A hopeful note on ability distributions

I read recently (my apologies, I can’t find the link) that in every country where we have reliable testing data, a consistent pattern emerges: girls tend to do slightly better on reading/writing tasks than mathematical tasks, and boys slightly better on mathematical than language-tasks.

This is an interesting dynamic because it creates different “optimal” outcomes depending on what you are trying to optimize for. 

If you optimize for individual achievement–that is, get each student to go into the field where they, personally, can do the best–the vast majority of girls will go into language-related fields and the vast majority of boys will go into math-based fields. This leaves us with a strongly gender-divided workforce.

But if we optimize instead for getting talented people into a particular field, the gender divide would be narrower. Most smart students are good at both math and language, and could excel in either domain. You could easily have a case where the best mathematician in a class is even more talented in language, or where the most verbally talented person is even more talented at mathematical tasks (but not both at once).

If we let people chose the careers that best suit them, some fields may end up sub-optimally filled because talented people go elsewhere. If we push people into particular fields, some people will end up sub-optimally employed, because they could have done a better job elsewhere.

Relatedly, we find that people show more gendered job preferences in developed countries, and less gendered preferences in undeveloped countries. In Norway, women show a pretty strong preference, on average, for careers involving people or language skills, while in the third world, they show a stronger preference for “masculine” jobs involving math, science, or technical skills. This finding is potentially explained by different countries offering different job opportunities. In Norway, there are lots of cushy jobs, and people feel comfortable pursuing whatever makes them happy or they’re good at. In the third world, technical skills are valued and thus these jobs pay well and people strive to get them.

People often ascribe the gender balance in different jobs to nefarious social forces (ie, sexism,) but it is possible that they are an entirely mundane side effect of people just having the wealth and opportunity to pursue careers in the things they are best at.



The Candy Crush Career Track

Candy Crush, Bejeweled, Farmville, and many other games are exceedingly dumb ways to pass your time–and yet, chances are you’ve played some version of them anyway. People have, collectively, spent millions of potentially-productive hours on such games. Even more amazingly, people have spent millions of dollars in actual money on these games.

These games work because they’re addictive. Click the screen a few times, and corn appears! Wow! So you click the screen again, hoping more corn will appear. But as you “progress” through the game, each level becomes harder, takes longer, or requires more clicks. Next thing you know, you’re pulling out your phone at family functions to check on your fake corn instead of socializing with your cousins, or getting mugged on the subway because you were too busy swiping candies to pay attention to your surroundings.

Our career tracks have become far too similar.

I had the luck to catch up with a friend recently during a rare moment of down time. Way back in highschool, she decided to dedicate her life to one of those careers that shows a true commitment to helping others. Her adulthood, so far: 4 years of college; 4 years of grad school; 4 years of training; 2 years in a specialization program. By the time she has any hope of even being geographically settled instead of moving every few years, assuming she can get a job that will let her settle, she’ll be in her mid to late 30s. By the time she’s paid off her education debt, she’ll be in her 50s. Whether she wants kids or not, the question is practically moot.

It’s like the Farmville of real life, only instead of crops, you harvest degrees and grants and papers and fellowships.

Why pursue such a track? Yes, obviously, because she’s passionately committed to helping others, which is what she does. But also because our system requires and rewards such behavior.

There is absolutely no damn reason a JD or MD requires 4 years of college in addition to the programs themselves. There is no damn reason not to expedite a new doctor or lawyer or scientist or pretty much anyone else’s path to geographic and income stability.

When we ask why smart people don’t have more children, a big reason is that smart people are up to their eyeballs in debt, working 12 (or 24!) hour days, and constantly moving in hopes of finally getting enough points on their resumes to score a permanent job.

Fuck, people struggle just to get volunteer jobs.

Meanwhile, compare our friend to an Amish farmer. The work is hard. Back-breaking, sweaty, sometimes disgusting. If you’re unlucky, you could get trampled by a cow or something.

But there are no degrees. You don’t have to go to school to learn how to milk a cow and plow a field; your parents taught you that. There’s very little in the way of career advancement. You’ve been doing farm labor since you were four or so, and you’re likely to continue doing it until you die. You know you’ll probably have a job next year, how much money your crops will bring in, and if you need a new barn, your family will probably pitch in and help you out.

And the Amish have a lot of children. According to the Wikipedia, there were 5,000 Amish in 1920, and there were 290,000 Amish in 2014–and that’s not counting all of the ex-Amish who’ve left the faith over the years.

The same is true for people who aren’t Amish, but who face similarly limited career opportunities. If you can’t advance, you focus your energies elsewhere. If your phone dies because you forgot to charge it, you might be forced to actually interact with the people around you or read a goddamn book for a change.

I like having doctors. I like scientists. I can even stomach the thought of having some lawyers for certain purposes, like helping people fill out their wills. But we have to expedite the process.