Sunday, January 11, 2009

Confirmation bias and the Einstein myth

The story that Einstein was a poor student is appealing, but entirely untrue. It's yet another example of confirmation bias -- the tendency to embrace information that confirms our preconceptions (in this case, confirms some romantic notion about how human achievement works), and to reject information that contradicts them. The truth is that Einstein was (unsurprisingly) a brilliant student.

See pages 37-39 of the magisterial biography Subtle is the Lord (Google books) by eminent physicist (and IAS colleague of Einstein) Abraham Pais.

At age 4-5 Einstein became fascinated by the workings of a compass. As an adult he still remembered the moment as the first miracle in his intellectual development. The second miracle was his discovery of the beauty of Euclidean geometry at age 12: "the clarity and certainty of its contents made an indescribable impression on me" -- the reaction of an average 12 year old? Einstein taught himself calculus between the ages of 12 and 16. He regularly ranked first in his classes in elementary, middle and high school. From age 10 to 15 he had weekly discussions about science and philosophy with a university student and family friend named Max Talmud. Does this sound like a slow learner?

Pais even writes (p. 38): "The preceeding collection of stories about Einstein the young boy demonstrates the remarkable extent to which his most characteristic personal traits were native rather than acquired."


Anonymous said...

In the NY Times piece by Walter Sullivan, the name of the medical student who conversed with the 10-11 year old Einstein was Max Talmey.

Steve Hsu said...

Pais refers to Max Talmud several times, and actually gives footnotes. I like "Max Talmud" -- it's a cool name ;-) (Remember Max Headroom?)

Anonymous said...

I remember reading Einstein's professors "did not think much of him" and that his wife was more mathematically gifted than he. Is that right?

An aside for Steve:

William Shockley and one other person I don't remember were tested and excluded from Terman's study of "severely gifted" children (IQ>140). Shockley and the other won Nobels. No one in the Terman group did. Feynman's grade school IQ is not inconsistent with his achievement. For one thing, he was young enough when he took the test that his IQ may have changed.

If there is "confirmation bias" then there must be some facts which "confirm" that Einstein was not the best student. What are those? If there are none then "confirmation bias" isn't the right term at all. What is? "lying"?

Anonymous said...

He was a poor student ... the issue was he cared little for his teachers direction ... he followed his own direction

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

In Germany it seems the myth has been supported by the fact that the grading system in Switzerland is just the other way round than in Germany. In Germany grades are from 1 to 6, with 1 being 'very good', in Switzerland it's the same numbers but the grade is better the higher the number. Moving across the border then invites confusions when grades are stated as numbers.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that we're talking about confirmation bias -- I suspect it may really be the opposite: when you hear the story that Einstein was a poor student, you think "Wow, that's surprising", and the story is *memorable* for that reason. And of course, memorable, surprising, counter-intuitive stories tend to be propagated, even when they turn out to be untrue.

gs said...

My impression is in keeping with that of anonymous @ 4:53 pm.

In addition, apparently the young Einstein had an attitude.

I read somewhere that his 'high school' teacher told him, "I don't appreciate your lounging in the back of the classroom, grinning at me like an ape," and that an ETH professor said to him, "Your problem is that no one can tell you anything."

Having worked around a number of talented people who obnoxiously overrated their capabilities, I wonder if some of Einstein's instructors might plead extenuating circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Charles Munger says Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein is the best.

From (all too fallible) memory of reading that book, I believe Talumd changed his name to Talmey when he moved to the U.S. and used the name Talmey for the books he wrote.

Shakespeare's Debtor (Aren't we all?_

Steve Hsu said...

For physicists, there is no rival to Subtle is the Lord. It is a true intellectual history of Einstein, although lighter on the biographical details. Pais *knew* Einstein, as well as Bohr, Godel, Von Neumann, Oppenheimer, etc., and really understood Einstein's work. Isaacson (or Munger), not so much...

To the commenter who mentioned the Terman study, the guy you are trying to think of is Luis Alvarez. Neither he nor Shockley, both Nobelists, were Termites (although, apparently, Richard Nixon was!) Please have a look at the graphs in my post on Success vs Ability, and keep in mind there are exponentially more people just below the Terman cutoff than well above it. If random chance plays a role in success, and if an activity is not overwhelmingly g-loaded (Alvarez and Shockley were experimentalists, not theorists; see this post for more on the psychometric distinction), then the results are not at all surprising. (2 Nobelists among those just below the Terman cutoff, none among the actual Termites.) It is also true, as you point out, that intellectual development is not entirely predictable, especially based on early childhood evaluations.

The point of my post about Einstein is the following. In a kind and gentle ideal world any child is capable of inventing general relativity! Wouldn't it be wonderful if that were true? It's not. In the real world, future Einsteins are identifiable as outliers from an early age.

Anonymous said...

"the clarity and certainty of its contents made an indescribable impression on me" -- the thoughts of an average 12 year old?

No, apparently not. They are the thoughts of an adult, reflecting on his experiences as a 12 yr old.

Steve Hsu said...

Thanks, I've changed it to

"... the reaction of an average 12 year old?"

Anonymous said...

Did Einstein, Feynman, etc ... ever write personal diaries when they were young? If they did, it would be interesting to see what exactly their thoughts were.

Autobiographies and biographies written later in life or after death, typically have the problem of "hindsight bias".

Personal diaries typically have a person's private thoughts at the heat of the moment in time. A famous example of this would be William Shirer's "Berlin Diary".

Steve Hsu said...

There are Feynman notebooks in which he recorded many of the things he taught himself as a kid -- math tricks, logarithms, integrals, etc.

He and Welton (who also became a theoretical physicist) were precocious freshman at MIT, and exchanged a notebook in which they discussed the Dirac equation, tensor calculus, general relativity, and other advanced topics. See Schweber's article in Rev.Mod.Phys entitled (IIRC) Feynman and the Visualization of Spacetime Processes. I think Gleick also describes the notebook. Note Schwinger was even more advanced than Feynman at a similar age.

Anyone seriously interested in the outliers question would have looked into these things already (another hint to Malcolm Gladwell and followers). That is, if it weren't for the reassuring cocoon of confirmation bias.

Anonymous said...

The only hypothetical scenarios I can think of offhand for a kid coming up with general relativity out of thin air more than a century ago, would be either a math prodigy coming up with the mathematics independent of any knowledge of physics, or some kid who had some incredibly dumb luck. Otherwise the scenario of a kid coming up with general relativity out of thin air more than a century ago, wouldn't even pass the "laugh test".

Anonymous said...

Has anyone looked into cases of young "outlier" prodigy kids, who turned out to be a "bust" and never achieved anything in life afterward? I would imagine finding cases of this sort may be harder to find. (ie. Many people would prefer to have their personal failures and "skeletons" buried in the closet or backyard).

I knew one guy who was exactly the case of a prodigy who went "bust". He was completely ahead of everybody else in jr. high, and was reading books with titles like "complex analysis", "abstract algebra", etc ... while working out problems whenever he was bored in class. He dropped out of high school in his freshman year and went straight to university, where he was allowed to skip over most of the freshman and sophomore university classes.

The last I heard of this guy, he went to graduate school but somehow ended up in a mental institution and later became homeless on the streets.

Anonymous said...

The idea that Einstein was a poor student is absurd. He has several other traits that made a bad impression on his teachers but he was not a poor student.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Anonymous (8:58 AM), who said anything about a kid coming up with general relativity out of thin air? Could you explain the point you were trying to make?

Anonymous said...

to CW

I was commenting on steve's 10:27 PM statement:

"In a kind and gentle ideal world any child is capable of inventing general relativity!"

Anonymous said...

"Alvarez and Shockley were experimentalists, not theorists"

Maybe this is an example of "confirmation bias"??? You are a theorist, I presume.

BUT my own experience has been that though theoretical ability is more g-loaded, more often than not theorists, like Heisenberg, have had difficulty with experiment.

The nat. sci. I know most about is chemistry. The physical and theoretical chemists I've known had a lot of trouble with organic chemistry. There is also a marked ethnic distinction in chemistry. Organic chemistry has a relatively small number of Jews and a very large number of orientals. Physical chemistry and theoretical chemistry is dominated by Jews.

It is my guess a factor analysis of the test scores of experimentalists vs theorists would show that experimentalists were superior in the "viseo-spatial" factor.

Nixon is obviously the most intelligent US president since maybe TR. Millard Friedman has said as much. Interestingly Nixon proved the stereoytpe Terman was eager to dispel. He had no small talk or "social skills" to speak of. Only a genius could rise so far in politics without these.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Milton Friedman.

Steve Hsu said...

For what it is worth, in the Roe study of eminent scientists the theorists scored higher on the spatial part of the test.

Anonymous said...

Many people want to believe in a world of equal opportunities and justice, and that they are masters of their own destiny. This is despite any evidence to the contrary.

No big surprise as to why some people even today still believe in debunked utopian ideologies like Marxism.

Anonymous said...

"No big surprise as to why some people even today still believe in debunked utopian ideologies like Marxism."

Marxism should never be called an ideology.

From the international: " ...and at last end the age of cant (ideology)"

Anonymous said...

The Rowe study is not credible, and in general the assigning of IQs above the 1 in a 1000 level is meaningless because the number of people used to norm the test is going to be at most a few thousand. The exception in the US is the SAT and to a lesser extent the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT. A very high score on one of these then is the only legitimate evidence of a greater than 1 in a 1000 g. The problem with these is they may be prepped for. Rowe could have looked at these?

Steve Hsu said...

Sure, you can't use Rowe to estimate *exactly* what population fraction scored as high as her eminent scientists (i.e., you can't get precise percentiles).

You can, however, conclude that the eminent scientists scored much, much higher than average PhD scientists and thereby establish an interesting correlation between psychometric scores well above the, e.g., 1 in 1000 level and success as a scientist.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I forgot the imminenti scored higher than the ordinari.
I wonder if that's been your own experience. Do the imminenti you've met seem smarter than the ordinari.

My own experience in chemistry is that, to borrow a Japanese term, the more imminent are characterized by an extreme "otaku"-ness and not by superior raw ability. That is, they are as Julia Flyte said of Rex Motram, "a little bit of a man abnormally developed, masquerading as the whole."

Anonymous said...

Debunked ideas like Marxism may very well be resembling a type of "religion". No matter how much evidence there is debunking it, there will still be no shortage of hardcore "true believers" in it.

Some folks may argue Keynesian economics resembles "religion" in a similar manner. Or for that matter, anti-semitism too resembling a "religion".

On the original topic of the Einstein myth, it may very well too resemble a "religion".

Anonymous said...

Communism with a capital "C" has been discredited. Marxism has been no more discrediited than Platonism.

Of 100 people who decry Marx and 100 who identify themselves as Marxists a handful of the self-identified Marxists have read and understood Marx. None of the other have read and understood him.

Anonymous said...

Spoken like a true Marxist!

Anonymous said...

This is comment 30—a new record for your blog?

Seth said...

Just to keep the thread alive:

The Einstein-as-poor-student story is appealing because education can be a grind and we like to think of true genius as incompatible with mere conformity. Your more recent post on intellectual frauds cites cases where such conformity with expected patterns of behavior has passed for genuine accomplishment.

And just to link this with Marx -- the quasi-religious ideal of equality is a kind of ethical rejoinder to the fact that conventional social status doesn't reliably reflect our values. We rightly distrust social rank and reserve the right to resist it. The rhetorical arsenal of resistance to authority is stocked with fables like "Einstein the bad student". (It doesn't hurt that Einstein himself used a cute tag line like: "God has punished my resistance to all authority by making me an authority figure.")

Think of equalitarian Marxism as second cousin to the NRA and its gun fetish. Gun-owners of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your safety locks!

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks of Marxism as equalitarianism doesn't know anything about Marxism.

Anonymous said...


Also spoken like a true Marxist!

Almost every Marxist I've known and met, always almost resort to ad hominem attacks whenever anybody attacks Marxism and/or communism.

Anonymous said...

But not me.

What do you know about Marxism? Have you read Capital cover to cover? Have you read The German Ideology? etc. Have you understood them?

Seth said...

Marx didn't argue specifically for a perfect equality but the idea that material inequality is generally a result of oppression rather than 'just desserts' is fairly unmistakable in his work and that of his followers.

But I did not equate Marxism with egalitarianism -- I was suggesting that a self-identification with Marxism is typically motivated by a desire to overthrow perceived injustice with the implied promise that greater equality would be a result. So like those bitter folks clinging to "God and guns" (per Obama's bittergate remark) who treat the NRA as their refuge from Godless librul gummint, certain grouchy Marxians cling to their historical materialist deconstruction of class relations as a refuge from cold, calculating capitalist cruelty. Anybody in a mood to feel oppressed can find a bogeyman.

This time I'll try to clarify my FACETIOUS tone with an emoticon. There's hardly any point in being an intellectual if it isn't FUN. God knows it won't make any of us rich.


Anonymous said...

"cold, calculating capitalist cruelty"

but "there is no alternative"?

I admit, there are some things I will never believe, and my only reason for not believing is I don't want to.

I'll quote you out of context.

"that material inequality is generally a result of oppression rather than 'just desserts' is fairly unmistakable"

I agree.

It is often forgotten that Marx and Marxists have changed things in the US, in the UK, in France, etc. Marx has made a permanent contribution. Marx is not a footnote in a text on the history of philosophy. Read him. I think you'll be surprised how much you'll agree with him.

Anonymous said...

I read Marx in the days when I use to be an ardent supporter of Marxism. In hindsight, it was the biggest mistake of my life.

Anonymous said...

I was referencing Isaacson only for the Talmey/Talmud question.
Not for phyiscs.
John (Shakespeare's Debtor)

mrbrisvegas said...

"Does this sound like a slow learner?'

It doesn't indicate genius either.

Stephen Wolfram published his first physics paper at 15 and completed his PhD at 20.

Robert Oppenheimer gave a public lecture on geology when he was eight.

Richard Feynman had taught himself college level mathematics by age 11.

Anne-Marie Imafidon passed matriculation level subjects at age 10. She was accepted into Johns Hopkins at 12 and completed a masters programme at Oxford aged 14.

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