Stories About Education

My piece this week at The Umlaut was inspired by the ongoing debate about online education. I say “inspired by” because, while it was my intention to write about online education at the outset, that’s not where I ended up at all. I came to feel that the whole debate wasn’t really about Udacity or any of the new sexy education tech of the moment, but rather about a general sentiment that something has gone horribly amiss in the American system of higher education.

Moreover, it became clear to me that there isn’t anything particularly special about the latest online offerings. Cheap, practical alternatives to the college path have existed for a long time now in the form of professional development courses, industry certifications, and vocational schools. For some reason, people tend to look down their noses at these options, if they even acknowledge them as options at all. I decided to make our weird priorities, and the consequences of them, the main thrust of my piece.

It’s always fascinating to me the different stories that we have about why we go through this crazy 16 year process called formal education. One thing I noticed is that proponents of the “online education is going to change everything” point of view tended to all subscribe to the notion that education was about information transfer. Their critics, on the other hand, were much more ambiguous in what they thought education was for—and seemed to lean towards some sort of cultural, rite of passage type argument.

Meanwhile, in economics, you have the signal theory of education. The short version of this is that the content of your education is more or less worthless, it’s really just about sending a signal to the market about what kind of worker you are. One of the biggest proponents of this point of view is Bryan Caplan, who is quite skeptical about online education’s ability to make a dent in the establishment. Unlike most of online education’s critics, he is arguing from a place of cynicism rather than idealism about the nature of education in general.

Information Transmission

The productivity of teaching, measured in, say, kilobytes transmitted from teacher to student per unit of time, hasn’t increased much. As a result, the opportunity cost of teaching has increased, an example of what’s known as Baumol’s cost disease. Teaching has remained economic only because the value of each kilobyte transmitted has increased due to discoveries in (some) other fields. Online education, however, dramatically increases the productivity of teaching.
-Alex Tabarrok, Why Online Education Works

The whole point of learning is that you learn something, right? It’s all about imparting information upon the student. Whether we’re talking about multiplication tables or the date and consequences of the Battle of Hastings, students are—in theory—supposed to walk away from the school year with more information in their brains than they had at the beginning of the year.

If this is your story of education, then brick-and-mortar education must surely be doomed. In the essay linked to above, Tabarrok points out three reasons why this would be so:

I see three principle advantages to online education, 1) leverage, especially of the best teachers; 2) time savings; 3) individualized teaching and new technologies.

The first point goes to the fact that a single recorded lecture or piece of writing can now be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world that has access to the Internet. Tabarrok’s TED talk has been watched 700,000 times, several hundred thousand times more than his non-recorded, un-uploaded lectures ever will be. This is the blockbuster effect. In theory, the very best lectures by the very best teachers can now dominate the education of everyone in the world.

The time savings comes from the fact that with a recorded lecture, you can be as concise as possible, since people who don’t get it the first time have the luxury of rewatching it as many times as they want. Meanwhile, the people who get it the first time can move right on to the next lecture, a convenience not afforded students in a classroom who have to wait while the teacher answers their classmates’ questions.

The individualized teaching comes from the fact that teachers can outsource the lecture part of education to online resources and spend the time they would have been lecturing answering individual questions instead, and talking one on one with students. This is what is called flipping the classroom.

Clay Shirky also subscribes to the education as information transmission story. In his post which kicked off a huge debate about online education and education in general, he compares Udacity and MOOCs to Napster and the MP3. Infinite copies can be made, it can be transmitted over the Internet, and it’s available at no charge. In a response to critics of the piece, he bluntly states what he believes to be the chief purpose of education:

What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

I am highly skeptical of the information transmission story of education. I’m sure that some information does get transmitted, though, as Caplan points out, most students forget most of it, and it doesn’t even take very long. Moreover, as I outline in my Umlaut article, there have been more cost-effective methods for transmitting information to students for decades, and these have only multiplied in quantity and variety, and lowered in cost.

Yet still we treat the 16 year path from K-12 to a bachelor’s degree as the proper way of doing business. Does it really take 16 years for us to convey all the information we want conveyed to our youth, even without digital technology? I find this story hard to swallow. Something else must be going on here.

Manufacturing Persons of Quality

The classroom has rich value in itself. It’s a safe, almost sacred space where students can try on ideas for size in real time, gently criticize others, challenge authority, and drive conversations in new directions.

-Siva Vaidhyanathan, A New Era of Unfounded Hyperbole

My suspicion is that this whole formal education thing is just a case of cultural snobbery. K-12 makes a certain sense—there’s certainly a lot of value in promoting literacy and basic math skills. I don’t think there’s any reason why that should take until we’re 18, but there you go.

But college in particular was never about information transmission, back before the modern push to universalize attendance to it. College was where Persons of Quality went to learn how to sound intelligent when talking with other Persons of Quality.

We talk about college as if it’s the only thing standing between the average student and a lifetime of unemployment—or worse, a lifetime as a cashier or burger flipper at McDonald’s. But I think on some deeper level, people just think there is something wrong with the kind of people who don’t go to college. Or that college imbues its students with something glorious and unquantifiable that it is unjust to deny anyone access to.

But if you don’t want to work at McDonald’s, you could become, say, an electrician. According to the BLS, this requires 144 hours of technical training and then four years of paid apprenticeship, after which the median electrician makes $48,250 a year–enough to live comfortably. And this is just one example–there are tons of paths that cost enormously less in both money and time to avoid the burger-flipping or gas station clerk outcome, if avoiding that sort of work is your goal.

But if it’s not a lawyer or a doctor, we sneer at vocational education.

In the week leading up to submitting my piece at the Umlaut, I read a lot of responses to Tabarrok and Shirky’s arguments. One thing I found odd was that these critics seemed to have a less clear idea of just what education was for than Shirky or Tabarrok did. However, I detected cultural snobbery in the background. Take the Siva Vaidhyanathan quote above. Or the following:

As a student, when I was at Ohio State I took a class with Jennifer Cognard-Black, a graduate student. I had been reading George Orwell’s letters. I just went to her office hours and I was like, I’ve got these letters, aren’t they cool? And I had nothing to say! I was really just thrashing around, [it was] incoherent excitement. And she said, “So, what are you interested in, which part of it?” I don’t even remember what we said. It wasn’t that this was an intellectually transformative experience; it was that I was taken seriously as a thinker, and it validated the entire idea of being excited about George Orwell’s letters. It sounds like a small thing, but it wasn’t; it was huge.

That’s Aaron Bady, quoted in the Awl. Unlike most of the participants in this debate, Bady seems refreshingly clear that we don’t really know what this is all for:

The thing is, when you frame this as, “what does this give them for the rest of their lives?” one never really knows, and I think that’s the point; there is something, but it’s something we’re all discovering together. When we reduce education to job training; when we reduce it to, “we need X skills, so let’s do whatever causes X skill to come out,” you really close down all the possibilities.

So college is a place where you can be taken seriously as a thinker, but we don’t really know what value that will have for the rest of your life. But if you hone in on one particular thing, you’re being closed-minded about all the other possibilities.

As someone who spends a lot of time being excited by any number of nerd-equivalents to George Orwell, I feel confident saying that I’ve been able to live Bady’s experience over and over for something like half of my life. I did it online. When I was a teenager, I went from forum to forum, raging about politics and philosophy to anyone who would engage. And engage they did. I found plenty of people to share my excitement over esoteric intellectual subjects with over the years. After forums, it was blogs, which are obviously still a big part of it. Then Facebook and Twitter and the new wave of social tools grew up and it became that much easier to connect with others who would share my excitement.

So finding a group where you can be “taken seriously as a thinker” is easier than it has ever been. And I’m not sure it’s worth cramming billions of dollars in subsidies and encouraging people to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to keep an open mind about what college might be about.

It would be unfair not to link to Bady’s own critique of Shirky here, which is much more targeted to Shirky’s specific arguments.

But from Bady, Vaidhyanathan, the author of the Awl piece, and elsewhere, I’ve sensed an implicit cultural judgment in the same family as complaints that we’re reading tweets rather than Tolstoy. I always wonder–why Tolstoy? A lot of people are reading Harry Potter, for instance. Are they somehow spiritually inferior if they haven’t also read Tolstoy, or some great classic?

I don’t meant to imply that there is no value in Tolstoy or in the great classics. I do mean to imply that obtaining that sort of value probably isn’t actually worth the enormous amount of money that is currently being spent on it by governments, charities, and private individuals. Especially when you can read Tolstoy for free online!

Signaling Theory

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

-Bryan Caplan, The Magic of Education

Signaling theory in economics was pioneered by Michael Spence. The basic idea is that there are people with desirable qualities for employers, and people without them, but on the surface they seem identical. However, it turns out that obtaining a college degree costs less for the people with the desired qualities than the people without them. Maybe this is because those people tend to come from middle class families, and therefore have the financial support of their families. Or maybe this is because the people without the desirable qualities don’t have the discipline to make it through four years of coursework.

Whatever the reason, the cost differential is all that matters. The students could learn nothing but garbage for four years, but if they can get to the diploma at a lower cost than people without the qualities that are valued in the market, they will increase their lifetime earnings by getting the diploma.

Note that education policy understandably aims to lower the cost of access for everyone. If education is largely signaling, then this is extremely wasteful. Since the cost differential is what matters, then lowering the costs for everyone just raises the bar for obtaining the differential. In practice this means spending more years in college than people would have under a less generous policy. So, if signalling theory is what explains most of why people go to college, then our current policy is wasteful both in spending and in that it encourages people to waste their time for longer.

Caplan brings a lot of empirical arguments to bear to defend the signalling theory of education. Most of these are intended to demonstrate how worthless an education actually would be in the market, if all we cared about was the actual content of it. Consider the following:

Yes, I can train graduate students to become professors. No magic there; I’m teaching them the one job I know. But what about my thousands of students who won’t become economics professors? I can’t teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to do the jobs they’re going to have. Few professors do.

Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that “I teach my students how to think, not what to think.” But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology. Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them… if you’re lucky.

Other educators claim they’re teaching good work habits. But especially at the college level, this doesn’t pass the laugh test. How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate – or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week? School probably builds character relative to playing videogames. But it’s hard to see how school could build character relative to a full-time job in the Real World.

Caplan makes strong, provocative arguments, and I look forward to his book on the subject. I tend to think that at least part of education must be explained by the signalling model. On the ground, this was certainly a story that my fellow students would often pay lip service to. The story was not so systematic or formal as the actual economic theory of signalling; instead it took the form of the belief that all we really got out of college was a piece of paper that for some reason bestowed magical qualities upon us in the job market. Whether or not anyone really believed that depended on the mood you caught them in, but it was a well circulated story none the less.

I also wonder if there isn’t some marriage of the signalling story and the Person of Quality story to be found. What if what employers really want are people raised with a certain set of values, and going to college demonstrates a commitment to those values?

In the diffusion of innovations literature, new ideas and products spread lightning fast when they reach that big chunk of the population (labeled the “early majority” and “late majority”) where the vast majority of the people involved have very similar characteristics. This sets them apart from “innovators” and “early adopters” who tend to be richer or of higher status on some margin than the majority, and “late adopters”, who tend to be poorer and of lower status than the majority.

What if the chief benefit of universalizing formal western education in this country was that it made everyone a lot more like one another? Just as we’re more likely to marry or befriend people who are more like us, we also may be more likely to hire someone who is more like us, or invest in a company run by someone who is more like us, and so on. Maybe education has almost nothing to do with information transmission, but instead is some mixture of acculturation and signalling?

How Education Has Changed and Will Continue To

The bottom line is that we don’t really know what function education serves. There are a lot of stories and you can put the evidence together in various ways to defend many of them, many that contradict one another.

But it seems clear to me that the way education will change, and has been changing, is clear, regardless of what story you choose to believe.

It will change in the way that all things have changed since the onset of the Industrial Revolution–we will see bigger blockbusters and longer tails.

Let’s say you believe the information transmission story. Then, as Tabarrok pointed out, you will get blockbuster lectures and educational materials; stuff that is seen by an unprecedented number of people around the world who are eager to learn. You will also get long tail effects–a huge amount of variety, some of which only gets seen by perhaps a handful of people but which may nevertheless enrich them intellectually.

Let’s say you’re a believer that the world has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since we all stopped reading Tolstoy. Well, as I mentioned before, now anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can access Tolstoy’s works, for free. And anyone anywhere in the world can write about Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and how society is going to hell in a handbasket since there are people who would rather read Harry Potter. There will be a long tail of communities populated by people who subscribe to the culture of the Person of Quality.

Caplan is extremely skeptical that online education will have much of an impact if the signalling theory is correct. But there has been a long tail of credentialing for a long time–consider project management certification, or SAS certification, or any number of other industry specific certifications. And Russ Roberts pointed out that homeschooling went from being a marginal activity to gaining acceptance.

Moreover, there’s an argument to be made that our current way of paying for higher education is simply fiscally unsustainable–Shirky makes this case at length. So the nature of the average education may end up changing due to some combination of financial implosion in the traditional sector and innovation on the outside.

Education is already a power law industry, and it will always remain one. It will probably grow even more skewed than it is today. But the particulars are going to change, and the long tail will get longer. On the whole, I am optimistic.


After posting these, I received a couple of responses that tell a story of a different sort.

The thing that fascinates me about education is that no one can seem to agree on what it is for
Adam Gurri

@ That’s silly. It’s zero marginal cost babysitting.
Nathanael Snow

Along the same lines, my father added:

I think Shirky’s right: higher education is like the daily newspaper, a bundle of unrelated stuff. It all makes cultural sense, until it doesn’t. College was a place for the Great Middle Class to park their kids until they figured life out. The cost-benefit of that makes the commitment increasingly untenable…

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.

16 thoughts on “Stories About Education”

  1. I was with you until you brought your silly “bigger blockbusters and longer tails” thesis into it. In what sense is education “already a power law industry?” There are thousands of colleges and high schools and almost all of them charge ridiculous tuition prices.

    As for the meat of your piece, all the mooted explanations probably apply in part. There is some minimal information transmission, mostly worthless. You are signaling that you can stick with something, however stupid, for four or five years. And the “person of quality” is certainly another signal, though I wonder how many employers actually care about that one. One signal you left out is the selective aspect of getting into college, that merely by getting in, it’s a signal to employers that some dumb college wanted you, therefore they should want you. Peter Thiel estimated “that only 10% of the value of a college degree comes from actual learning, and 50% of the value comes from selection (getting into a selective university) and 40% comes from signalling (graduating from a selective college becomes known to employers).” He saw that selection signal as being most of the value, at least to employers.

    I’m not sure why Caplan is so skeptical that colleges will be replaced, if he believes it’s all a worthless signaling mechanism. Surely someone can come up with a better, cheaper way to provide the same signal then? If he believes that the four year timeframe is key to signaling perseverance, then it’s certainly possible to at least teach something worthwhile online for four years, rather than the useless stuff he says college students forget anyway.

    Caplan seems remarkably pessimistic on this topic. I wonder if it’s just his way of reassuring himself or his academic colleagues that they’ll all have jobs in a decade. I suspect they won’t, certainly not as professors.

    1. In what sense is it a power law industry? Are you kidding? A handful of universities command hundreds of millions of dollars, while the vast majority get a pittance by comparison. Skew is the name of the game in higher education. Just because most colleges charge absurd prices doesn’t mean that there isn’t enormous skew (IE, a few colleges charge really REALLY absurd prices, AND have huge endowments).

      I agree they probably apply in part, though Thiel’s estimate smells entirely arbitrary (though plausible).

      Caplan is skeptical because the entire point of the signal is that it costs less for you to achieve it than some other person. So we want it to be expensive and wasteful, so that those of us who have parents that will pay for it, or have it in us personally to cope with four or more years of mind numbing cookie-cut classrooms, or whatever it is, will make it, and those who end up bowing out due to the price tag or because they go very nearly insane in that environment, won’t. Cost saving would be besides the point.

      I mostly just think it’s financially unsustainable, and will come crumbling down at some point and we will be _forced_ to choose more sustainable options. As I said in my Umlaut piece, I also think we need a shift in our norms on this subject.

      But yeah, Caplan’s pretty pessimistic about this. I don’t think it’s to reassure himself of anything, I think he genuinely believes that college is worthless besides signaling unless you’re going to become an academic.

      1. Yes, but those “really REALLY absurd prices” are only about twice or quadruple what the average student might pay, that’s hardly much skew. My point is that you’d be hard-pressed to find many metrics which have 20/80 skew in higher education. The ivy league certainly doesn’t pull in the vast majority of revenue in college education. The one metric on which you might be right is endowments, considering the massive endowments of Harvard or Yale, but even there I think you’d be hard pressed to show it’s a power law, plus it’s more a consequence of some universities lucking out and hiring good investors to massively grow their endowments.

        I think Caplan is confusing himself with his argument if he thinks “we want it to be expensive and wasteful;” that’s just a consequence of looking for a filter that people think works. If I came up with an online filter that cost $5, employers would happily accept it: they’re certainly not clamoring for kids to spend $100k on a filter.

        There is no doubt that Caplan is pretty pessimistic about the worth of the college education, but my point was that he’s also pessimistic about a solution. Whereas if you think the current state is so bad, I’d think you’d be optimistic that it will be destroyed, as it’s easier to replace something so dysfunctional.

        The reason the newspapers have all died off so quickly is because they were so shitty for so long. When the decline hit, newspaper ad revenue dived off a cliff. I don’t think education will die as fast, but the decline will likely be fairly rapid, because if anything, the quality is worse.

        That’s why I wonder why Caplan is so irrationally pessimistic about change in this one scenario, and the only reason I can come up with is that he’s putting his self interest first and playing down the possibility of what most of us see coming: the collapse of higher education. I don’t think any current universities or colleges will exist in a decade or two, just as there will be no newspapers, paper or online, in a decade.

        1. Hard for me to get stats on the fly, but the endowments are definitely a power law. See:

          “As of 2008, most 4-year postsecondary schools in the United States had endowments of less than $100 million, while only 70 had endowments of $1 billion or more”.

          I agree that Caplan is pessimistic about solutions in higher education, but I want to protest on two rhetorical tacts you take here:

          1. Invoking Caplan’s supposed self-interest to write off his pessimism as “irrational” rather than simply assuming there is a reasonable case to be made for his point of view and criticizing it on its merits.

          2. Speaking of “what most of us see coming” as if you or I are capable of actually seeing what lies ahead. We are not. People have spoken about a similar collapse of the social security system for decades. But when it is on the brink of collapse, minor tweaks (raising taxes further and reducing benefits further) keep it going for a few more decades before the issue is revisited. For all we know, higher education could face similar tweaks that extend the status quo well beyond your lifetime or mine. Or something completely beyond what you, Caplan, or I could have predicted may come to pass. We just don’t know.

          1. Based on those GAO numbers, you may be right about endowments looking like a power law, though you’d have to put it through the proper statistical tests to make sure. An exponential distribution also looks like a power law over small ranges, but they diverge quickly in the tail. Not every distribution that dies off in the tail is a power law. In any case, these endowments don’t seem to put money back into the school, so they’re hardly related to education itself, more like the schools abusing their non-profit tax status to run small hedge funds on the side.

            As for Caplan, if he makes no case, it is irrational, considering how every other information market has already been or is in the process of being radically transformed by the internet. I don’t see that he’s made a case, do you?

            I think most people can see a hidebound market like the education system and the transformative power of the internet and figure that the internet will win, considering how many battles it’s already won. They may have no idea how or when it will happen, but I think most people are very capable of figuring something obvious like that. Social security is not a good comparison because it’s a ponzi scheme that the govt forces you to participate in, but yes, it will also collapse or be drastically reformed because it’s unsustainable. Although, higher education is similar to social security in that it is heavily subsidized by the govt, which is one of the main reasons it hasn’t been disrupted already. But that ends up being the seed of its own destruction, as the govt subsidy drives tuition prices so high that it makes it easier for new tech that’s much cheaper to come in and disrupt it.

            You may be right that we can’t know the details or exact timing of what will happen. But it is not hard to call a collapse, just as I would have called the collapse of the Berlin wall when it was going up, but couldn’t have told you the exact year and how it would come down. Anyone who knows anything about history and human nature would predict that the wall would come down one day.

            With a little study, anybody can call the larger trends, like the collapse of the Berlin wall or social security. It is the details and timing that are difficult to predict. And the larger trend that’s easy to call here is the death of higher education, at the hands of the internet. The only reason I can see for Bryan to not see that is self-interest.

          2. He only “makes no case” in the sense that you are unwilling to accept his premises or give him the benefit of the doubt. In fact, he makes a thoroughly logical, well researched case, while you just make off the cuff comments in blog posts :p who is putting more effort into constructing a rational argument here?

            “I think most people can see a hidebound market like the education system and the transformative power of the internet and figure that the internet will win, considering how many battles it’s already won.”

            You have a very strange framing of the world. There is no battle between “the education system” and “the Internet” for one or the other to “win”. The Internet is a technical system; a platform with many things on top of it. It may be integrated into “the education system” (as it increasingly has been) and it may empower alternatives to specific institutions within that system (as it is beginning to).

            As I said, I dislike “most people can see” lines of argument; they are sloppy and rely on nothing but assumption.

            “With a little study, anybody can call the larger trends, like the collapse of the Berlin wall or social security.”

            I take it you’re not a big fan of Nassim Taleb, since he has argued (through words and through formal models) that what you have just said here is the opposite of the truth.

          3. As far as I can tell, Caplan makes no case. He describes the problem, then flatly states that it can’t be fixed with little rationale for why. What little can be implied from his description of the problem I’ve noted doesn’t make any sense. I haven’t read all his posts on the topic, but he never explains his pessimism for a solution in the ones I’ve read. I think it’s telling that in summing up his case here, you are never able to state what his reason is either. 🙂

            I think it’s pretty strange that you think the internet “increasingly has been” integrated into the education system. What little has been used is a joke and it’s easy to see why: they realize that it will cannibalize their existing business of giant lecture halls and gyms. Trust me, it’s one or the other: they are too backwards and lazy to wield this new tool themselves. It’s usually the case, witness the complete failure of most newspapers to make money online. If you dislike “most people can see,” replace it in your head with “it is obvious,” they are used synonymously. 🙂

            As for Taleb, not sure what you’re referring to, he doesn’t say much about larger trends. He talks about black swans, one-off events that upend things. If you mean to say that black swans make all prediction unpredictable, which I don’t think Taleb goes as far as to say, then I completely disagree. There are inexorable forces at work and the internet is one of them. 🙂

          4. You have not read Taleb very closely. He explicitly says that prediction is impossible. There are no “inexorable forces at work” and certainly not ones visible to the naked eye.

          5. Hadn’t heard of the Pinker-Taleb spat so I just googled it, came up with this brief where Pinker takes down Taleb’s argument. Pinker starts off by saying that he does a very Taleb-ian analysis of the existing statistics on war in his book, then does a mostly descriptive summary of where we are. He points out that Taleb gets many of the book’s points wrong. When Pinker finally makes some inferences about what might be the reason for the decline in violence, he says that he notes repeatedly that there is no guarantee of peace, something he claims Taleb misreads him on. While I like both Pinker and Taleb, though I haven’t read much of either, I’m inclined to side with Pinker on this one.

            In any case, I suggest it is you who doesn’t understand Taleb. He would be a fool to say “prediction is impossible.” If he really thought there were “no ‘inexorable forces at work’ and certainly not ones visible to the naked eye,” he wouldn’t be running around decrying debt and claiming that “size is bad for companies,” a point I agree with him on. Taleb preaches extreme humility and skepticism in reading data and making predictions, but he wouldn’t go as far as you, or he wouldn’t be making claims like these. After all, how does he know that this time we don’t know how to handle debt or that size could be really important for companies in your mooted “blockbuster” world? This time could be different! He clearly doesn’t agree with you, or he wouldn’t be making predictions himself. 😉

          6. And Ben Bernanke used even more sophisticated statistical tools in order to demonstrate that we were in a Great Moderation, and he was just as wrong. In the end both Bernanke’s and Pinker’s sophisticated tools don’t really add much to the plain observation that it’s been less volatile over X period or violence has declined over X period, and drawing any conclusions beyond that is simple storytelling.

            I chose my words poorly when I said Taleb didn’t believe in any prediction. He believes there are circumstances under which you can make predictions—if you drink enough alcohol you will get drink, drink even more and at some point you will get alcohol poisoning. Eat a lot of food without restraint and without exercise and eventually you will get fat. Etc.

            In fact, he is the very person who convinced me that the world gets more skewed when you add globalization and the Internet into the equation. Go read the Black Swan, the section on scaling. Or listen to his second interview on EconTalk ( He makes that very argument. It is based on probabilistic thinking, however, not on specific trends naively observed in data.

            But when you’re talking about the future of education, where there are large forces and a complex system, he’s not going to make a prediction. And thinking there are “inexorable forces” you can just plainly see is, frankly, nothing but a conceit. It is nothing more substantial than you believing very strongly in your opinion. We all have stories about how we think the world works and how things are going to play out, you just apparently think anyone who doesn’t buy into yours is an idiot.

          7. Bernanke wasn’t wrong that we were in a Great Moderation, you yourself seem to admit it when you say “it’s been less volatile over X period.” Where he might have been wrong is if he believed we would never leave it and given a thinker as subtle as Helicopter Ben, 😉 I doubt he’d ever have said anything so definitive. Bernanke might have missed or misinterpreted the signs of the housing collapse, but then so did a lot of others.

            Pinker points out that his book is mostly descriptive, ie saying “violence has declined over X period” with many different stats to back it up, though with some attempts to tease out causes and reason about what that says for the future. Perhaps it’s just storytelling or perhaps he’s right, we’ll find out soon enough. In any case, both Bernanke and Pinker both go far beyond simply using “sophisticated statistical tools:” they try to look at what variables are predictive and to tease out the underlying structure of the situation.

            Taleb argues for a somewhat complex typology of prediction, at least as I read this piece years ago. But I don’t think he says much about large trends or forces, he limits himself to various data series and what we can predict about how they evolve with time. The internet is a black swan for education, I think that’s fairly obvious, even if nobody has really figured out how to do it yet. I haven’t read the Black Swan but I’ve listened to all his Econtalk appearances and I seem to remember him making the “superstar” argument as a descriptive one, not as a prediction. If it was the latter, I think he’s dead wrong and I’ve pointed out why: we don’t have good recommendation systems yet, but they’re being developed now.

            You say that he’s not going to try and predict “large forces” and complex systems, but what else would you call his predictions about debt and the size of companies, which I linked above? The economy is extraordinarily complex, yet he spouts off.

            Of course there are inexorable forces that some of us can see. There were people who predicted that the Berlin wall would come down or that the x86 microcomputer architecture would dominate mainframes or that an open system like Android would far outsell a closed system like Apple’s iOS. And they were right, not only on the outcome but in the reasons.

            To say that all such theorizing is a mere “conceit” sounds to me like the worst kind of sophistry, denying all theorizing and labeling all accurate prediction as mere luck. In that case, why would you ever get in a car or plane or use anything that science came up with? Those are all “complex systems,” right? Of course we “all have stories about how we think the world works and how things are going to play out,” but some of those stories are well-observed and reasoned and most are not. And I never said people who don’t buy my theory of the internet destroying colleges are idiots, I said it is fairly obvious and so most people see it on some level. When exactly it will happen is the difficult question that most punt on.

          8. Getting bogged down and fearing that my inability to just walk away is going to keep this comment thread going for the rest of our natural lives 🙂

            So I will just focus on the last point. _I_ think that it is sophistry to assume that any prediction, unless it is sufficiently precise (not “the housing bubble will burst” but “housing will fall by X percent in X time period”, contingent on them not just changing the time period every time they turn out to be wrong), is anything _but_ luck when it turns out to have some truth to it. Enough people are making enough predictions all the time that some of the time some of them turn out to be somewhat correct. Every time a new operating system comes out there is someone who predicts it will take the world by storm, that does not mean that the people who predicted this for Windows and Android knew what they were talking about or were in some way able to see a truth that no one else could.

            As for cars and airplanes, they have been around for over a century at this point, and are part of our experience. The fact that the deaths/injuries associated with them have a certain frequency in the past doesn’t mean there are any a priori guarantees for the future, of course, but I’m not justifying my use of them on any rational, theoretical ground.

            The notion that there are some things that are “fairly obvious and so most people see it on some level” runs counter everything we’ve learned about human cognitive biases and deficiencies. It is of course obvious to you, who has undoubtedly confirmed your bias a thousand times and interpreted all new data in light of that bias. But it is not obvious to me, as I have confirmed different biases and interpreted the data differently.

          9. Something wrong with a long comment thread? We respond at our leisure. 😉

            It is one thing if someone makes a prediction with no reasoning to back it up, another if they give the reasons and those reasons turn out to be exactly right, ie Android won because it was open. Of course, there is always a smaller and smaller chance that they were just lucky with each prediction or reason, but you see open systems win enough times and the role of luck can be discounted. And I think “the housing bubble will burst” is good enough, though maybe “burst” would need some precision of whether you mean flat prices or a 25% or 35% drop. Timing is not important if you are making the larger point that housing is in a bubble and must inexorably burst, a point that very few were making at the time.

            Wow, “The fact that the deaths/injuries associated with them have a certain frequency in the past doesn’t mean there are any a priori guarantees for the future, of course, but I’m not justifying my use of them on any rational, theoretical ground,” perhaps sophistry wasn’t the right word, sounds more like solipsism. 🙂

            You have so far not put forward any “confirmed different biases and interpreted the data differently,” you simply state that you don’t know what will happen and that nobody can know. The latter is where you go wrong.

          10. As an example of why Taleb would completely disagree with what you just said, see the recent spat between him and Stephen Pinker on Pinker’s hypothesis concerning the secular decline in violence and war over the past 200 years. Pinker thinks he’s seeing a trend that is evidence of some “inexorable forces”; Taleb says he’s storytelling with data and nothing more.

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