Breadth-first search

When I complain about some egregious piece of research,  particularly those that are in some sense cross-disciplinary, I often feel that that just knowing more would solve the problem. If Roland Fryer or Oded Galor understood genetics, they wouldn’t make these silly mistakes. If Qian and Nix understood genetics or American post-Civil War history, they would never have written that awful paper about massive passing.  Or if paleoanthropologists and population geneticists had learned about mammalian hybrids, they would have been open to the idea of Neanderthal introgression.

But that really amounts to a demand that people learn about five times as much in college and grad school as they actually do.  It’s not going to happen.  Or, perhaps, find a systematic and effective way of collaborating with people outside their discipline without having their heads shaved. That doesn’t sound too likely either.


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44 Responses to Breadth-first search

  1. Perhaps colleges need one year courses in which to repair the damage caused by schools. For example, teaching a science and history rich version of a foundation course. Then thinking might be broader, and sometimes deeper. It might even help to avoid teaching by “subjects” but to create a modern toolkit for thinking. I append an example of an older method, dropped in the UK because it cost too much.

  2. Damn few people read a lot of quality non fiction covering a wide spectrum of history and science. There is no substitute.

    Greg Cochran’s buddy Razib Khan has a fantastic list of books that you should start chipping away at. His blog is here

    Probably half of the books on that list can be ordered from Ebay dirt cheap and delivered to your door step. Ebay has some quality book reviews as well so you can be guided to your cup of tea.

    Maybe school with their godawful textbooks and mandatory reading of mediocre crap seriously damaged your love of reading. Great books are great fun, what are you waiting for.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      oops. i meant amazon books not Ebay.

    • dlr says:

      Could you put up a better link to Razib Khan’s list of books? I’m not finding it. He definitely doesn’t have a blog on I did find him on goodreads, he’s got a list of about 850 books there. (!!) Is that what you were talking about?

      • amac78 says:

        For a more granular sense of Razib’s ‘likes,’ try browsing his Open Threads.

      • Razib Khan is one of twenty or so regular contributors to the Unz Review. You can directly link to his blog here If you scroll down a ways you will find a rather long list of non fiction books that he recommends reading on the right side of the page. You can’t miss it, the list must be two hundred books long and the titles are highlighted in blue. When you click on the book titles it takes you directly to Amazon books. I definitely recommend checking out the reviews first because many of the books he recommends are specifically written for specialists in the field in question.

      • Here is a link directly to Razib Khan’s blog GNXP.
        When you scroll down a ways you will find a long list of books highlighted in blue on the right side of the page. These conveniently link directly to the book in question over at amazon books. I find the amazon reviews to be very helpful in informing me of both books I would like to read and books that are geared to my level. Razib is like Greg Cochran, ridiculously well read and this list of books is the best of the best.

  3. JayMan says:

    You don’t ask much, do you? 🙂

    This is the generalist vs. specialist trade-off here. The problem is that to be a good generalist, one that actually has mastery of some things, you need to be really smart. Which is also not going to happen, at least not for now.

  4. RCB says:

    Once in a while I set out to learn something that I’m not particularly interested in, but think I should probably know more about. It doesn’t work out very well. I think I have trouble retaining information if (1) it doesn’t address some body of theory, or (2) it isn’t driven by a particular question in my mind. I can read pop gen textbooks for fun, because there is a strong theoretical foundation there. But insofar as history is taught as “one damn fact after another,” I have trouble.

    Also, among scientists, I’m not sure that breadth of knowledge is terribly important in a professional sense – getting jobs, grants, etc. Depth of knowledge in your very specific field is probably better for your career. So incentive structures might hurt here.

  5. EarlyToRise says:

    Bright highschoolers could learn enough background on enough subjects to be useful, well rounded people, but only if you get the bottom 3 quartiles out of their classrooms. Then we wouldn’t have savant professors who are ignorant of everything but their specialty.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I doubt if you are right. Most people simply don’t remember much of their coursework, unless they’re unusually interested, or use it in their work.

      • jb says:

        You’re right Greg, I don’t remember much of my coursework. So do you?

        • gcochran9 says:

          I’ve now had two kids graduate with double majors in physics and math. Once in a while one would ask me about a homework problem: apparently I remember a fair amount of that stuff, although I usually have to take a look at the book.

          In general, I remember more than most people. It’s a gift and a curse.

      • EarlyToRise says:

        I’m still in my 20s and I’m more of a generalist than most folks, so I probably have a skewed view.

        Massively private education through a voucher and exam system is the only way forward I see

    • dearieme says:

      Three quartiles isn’t enough.

  6. Patrick Boyle says:

    I think you are obviously wrong here. This is not a question of knowing or not knowing more economics, genetics, or history. This is simply a case of letting your politics carry you away, and you write rot.

    Fryer is an academic star because his father beat up his mother, not for the brilliance of his analysis. He was a black ghetto thug (I read this on Wikipedia) yet got a doctorate at Harvard. What do you expect from someone with this life story? He might be a serious scholar but is just as likely to be a total fool who happens to fit a liberal preconception.

    Galor is another person who grinds their political ax using academic journals. His main motivation is his ‘agenda’ – killing off that nasty free enterprise. Why would you expect such a person to propose serious ideas?

    Finally Qian and Nix – about whom you have written before – hardly pose a serious threat to the minds of any one who can actually think for themselves. They are again merely providing an academic gloss to an idea of liberals that is ‘devoutly to be wished’ – we shouldn’t worry about blacks because we are all blacks anyway.

    All this shows is that the fast track to a certain kind of intellectual fame is to get a doctorate in damn near anything and then publish a paper that shows that black kids are just a smart as white kids or that black crime is a statistical error or that blacks don’t really use drugs much – or any of a number of ideas that millions of white liberals hunger for.

    America is just sick about how badly recent racial policy has turned out. There is a big market for those willing to ‘prove’ that there really is no problem. That’s what these examples show – not that higher education is on the fritz – although that may also be true.

    • Sam says:

      A nice rant but …

      Fryer got his PhD from Penn State, not Harvard. He got a postdoc before starting his tenure-track position. His publications with Levitt related to black-white differences in IQ are less than 5 (out of 40) – that wasn’t his ticket to stardom in economics academia.

      Don’t know about Nix, but Qian is actually a good economist. Greg highlighted a paper of hers that seems to have a problem but it’s a big jump to suggest that her research and academic rise is driven by some liberal agenda (you can be a good economists but have poor knowledge of genetics and history). Qian’s field is development economics, so a paper about the US rarely features in her research. Most of what she writes is about are development issues in China.

  7. I lean to Patrick Boyle’s interpretation here, though that is admittedly just perception on my part. We have two parallel scandals in the news now: Green’s retraction of his grad student LaCour’s paper in science because the data was fudged, and some popularly famous person named Duggar who has a reality show about him and reportedly molested some kids when he was younger. At some level, people have to know that the possibility of being exposed is there, but they bury this because the rewards are great. Researchers who are wrong but not intentional frauds must nonetheless have some awareness that they are venturing into territory that others know better. Yet still they go through with it. It’s the rewards.

    This type of risk-taking might have selective advantage. Failing may only diminish reproductive chances slightly, while success might increase them wildly.

    Interesting speculation about LaCour, BTW

    • gcochran9 says:

      Not seeing the high likelihood of picking up adaptive alleles from Neanderthals could, I suppose, be a form of politically-induced blindness, but if so it’s beyond me.

      Maybe Roland Fryer is being rewarded for beating the point spread, but again I don’t really see the political angle in that silly selection-during-the-Middle-Passage idea.

      Oded Galor is trying to explain why Sub-Sahara Africans, and their diaspora, are always messed up – constrained in that he can’t use the obvious explanation, which is that’s just the way they are, a product of whatever natural selection favored back in Africa. He’s reaching for something, but between that constraint and not knowing any genetics, he doesn’t have a prayer.

      Nix and Qian’s thesis probably had some political push behind it, but it’s just nonsense. If they were better informed they could have produced superior nonsense!

  8. teageegeepea says:

    I don’t get the reference to having their heads shaved. A reference to Buddhist monks, or the treatment of women who “collaborated” in post-liberation France?

  9. JayMan says:

    Brian Boutwell had something to say:

  10. Cracker1 says:

    Does this mean that it is likely that there will never be another Renaissance Man? Or are we just impatient and tired of waiting?

    • dearieme says:

      We’ve waited three centuries and another Newton has not appeared, though there are so many more of us for him to appear from.

      • Cracker1 says:

        That was on my mind. To me it seems that the probability should go up with the population increase. Maybe some of the math whizzes can tell us. What are the probabilities of another Newton or Einstein given the current population as opposed to the population when they were born.

      • i guess you don’t know who John Von Neuman was.

        • dearieme says:

          If von Neuman had been the greatest theoretical physicist in history, plus one of the greatest mathematicians, plus one of the greatest experimental physicists, I suppose you could say he was another Newton. But since he wasn’t, he wasn’t. Freakishly clever chap, though. Has there been his equal since?

          I suppose “Renaissance Man” covers his scientific/mathematical versatility pretty well: how good his poetry, dramas, sculptures, and paintings were I don’t know.

          I must say it’s an expression I don’t like; I liked it a lot less when I was once accused by an ingratiating fellow of being one myself. With an unaccustomed command of restraint, I refrained from replying “Renaissance Journeyman”.

        • Matt says:

          Whether Newton was more intelligent than any man or woman, before or since is… untestable. We can only ever say a person is the best for their time. Trying to rank them Newton vs JvN (probably) won’t yield useful predictive or descriptive data.

          About the only thing which could be tested is the genetic data, to find a genetic g (or maybe in the longer term, an “predicted academic success” score), which is half, at best, of the problem (because a g prediction is far from how competent a person is as a thinker, and the genetics will give you only about half the person’s g).

          Although on that measure, the probability is in all likelihood that Newton < Von Neumann for genetic ability (and both in all likelihood would probably be < than a large enough sample of fairly accomplished people with neither of their accomplishments).

      • Cpluskx says:

        Newton can’t be as intelligent as most intelligent Ashkenazis of today. (there were 5m English with avg iq of 100) He was dealing with easier problems than string theory.

      • ursiform says:

        The more science that is already known the more time it takes to learn what is already known, the fewer basic breakthroughs there are available to make, and the harder it is to work in disparate fields. Historical geniuses are a combination of innate genius meeting the right conditions for major breakthroughs. Other geniuses at other times may do very clever work, but without creating the same kinds of breakthroughs.

        • dearieme says:

          “The more science that is already known the more time it takes to learn what is already known”: not really. When a breakthrough reduces a morass of facts and parochial rules to an overarching theory, then the amount you need to learn decreases.

  11. Brian says:

    To the extent that knowing more is a matter of knowing more broadly, maybe there is a personality dimension involved along the lines of what Eysenck called associative horizon.

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  13. Sund says:

    cross-disciplinary (or as some would say ‘interdisciplinary) research is hard because everyone is working under their own discipline’s assumptions, and the language they use continually reinforces those assumptions subconsciously. It’s really hard to talk about the ‘altruism’ of an evolutionary biologist and the ‘altruism’ of a psychologists at the same time, because each type of altruism is based upon radically different definitions and literary traditions. If you want to get scientists to know more outside their disciplines you have to reform the language in peer-reviewed articles.

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