Stupid smart people

(via Boing Boing) Jonah Lehrer, who I blogged about yesterday re: grit, wrote an article on Tuesday in the New Yorker called Why Smart People Are Stupid.

While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether.

This article is about the sort of thing I say all the time:  The human mind is bad at thinking.  We tend to assume that our brains do things mostly right.  In fact, our brains mostly do whatever it takes not to get killed, and to pass on our genes.  It turns out, that requires us to understand quite a lot of things very badly.

There were a few troubling points, that I wasn't previously aware of:

The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.”

In fact, it seems that people who rank higher on scales of intelligence have bigger bias blind spots than everyone else.  (Although, they used SAT scores as a measure of intelligence, so that might not be incredibly informative.)

The bottom line, it seems, is that the difference between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we perceive other people is, so far, insurmountable.  What this says about philosophy, my major, I'm not sure.

College Board: Dicks

I used to work at Borders.[1. :(] When I worked at Borders, I used to have to shelve various sections.  One of those sections was the Test Prep section, where I noticed something, one day, that made me angry.

The official College Board SAT Study Guide.

For at least some readers, I hope it's obvious why this pissed me off.  College Board are the people who administer the SAT.  They are the people who make, maintain, and distribute the test that is meant to gauge the abilities of students graduating high school, so that the colleges they apply to know whether they're prepared for the demands about to be placed on them.

It's a well-known fact that it doesn't actually gauge that quality, but it should at least be trying to, right?

If College Board was doing its job, it should be trying to make test prep books for the SAT useless.  The thing that the SAT should gauge is how well students will do in a college setting, and should reflect their performance in classes and their genuine academic ability.

Instead, they produce their own test prep book.  Rather than attempt to calibrate their test so that prep books don't help, they're leveraging students' fear of the results of the test to sell a brand-name prep book which boasts that it's "The only study guide by the SAT™ test maker".

It's a blatant conflict of interest, and it exploits a vulnerable group in a world of increasingly uncertain economic future.