Thursday, December 12, 2013

Five Warning Signs That You Will Soon Die


These days you constantly hear people worried about closing "gaps" in educational outcomes, and it's not surprising that all the schemes for closing the gaps involve taking resources away from kids who are doing well and giving them to kids who aren't doing well.

It has to be that way, because if the same education were offered to everyone, it is fairly obvious this would increase inequality, not decrease it. Present the same material to smart people and dumb people, and the smart people are going to get smarter, while the dumb people might get a little smarter or they might, through confusion and misapprehension, actually get a little dumber. There might be a big gap between the top student and bottom student in a high school class, but send both of them to MIT for four years and the gap is going to get exponentially bigger. And it's not confined to academic knowledge. Someone tried to teach me how to lay up composites once, and the sole result was that we both ended up angry.

Was this movie a work of fiction?

This is why the Internet, contrary to the conventional wisdom, is increasing inequality. When colleges make their courses available for free online, this gives a huge advantage to the tiny slice of people who are already smart enough to benefit, and leaves everyone else back at the starting line. People think that tiny slice includes a lot of people who would otherwise continue in ignorance. I doubt it. I think the tiny slice is mostly made up of people who would eventually find the knowledge somehow (they're smart, remember), and the online courses just make it easier for them.

I just visited a middle-of-the-road website, time.com. Putting aside the question of whether the left-hand side of the bell curve would even go there, as opposed to, say, tmz.com, let's look at what's on the site and how different people might react to it. It's a very big page, so it's easy to find stuff meant to mislead. "Science Confirms James Bond is an Alcoholic" - dumb person learns that scientists have the ability to diagnose fictional characters. "1 in 14 Americans Faced Identity Theft Last Year" - dumb person learns 1 in 14 Americans had their identities stolen last year. "Baseball is About to Get Even More Boring" - easily bored person learns that most people think baseball is boring. "SNL to Add Black Female Cast Member" - dumb person learns that this is a first. Our dim friend loses interest and goes on over to the Huffington Post, where he clicks on an ad to find the seven warning signs that cancer is growing in his body and the ten things he must never do after age 50.  Is he smarter or dumber for the experience?

If a certain educational system made dumb people twice as smart, but smart people ten times as smart, I would consider that to be a good system for us all. But some people of course wouldn't. It's a political question.

Of course, you and I don't need to worry about this, because we're clearly smart enough to only take in information that will continue to make us smarter, and to avoid information that will make us dumber, right? And we can be sure of this because...we're smart enough to know, uh...help me out here...

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