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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Monday, September 17, 2012

Heckman and social mobility

Great discussion at Marginal Revolution of the debate in Boston Review between James Heckman (economics Nobelist) and others about social mobility and public policy. Heckman admits that cognitive ability is hard to change through early intervention, but wants to argue that "non-cognitive skills" (e.g., conscientiousness, rule-following, long term planning, etc.) can be inculcated. His evidence, however, seems restricted to two small sample size studies.

Heckman also appears in a recent This American Life broadcast.

Heckman:
... life success depends on more than cognitive skills. Non-cognitive characteristics—including physical and mental health, as well as perseverance, attentiveness, motivation, self-confidence, and other socio-emotional qualities—are also essential. While public attention tends to focus on cognitive skills—as measured by IQ tests, achievement tests, and tests administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—non-cognitive characteristics also contribute to social success and in fact help to determine scores on the tests that we use to evaluate cognitive achievement.

Second, both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, and their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.

Third, public policy focused on early interventions can improve these troubling results. Contrary to the views of genetic determinists, experimental evidence shows that intervening early can produce positive and lasting effects on children in disadvantaged families. This evidence is consistent with a large body of non-experimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms childhood and adult outcomes. Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy. And they have much greater economic and social impact than the later interventions that are the focus of conventional public policy debate: reducing pupil-teacher ratios; providing public job training, convict rehabilitation programs, adult literacy programs, and tuition subsidies; and spending on police. In fact, the benefits of later interventions are greatly enhanced by earlier interventions: skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation.

7 comments:

5371 said...

The practical import of the debate must remain moot - because of the near irrelevance of cognitive skills for almost all jobs.

MtMoru said...

"...where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family
life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their
income, and their education levels..."

The point is made that household income and quality of environment aren't the same.

Steve still thinks that the low or non-existent correlation of income and IQ for adopted twins means low or non-existent correlation of environment and IQ for adopted twins?

"including physical and mental health, as well as perseverance,
attentiveness, motivation, self-confidence, and other socio-emotional
qualities"

Blah, blah, blah. As if any of these can be separated from the others or be measured.

The history of motivation to learn, understand, etc. and IQ are indistinguishable.

Henry Harpending said...

Heckman's essay and most of the responses just made me sad. How can someone with that guy's intellectual powers just put out stuff that we all heard half a century ago? His smug assumption that early family environments cause anything at all has long been denied by data. He embraces the idea that epigenetic effects are widespread. Epigenetics is essentially the last desperate hope for social sciences to convince people that they have much useful to say. Not very impressive so far IMHO in spite of the hype.


He pitches early childhood education. I had a hard look at a number of these a few years ago. One of the most prominent turned out to be a fraud. Murray is exactly right on the mark with his comments.


What I find especially scary is that Heckman is nearly exactly my own age. Do I spout half-century old ideologies? Am I that irrelevant? I think sometimes about retiring to a farm somewhere in the heartland, spending my time fishing and hunting, forgetting all the science and academic stuff that I try to do. Is it time??


Henry Harpending

Bobdisqus said...

Freeman Dyson would seem to be a model to suggest you need not head to the farm.

reservoir_dogs said...

Idealogy and science. At any moment, there are folks who answer to the call of idealogy and mix that with science. As such, you will always be dragged back to refute something that you thought were dead and burried. It is all the more reason that we need folks like you to continue.

MtMoru said...

A farm, fishing and hunting? Those tell me everything about you HH.

You don't understand the difference between data and the interpretation of data.

But what would I know? I'm a participant in the BGI study. Are you?

stevesailer said...

"But there is a BIG effect in some studies."


So, these studies have been replicated, right? That's what we need, isn't it if we are going to spend hundreds of billions on programs -- some hope of consistent results?

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