, the much of the mass and power can be removed.
    It has been estimated that a simple lower powered autonomous 2-4 seat vehicle could be produced for as little as $US 5,000. With transport as a service vehicle utilisation would far exceed current averages, so overall transport cost should be vastly reduced from current levels.
    Other obvious implications for driverless cars include the renaissance of the bicycle as safety increases due to roads become populated with lower mass and more reliable drivers.

    1. Most truck driving jobs will disappear. They won't all go overnight, of course. First, the trucks will do the distance driving on their own but people will take over for city driving and do the onloading/offloading of goods at factories and shops.

      People won't keep those jobs, though. The trucks will get better at driving and robots will end up doing the onloading/offloading.

      Robots will also do much of the manual work involved in moving stuff up and down stairs, ladders, etc.

      This is only the beginning:


      Btw. Rodney Brooks' papers are *really* worth a read! Start with "Fast, Cheap and out of Control":


      Also worth looking at: the amazing progress of self-driving cars over the last 12 years.

      There are plenty of videos on the internet of talks given by the top teams of the early Grand Challenges and they are well worth one's time if one wants to see what our robotic future is going to be like.


      And of course there's this:

      Motor repair is going away, too, due to both higher quality for combustion engines and the coming switch to electric motors.

  5. Do you think there is anything to emotional intelligence? I seem to remember reading a paper suggesting all of its explanatory power was actually explained by one of the Big Five personality traits. Also there have been reviews for pre-kindergarten projects which found it had a negative impact (especially for children from less well off backgrounds)

  6. Emotional intelligence & affective/cognitive empathy, what is the difference**

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