Monday, February 02, 2015

Slate Star Codex on ability, effort, and achievement

Scott Alexander writes about ability, effort, and achievement at his blog Slate Star Codex. Like many of his excellent posts, this one has received hundreds of thoughtful comments. (Sequel: Part 2 is up.)

Scott has special insight into this question as consequence of a musically talented brother (who quickly surpassed Scott to become a piano prodigy and professional musician) and of having struggled with math despite being very bright. Experiences like these make clear the division between talent and effort, but they're not always easy to share with others.
Slate Star Codex: ... There are frequent political debates in which conservatives (or straw conservatives) argue that financial success is the result of hard work, so poor people are just too lazy to get out of poverty. Then a liberal (or straw liberal) protests that hard work has nothing to do with it, success is determined by accidents of birth like who your parents are and what your skin color is et cetera, so the poor are blameless in their own predicament.

I’m oversimplifying things, but again the compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate – and the side endorsed by many of the poor themselves – is supposed to be that success is due to accidents of birth, and the less compassionate side is that success depends on hard work and perseverance and grit and willpower.

The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic. Attributing them to who works harder and who’s “really trying” can stigmatize people who end up with bad outcomes and is generally viewed as Not A Nice Thing To Do.

And the weird thing, the thing I’ve never understood, is that intellectual achievement is the one domain that breaks this pattern.

Here it’s would-be hard-headed conservatives arguing that intellectual greatness comes from genetics and the accidents of birth and demanding we “accept” this “unpleasant truth”.

And it’s would-be compassionate progressives who are insisting that no, it depends on who works harder, claiming anybody can be brilliant if they really try, warning us not to “stigmatize” the less intelligent as “genetically inferior”.

I can come up with a few explanations for the sudden switch, but none of them are very principled and none of them, to me, seem to break the fundamental symmetry of the situation. ...

... I tried to practice piano as hard as he did. I really tried. But every moment was a struggle. I could keep it up for a while, and then we’d go on vacation, and there’d be no piano easily available, and I would be breathing a sigh of relief at having a ready-made excuse, and he’d be heading off to look for a piano somewhere to practice on. Meanwhile, I am writing this post in short breaks between running around hospital corridors responding to psychiatric emergencies, and there’s probably someone very impressed with that, someone saying “But you had such a great excuse to get out of your writing practice!”

I dunno. But I don’t think of myself as working hard at any of the things I am good at, in the sense of “exerting vast willpower to force myself kicking and screaming to do them”. It’s possible I do work hard, and that an outside observer would accuse me of eliding how hard I work, but it’s not a conscious elision and I don’t feel that way from the inside. ...
Pursuing this topic to the end leads to the difficult question of whether predispositions to hard work, conscientiousness, ambition, etc. are themselves heritable. Of course, the answer is yes, at least partly. Free Will? :-)


Polynices said...

Excellent discussion. Thanks for the link. It definitely squares with my experience -- all the stuff I am good at always seemed easy and required little effort, the stuff I am bad at was really hard. This makes me think that the real challenge of parenting isn't to force your kids to be good at arbitrary things but to help them find the stuff that is easy for them. Their comparative advantage, as the author states towards the end.

Nothing would have changed how good or bad I was at stuff but it did take until late in college before I finally figured out what I was best at and came easiest. Perhaps figuring that out sooner would have been nice.

JayMan said...

I left a comment there.

Scott has a sequel post up.

On the issue of free will (which is of course nonexistent), the matter of heredity factors heavily into it. But this is of course for mental shortcut purposes. Free will would still not exist even if human behavior were somehow wholly environmental (that just replaces genetic determinism with environmental determinism):

No, You Don’t Have Free Will, and This is Why | JayMan's Blog

(On the topic of quantum indeterminacy in the human brain from your earlier post, I think the example you used of a Geiger counter demonstrates we can't confidently say the brain is completely "classical" in every way – and if Many Worlds is correct it would seem we can't make that declaration about anything. Of course, that has no impact on free will, because the roll of the dice is no more free than predestination.)

Richard Seiter said...

Thanks for the link. I thought Eric S. Raymond's comment about talent/luck/hard work was interesting.

BobSykes said...

Lubos Motl points out that even electrons have free will--because quantum mechnanics.

steve hsu said...

thinkingabout it said...

The problem for the conservative paradigm here is that there are certain things which are highly valued by society, and others that aren't. And to some extent, the brain is malleable and can learn to perform well at tasks which initially didn't come naturally. You might never be the best at them, but you might be able to do it well enough.
Extreme skill at crosswords/puzzle solving/theoretical mathematics comes naturally to quantitative geniuses, but if you're the parent of a genius, and if you wanted him to be wealthy and successful, you might want to force him to improve his communication skills and physical fitness.
Money is a signifier of social capital - so ultimately society's preferences dictate which activities generate most wealth. Exceptions exist, but for a smart guy who wants to be wealthy in life, studying hard to become a doctor may give better odds than solving that nth physics problem - because society is somewhat short sighted, and values the skills of a physician/surgeon in the here and now over the potential future benefits generated by physicists.

dxie48 said...

There are people simply good at many things. Recently someone's profile was accidentally expose in the media because she was one of the hostages in a holdup. She scored 99.25 in the uni entrance exam, studying to be a quant/financier/banker, a state rep in swimming and tennis (which are not easy in Australia) and coaches the two sports in her previous high school. She is slim tall and pretty and does not wear glasses. I'll bet she is also a excellent piano player and speaks multiple languages.

BobSykes said...

Thnaks for the link. Motl also rejects the many worlds interpretation. He regards it to be a misunderstanding of what probablities are.

kurt9 said...

Does not the preposition that traits such as work ethic, conscientiousness, IQ, and the like being heritable, coupled with the rapid development of biotechnologies such as CRISPR, argue in favor of wholesale genetic engineering of the human race to increase these traits in humans? If not, why not?

DK said...

Free will has absolutely nothing to do with determinism. It has everything to do with reductionism. In the current physical description of us there is simply no room for causality coming from consciousness - everything that happens is caused by elementary particles interacting in some ways according to defined rules, predictable or not.

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