Arnold Kling  

A Question for Bryan

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Reader Randall Parker called my attention to Steve Sailer's post on GRE scores by intended field of study. The scores are on verbal reasoning and math. Generally speaking, if an intended field of study draws people with higher verbal reasoning scores than economics (e.g., philosophy), it draws people with lower math scores, and vice-versa. The only field that is higher on both is physics/astronomy.

Relative to all takers of the exams, economics students score 0.32 standard deviations above average in verbal and 0.82 standard deviations above average in math. Political scientists score .50 standard deviations above average in verbal and .03 standard deviations above average in math. Scores below average tend to come from students in education, social work, and public administration.

OK, so Bryan's latest book is on stupid voters. One solution is to educate them. But his next to-be-written book, on education, says that education is merely a signal of ability. The data on GRE scores arguably validates that.

In any case, how can you believe on the one hand that education is merely a signal and on the other hand believe that education can produce more rational voters? Won't people's rationality as voters (or, more accurately, their willingness to vote in ways that Bryan or I would consider rational) depend on ability alone?


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Matt writes:

Maybe we are looking at a technological change.

Math is an essential element of promoting intelligent decisions because of the enormous amount of data that is now available, which wasn't 50 years ago.

So we have a cultural shift going on. Citizens are slowly becoming aware of the amount of data and beginning to realize that math skills are more highly valued today. But it takes time.

ryan writes:

I think the phrase "merely a signal" might be an overstatement of Dr. Caplan's position. My understanding is that he's saying it's "merely a signal" in the sense that it's not a creator of marketable skills. He might agree that education teaches you something, but that those things aren't really human capital. For instance, it seems entirely in keeping with Dr. Caplan's position to say that it's probably true that education actually does teach people about other cultures, and that (a) knowing "about" world cultures is not generally a terribly useful job skill, but (b) that knowing about them changes one's opinions about, say, the desirability of immigration or international trade. Education is therefore "merely a signal" when the question is "does it teach things that are useful to the individual?" but not just a signal when the question is "does it change people's ideology or policy positions?" I don't think this is a contradiction.

Alternately, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that education does not change one's intelligence or ability, but does change one's rationality, since those things are clearly not the same.

Eli writes:

I think education as it is currently provided is pretty much just a signal. But if it were done well, I think the result would be genuine learning and increases in rationality. I think this resolves the "paradox", no?

Steve Miller writes:

I think Bryan is big on the idea that education is primarily a signal of conscientiousness. I've spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how that hypothesis can be tested, mostly to no avail. My own guess is that education is maybe 60% a signal of a mix of conscientiousness and conformity: showing up on time, sticking to the program, etc. But less-conscientious people can get a degree by leaning more on their ability. Some people can get an A in microeconomics with a spotty attendance record and only a little self-study. So education is also partly a signal of ability, maybe 30-35%. The rest, 5-10%, is kinda-sorta human capital.

As for the claim that education can improve democratic outcomes -- the main theme of my dissertation was that such a claim is somewhere between false and vastly overstated. Part of it is now a co-authored paper with Bryan that argues, essentially, education has less impact on economic belief than Bryan's original analysis of SAEE data suggests. Using GSS data on economic beliefs, we show that controlling for an admittedly rough IQ proxy reduces the impact of education on economic belief -- typically 25-30%, if I remember correctly (I could look it up, but it's a holiday weekend). I've also tested (your fellow Maryland graduate) Thomas Dee's findings on "civic returns" to education -- and find that his estimated returns to education also suffer from "ability bias," as it is called in labor economics. Dee might argue that he used instrumental variables to get at the ability question, but again, simply adding that IQ proxy control from the GSS reduces Dee's estimated education coefficients by about 25-30%.

The next step is to find some creative way of testing the importance of conscientiousness and/or conformity. Your thoughts would be much appreciated, Arnold.

David J. Balan writes:

I second Arnold's question.

Matt C writes:

I haven't read Bryan's book. When he talks about educating voters, does he mean sitting them in a classroom and assigning them homework and grades with no guarantee of results, or does he mean somehow giving the voters better information without getting into the details of how that is to be done?

I suspect we're talking about two different meanings of the word "education" here.

Unit writes:

Bryan also suggests that voters should admit their ignorance on many topics and remain neutral. I don't see this happening anytime soon. I would instead lobby for the government to admits its ignorance and remain neutral on many topics (overcome its biases), this might be achievable.

David writes:

Venturing a guess:

Education is in general a mere signal of abilities in the context of how well you do in school. In particular, the return to education is largely overstated by confounding factors including the person's conscientiousness and conformity to the system.

For the individual, a survey course in economics may not necessarily improve them. However, a correct understanding of economics by society at large is a public good.

For that matter, I would like to see Bryan write at least a chapter on how the return to education as a public good is negative because of the nonsense and "standard histories" that children learn that Dr. Caplan will teach you are wrong.

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