PSAT clumping

My middle boy, Roddy, he of mampire fame,  got his PSAT score.   230 (out of 240): not bad at all. He will be a NMSQT finalist, as long as he doesn’t burn down the school.  Which is a good thing: it might help pay for college.    I  was talking to the widow next door and told her this.  In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that his older sister was also a finalist, like me, my wife, my brother, my wife’s sister, and my wife’s brother.  My younger sister was only commended – but then she was class valedictorian, unlike me.  But like my mother, my brother,  my daughter,  and Roddy (probably).  My oldest boy is dyslexic and has fantastic trouble spelling, but he still managed a Regent’s scholarship at the State U.

She said, “What’s your secret?”

And, as we all know it has to be something environmental.  Has to be.   Should I spill the beans?  I dunno – consider what happened to Cyprus in Brave New World.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to PSAT clumping

  1. winestock says:

    You are so modest.

    Of course, you’re a physicist, so I shouldn’t expect any better.

    • gcochran says:

      According to the standard and only acceptable model, I must possess a valuable secret. Are you some kind of heretic?

      • winestock says:

        My own opinions diverge from the prevailing consensus on a number of points. For all that I know, they may even diverge from a few of your opinions, as well. I’d rather keep them to myself until I can nail down every step of the proofs.

        The point behind my second sentence was a hunch that I’ve had since my university days. Physicists seem to be a more… uh, *self-confident* bunch than mathematicians.

      • Lydgate says:

        I agree — there is something off-putting about physicists’ assumed superiority, although it is somewhat warranted, I suppose. Reading infoproc and this blog, I frequently wonder if all that quantitative talent could be better allocated to biology.

        For fun, another data point: my father was a anthropology major, and my mother a creative writing major. I got a 2400/36, and I think around a ~235 on the PSAT. I never took USAMO, AMC, etc. though and I did not earn a STEM degree.

    • harpend says:

      I don’t think Greg is being immodest, because he realizes that he has no influence on or responsibility for the outcomes that he describes. One can’t be rationally proud of one’s DNA.

      • erica says:

        “One can’t be rationally proud of one’s DNA.”

        Most people understand that smarts and physical abilities run in a family. You learn that when you’re a kid, noticing the ways in which you’re like your mother, father, brothers, sisters, even some uncles and aunts, and noticing the ways you differ from these family members too. Kids never stop telling teachers things like, “I’m pretty smart in math just like my dad, but I have no ability to draw or paint like my mom. My older brother inherited *that* from her.”

        I suspect the neighbor is like most people, that she understands intelligence runs in the Cochran family, but I’ll bet she didn’t think it polite to say, “Lucky for your kid that he inherited smarts, and lucky for you that you got ’em from your parents.” People believe when you tell them that they’ve been “lucky” that you are being disrespectful of their work ethic or success. My guess is that she feels as you do, that “one can’t be rationally proud of one’s DNA” so she mechanically gave what she felt was a compliment in spite of knowing there’s no “secret.”

        She could have given a valid compliment, though, one like, “Good for you and lucky for your kids a smart woman agreed to marry you, Cochran.” 🙂

        Then again, I don’t know the neighbor….so, I could be wrong.

      • gcochran9 says:

        I had to feed them – doesn’t that count for something?

        • Steve says:

          You also taught them to speak English. They wouldn’t have got very far on the PSAT without any comprehension of language. You also kept them safe and taught them to keep themselves safe. You have to be alive to take the PSAT. Somebody had to do it and you were the man for the job. Go West Hunter.

          I don’t think behavioural genetics denigrates parenting. A female cheetah feeds her cubs, protects them, shows them how to get food and what dangers to avoid- that’s really important and what more could she really hope to do? If anything, behavioural genetics just allows you to relax and be a less neurotic parent.

      • gcochran9 says:

        There’s a lot to be said for irrational pride, you know.

      • winestock says:

        I was being cheeky. I tried to put a closing snark tag after the first sentence, but WordPress stripped it.

        A definition of humility that I read years ago was “the realization that one does not have anything which one has not received.”

      • jb says:

        People are always saying that is irrational to be proud of things that aren’t actually accomplishments, and over which one has no influence — for example one’s intelligence, one’s race, the social class one was born into, and so on. But pride is an emotion, which means that it is what it is, and isn’t subject to rules about what we think it ought to be. The pride a person might feel for being big and strong — even though he was born that way — comes from exactly the same place inside as the pride he might feel for an accomplishment like planning and building a house. I frankly don’t see anything wrong with that! (Although if I was looking to hire the guy seeing a couple of completed houses would certainly help his case).

  2. observer says:

    Your mention of dyslexia and your comment on mathematicians in the previous entry led me to wonder what you think about ‘specific’ intelligence deficits–for instance, von Neumann apparently had trouble remembering faces and driving. Is it plausible to think that some people, e.g. great mathematicians, have not only a higher quantity of intelligence than other generally smart people, but that that, given a set quantity of intelligence, they have more strongly localized it in a specific domain? Or do you see von Neumann’s defects as just strong examples of the Ashekenazi visual/spatial deficit?

    In other words, one can imagine two mechanisms whereby intelligence in a domain such as mathematics could be increased: either by increasing the total number of neurons grown, or by redirecting neurons that were previously allocated elsewhere, or both of these at once. Now, if these are both plausible mechanisms, then strong selection for a particular kind of intelligence would likely involve, in the short run at least, the weakening of another kind, because both absolute increase and ‘redirection’ would be under positive selection.

    • dearieme says:

      Contrast Newton and Einstein. Newton was the greatest theoretical physicist, a top class experimental physicist and a top class mathematician. He was also put in charge of the Royal Mint and, by all accounts, did a fine job. Einstein was solely a theoretical physicist, doing no experiments (I think) and being modest about his mathematical abilities, but still contrived to be the second best theoretical physicist ever.
      So the lesson is, people differ: Newton had many talents, Einstein one.Though I suppose I could add that Einstein seems to have been able to ingratiate himself with people in a way Newton couldn’t. And although Newton was a difficult so-and-so, I don’t know that he ever behaved towards his family in the odious way Einstein is said to have done. But then Newton didn’t have wives and children to abuse.

  3. Der Alte says:

    My brat got a 240.
    He was a USAMO winner, but the people in his high school didn’t know what to make of that, so they’re more impressed by the 240 PSAT.

    • aisaac says:

      I just looked at the numbers it takes to become a semifinalist/finalist and it looks like they’ve gone up since I took the PSAT around 20 years ago – I seem to recall that we had a few semifinalists in my class who scored under 200 but that doesn’t appear to cut it anymore. Did kids get better at gaming the test, or did they grade inflate it, or what?

      • aisaac says:

        That explains it. Greater competition at the top end from Asiatic hordes. I don’t think I would make it as a Semifinalist these days (I would have been a finalist but I burnt down the school). Better start saving money for my kids’ college tuition after all.

      • Der Alte says:

        I was also a semifinalist, not a finalist.
        I didn’t burn down the school, but maybe they found a skeleton in my closet.

        I have some familiarity with these top Asian kids. Their parents mostly came here as STEM graduate students, and to do that they generally had to be some of the smartest and most diligent students from countries with lots of smart diligent students. The kids at MathCounts nationals are also incredibly smart and incredibly diligent, though there is tremendous variation from state to state among the 57 “states”. (The kids on the Puerto Rico team (4 on a team) would not make the top 100 in California.) And most of the top Asian kids have tiger mothers. One tiger mother I know sold her home and moved to the school district with the state’s best MathCounts coach after her son showed some math talent. It worked, too. Her son made the top 12 twice at nationals.

        But now American children have to compete with this East Asian fanaticism if they want to be among the best. There’s something to be said for a more laid back childhood. And “feel good” stories like that of Melanie Wood are much less likely.

        Melanie Wood came out of nowhere in 7th grade to do extremely well in MathCounts in about 1993, just on pure smarts with no training. She started working hard at math and had great success. These days, someone like her would already be way behind in 7th grade.

      • Der Alte,
        “I didn’t burn down the school, but maybe they found a skeleton in my closet.”

        Was it the skeleton of a young boy?

      • RT says:

        In April 1995 the SAT was recentered and the PSAT followed suit, so scores for anyone graduating high school after 1995 are around 100 SAT points (M+V) or 15 PSAT selection index points (M+2V) higher, depending on the individual score breakdowns. For instance, I was a Finalist graduating in 1995 and had a selection index of 216. Converted to the scores used the following year using the college board’s conversion tables I would have had a selection index of 230 (or 228 if you used M+V+ the converted writing score from my SAT II). You can see the conversion tables here:

  4. j says:

    On a higher level of self-awareness you would have realized that you were trying to impress the widow with your genetic endowment and of course, to seduce her. It’s in your genes.

  5. M. M. says:

    Greg, you writing goes against the grain of your colleges (and English majors!), I welcome that very much, but often you come across as awkward. As I wish your views to become popular, you being slick, suave, and ruthless–as your opponents–would do the job even better. Please become more popular; kiss some babies, don’t eat them.

  6. gcochran says:

    Probably I was unclear, or maybe the comment stream just went off in the wrong direction of its own accord, but the point was the clumping. According to the official environmental theory, some environmental factor must have caused this statistically odd clump. If we could bottle it, we could close the gap or even reverse it. Again, according to that theory, I must have the secret – maybe unknowingly, but I must have it. I may be not be sure what it is, but I can be sure what it isn’t. It’s not being rich. It’s not fanatical parental pressure, or test prep. It’s not multiple generations of high academic achievement properly setting our epigenetic switches ( I feel dirty for even writing that down). It’s not going to some ‘good’ school – I and my siblings went to the plain vanilla public schools in my one-stoplight home town, while my kids are attending the local mostly-minority public high school.

    • winestock says:

      You weren’t unclear. Like I said; I was being cheeky.

      I’m going to play devil’s advocate. You may have heard of Paul Graham, who is respected by nerds and not without reason. On page 143, in Chapter 9 of his book, Hackers & Painters, he writes:

      “The inhabitants of fifteenth-century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Boticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth-century Milanese artists can you name?

      “Something was happening in Florence in the fifteenth-century. And it can’t have been genetic because it isn’t happening now. You have to assume that whatever inborn ability Leonardo and Michelangelo had, there were people born in Milan with just as much. What happened to the Milanese Leonardo?

      “There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren’t, and the reason is that to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450.

      “Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems”

      This is a better critique than is typical from the usual suspects. Notice how he leaves himself a little bit of an out in the last two sentences of the penultimate paragraph? If you haven’t seen it already, then you should expect to see more of it as the conventional wisdom gets poked.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        Thanks for the quote by Graham, I found it interesting. I love the comment “It can’t be genetic because it isn’t happening now.” As if there are no more art schools which only accept the best students, yea that must be the problem, no sense in looking further. Incredibly small populations compared to today’s sea of humanity just happened to create genius which we with our 7 billion people cannot touch. The pope came out with an edict not too long ago that conceded that evolution existed but with one execption, the human brain. People like Paul Graham, bright and open minded in most matters are not going to let go of what is plain and obvious to a dumb as a box of rocks farmer regarding animal breeding when these same priciples are applied to our brains. I’m sure there is such a thing as a zietgeist that encouraged musical genius in the German territories at the time period of its unrivaled classical composers. Same thing was true in Florence 1450 for art and Athens during its golden age. But the best and most talented are of course getting together more than ever and there are more classical musicians alive today more painters alive today but except for a collection of nerds on an obsure blog almost everyone listens to the pope rather than common sense when it comes to human intelligence.

  7. M. M. says:

    I actually did get your point, while your neighbour didn’t, or so chose to feign, it’s just the way you’re breaking liberals in to bad news I quarrel with. While I enjoy snark & punches (for what that’s worth, might be a questionable leaning), libz mostly don’t get it or react badly (when the joke is on them)–Steve pointed recently to a piece on the different modes of librl/fem vs plain thinking/male discourse.

    So I wonder if you left that women thinking that you take her as being shtoopid and/or deluded, which she is, apparently–but is it helpful to change her ways, which are destructive in the long run? I refrain from touching political topics (and almost any is political, nowadays) with liberals in informal settings, where they get to blather, wiggle, or else work up outrage easily, unless I see an angle on how to show them the consequences of their thinking convincingly. One reason why I read your blog. I guess that in order to impress a liberal or merely conformist women irony should be delivered (if at all) lightheartedly and with charm (lots of) or else at least with aloofness, as heartiste would say; a nerd’s* caustic humour doesn’t cut it, that comes over as underdog aggressiveness.* As things are with public discourse, that’s what we are, but if that neighbour now takes you to be an arrogant fart she’ll retreat into her snail shell even deeper.

    * should be true for most of us here
    ** as we know, contrary to their self-perception libz hate underdogs–lest they be noble savages they can pity and use. I’m afraid that genetically gifted physicists (…male, white, the works) rather reap the grapes of wrath, and if libz hold their grudge under their breath for fearing your wits that might not make it better. Should you get the chance to debate, say, Malcom Gladwell different rules may apply (singe the swine for all I care), but as your neighbour is just an unwitting foot soldier, as are 99%, we ought to find ways to communicate with them effectively. I’m no scientist, so I limit myself to think about how to spread the gospel, boring as that is.

  8. Interesting and telling anecdote. Even if it is to some extent a consequence of confirmation bias – you look for what you want to believe is correct, since you have at some point decided that you believe it is so – genetics, standardized IQ tests, and to lesser degree also personal psychology (Big Five) really say it all, or at least a huge part of it. And sometimes you don’t even have to use tests, like the questionnaires that G. Cochran don’t put too much faith in, since you can rather easily just look at certain phenomena in everyday life and figure things out.

    For instance, my parents aren’t that intelligent – me being the most intelligent and well-educated person in the family, partly because of secular rises in intelligence due to environmental effects – probably somewhere around 105-110, but they are, especially my mother, very conscientious. Their house and their garden are unequivocally very nice and well-managed, and it’s behavior genes – the underlying factor of personal traits – rather than large sums of money that are the main causes. Whereas the neighbor couple, who reside in a less expensive and much smaller side apartment of their big house, a woman in her 40s in particular, seem tremendously neurotic and rather dull, and let their garden look like – well, a garden that is managed by neurotic and dull people. Individual genes (in)directly influence micro environments, rather than micro environments influence personal traits. Obviously this is, at least in an anecdotical sense, hard to prove, but for me it seems so palpable that I have strong reasons to believe that I am right.

    • dearieme says:

      “genetics, standardized IQ tests, and to lesser degree also personal psychology (Big Five) really say it all, or at least a huge part of it.” I doubt that standardized IQ tests and Big Five psychology “say it all”, though perhaps they constitute almost all of the methodically applicable knowledge garnered by the Psychology trade.

  9. RS-prime says:

    > There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels.

    This sets upside-down what is probably true — the error being of course to just assume that DNA is constant. Always ask, wait, did I just sort of make that up?

    I have written the same thing: Shakespeare, Tallis, and the Armada portrait, plus probably a lot of other great stuff, are contemporaneous phenomena within a population of four million. Tallis, not quite a household name, could be thought one of the world’s twenty best artists.

    But the primary cause of the per-capita poverty we are now experiencing is probably dysgenesis. That said, one can grant that something must explain what he points out about Florence and Milan, and there probably is such a thing as a cultural ferment. But he doesn’t do the minimal work of stating whether all those artists were born around Florence. Some of them could also have had recent ancestors migrate there because of its being a center for art/artisanship, or just because it was a generally better city at that time. Thus the notions of DNA and cultural ferment need not be mutually exclusive ; more broadly, biology in general is not exclusive with ferment. And it probably wouldn’t be too hard to come up with some more possible explanations. What is pretty hard to come up with is any examples of hereditarians so radical that they couldn’t admit of much concept of ferment.

  10. h_prime says:


    I am not a geneticist of any kind, just a curious comp_sci student. I’d be really interested to ask some questions if anyone cares to reply.

    So I was discussing my new found understanding that IQ is largely hereditary and that some gaps do exist between rich&poor , and other groups as well, and the tremendous consequences when one puts these together.
    So I basically I wondered aloud whether this early pre-schooling of kids in hopes of some mental edge has any value, or the value of the underlying belief of many politicians that the public education makes us all smarter, that the mathematics and the verbal training somehow develops our brains other than just for the knowledge and algorithms (well skills I suppose) of reading & calculation.
    So my friend is working on these speech recognition projects and he pointed out that children do learn speech in the “critical period” (3 to 6 years I believe), and that at the very least you do need to talk to your kids, not keep them locked up in a cellar, like there has been recorded cases of, and that if you fail to give them the input in that period then the kid would never have those same skills no matter how much he tried to learn after that. So this was an objection to my IQ based argument, I suppose he implies that the early schooling might have similar value, even if the IQ doesn’t go up.

    So my question is: is speech and some movement pattern & motor skills (violin playing? Never liked that idea btw for my future kids. Maybe I’ll teach them FPS games if there’s money in that in the future), are these the only skills that they must get while they are young? Will they get some sort of lasting and never again to be had mental edge in let’s say mathematics by early schooling? What do you think?

    • misdreavus says:


      Consider the Head Start Program, which is a multi-billion dollar effort by the U.S. federal government to ensure healthy outcomes for children from “disadvantaged classes” between the ages of three and five — at best, it results in temporary gains in cognitive test scores that fade completely by early childhood. All of those expensive investments in health, education, and social development pretty much amount to nil.

      The quality of pre-natal health care exerts little influence over adult IQ. Neither does parenting — you could take the babies of low IQ mothers and have them adopted by high IQ parents, and by adulthood, they would score exactly as high as you would expect if they hadn’t been adopted at all. Neither does the quality of school you attend, socioeconomic status, or any other variables that are traditionally blamed for chronic underachievement.

      Also, the theory that early childhood experience is critical to lifelong cognitive development would predict that the hearing children of deaf parents should grow up with poorer communication skills, well into adolescence and adulthood – but they don’t. You often hear it repeated by the media that children from lower socioeconomic strata tend to hear far less words during early childhood than privileged children in their cohort, and that this supposedly accounts for a large portion of childhood variation in cognitive ability. But this too is false. Developmental psychologists tend to be inordinately fond of BS correlative studies that fail to control for genetic differences.

      I think a hypothesis that fails to account so much of the evidence on the table ought to be relegated to the garbage bin — don’t you?

    • misdreavus says:

      We also have longitudinal studies of children rescued in the nick of time from extremely abusive and neglectful environments — think of Romanian orphanages or crack homes. Or Korean war orphans. My hunch is that if you controlled for heredity, you wouldn’t find any lasting influence from those years of early childhood neglect — at least not any past adolescence.

      In the case of the Korean war orphans, they even have higher IQs than the white average. I’d love to hear what crazy excuses sociologists have invented to explain away that phenomenon. Maybe their adoptive parents treat them with extra-special love and attention because of positive stereotypes about east Asians. Or maybe there are special chemicals in the drinking water in Belgium that tend to boost intelligence, but only among adopted children.

      Hell even complete sensory deprivation until the age of five doesn’t seem to do very much. There are cases of children who are locked in dark rooms by their parents and left to stew in their own urine and fecal matter. (You really can’t do worse than zero words per week, can you?) But if they are rescued up to a certain age, they almost completely recover their ability to converse intelligently.

  11. Florida resident says:

    Dear Dr. Cochran:
    How old is your middle boy Roddy ?

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      Well, since he just took the PSAT, he would probably be 14 to 16. He might be younger if he is really precocious. I seem to recall, because I have children who did take the PSATs and SATs etc although I never took them myself, that it is taken in your Sophomore year, followed by SATs in your Junior year (and your Senior year if you need a better score).

  12. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    She said, “What’s your secret?”

    Must be micro-nutrients.

  13. Toad says:

    “So I basically I wondered aloud whether this early pre-schooling of kids in hopes of some mental edge has any value”

    “So my friend is working on these speech recognition projects and he pointed out that children do learn speech in the “critical period” (3 to 6 years I believe), and that at the very least you do need to talk to your kids, not keep them locked up in a cellar”

    So, you can talk to your kids while they’re at pre-school? Developing telepathy could increase IQ.

    Have someone parent your children for you (“free” pre-school) or just not parent at all (cellar).

  14. harpend says:

    I figured that you were.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Yes, however the Cochrane family seems to be benefiting from white privilege disproportionately in comparison to other white families. This must be investigated.

  16. dearieme says:

    “my one-stoplight home town”: you metropolitan elitist you. Mine had none, and our phone numbers had only three digits. But we didn’t live in holes in the road, mind.

  17. dave chamberlin says:

    One of my boys did burn down the school and it didn’t interfere with his scholarship oportunities later in life. A science teacher trying to explain electricity told him that steel wool placed across a battery wood get really really hot. The next class was the wood shop where my son watched a battery with steel wool attatched disapear into the vacuum system for all the wood chips. The dumpster next to the school caught on fire, then the school did, then the kids went home early, and then the science teacher got fired. All my son got was a stern lecture, he was 11.

  18. ironrailsironweights says:

    I was talking to the widow next door
    She’s been married seven times before.

  19. Greying Wanderer says:

    all of them called enery, enery, so enery the eigth iyam iyam, enery the eigth iyam

  20. Anthony says:

    To give the widow an approximately true answer that won’t get you in trouble with her (or the prevailing zeitgeist, you could have answered “marrying a woman smarter than I am”.

  21. I echo Anthony. I use some version of “marry the smartest person you can find. That was what Gramps said to my Dad.” That is, when I’m on my best behavior and remembering to be tactful. The second advantage is that it gives people something to tell their children, and a line of thought about themselves about what it is that they actually preferred in assortive mating.

    I do say there is some glitch or ability to game the testing, however. My SAT’s and the Prometheus Society qualifiers say I have an IQ around 168, but I know way too many people smarter than I for that to be true – even with the selection pool bias of NH, high-tech suburbs, and contact with psychiatry types, there’s just too many. I think 150 is more likely.

    • Uh. well before 1994. I got 1513 in 1970 as a 16 y/o. Later I took Hoeflin’s Mega Test and Langdon’s LAIT. Those suggested the 164-168 score. I had a WAIS, but it only has a 154 ceiling, so I don’t know what to make of it. My NMSQT (now PSAT) was an unspectacular 139. My Math I and Math II were 800’s. I mistrust those ceilings.

      Prometheus used to be 164 (as did the defunct Four-Sigma). I resigned from both the presidency and the society in the late 80’s so maybe I have missed big news since then.

  22. JayMan says:

    Along these lines (though about health rather than IQ), see this ABC News story, which aired today:

    Big Farm, Big Family, Healthy Kids – ABC News

    Check out the video at the bottom of the link. Notice the answer the farmer whips right out to the reporter’s question about his “secret” (around 0:32).

    HBD Chick previously remarked that the fact that people don’t farm anymore has something to do with the denial of heritable differences in the West.

    This isn’t the first time an ABC News interviewee has given a similar answer, only for it to be downplayed in the story.

    For the record, I’m not sure I buy the hygiene hypothesis, for the reason the clever farmer mentions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s