The Sour Grapes of Pisa

November 28, 2013
Still standing.

Still standing.


The new Pisa 2012 will be released on Tuesday, which for those who are unfamiliar with it is a recurrent survey on the performance of schoolchildren from all over the world. The winners in this survey tend to be the same over the years: various Chinese populations (Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore), Finland, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

A high rank is generally interpreted as the result of a good policy and a low rank will usually create headlines demanding reforms.

The Pisa Hall of Shame

At the bottom of the order we find poor and often Muslim countries like Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Peru, Panama, Qatar and Albania. But besides rich countries at the top and poor at the bottom, there is also the phenomenon of over- and underachievers, poor countries whose children perform well and vice versa. This measure is more interesting since it indicates a failed education policy or other factors that may have been overlooked.

Some of the worst underachievers (excluding tax havens and small oil countries) are USA, UK, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. How do people in these countries respond to the results of the survey?

America: Self-Criticism and Fear of China

When commenting on the results American media have mainly been comparing themselves with China and been surprisingly self-critical, as for instance from Stacie Nevadomski in the Huff Post shows,

“The truth, the real news, is that there is no news here. These results should be no surprise. The long slide in American student performance relative to global peers has been a constant drumbeat, paralleling the domestic failures of our schools shown in Waiting for ‘Superman’.”

Or education secretary Arne Duncan,

“The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

James Fallows in The Atlantic agrees but adds that that Shanghai, the winner of the Pisa 2009, isn’t representative of the whole of China – which is correct; neither is Hong Kong or Singapore who also rank at the very top. These are all elite populations. America scored better against the other Chinese regions of Macao and Taiwan and it would probably do even better compared to all of China. Although those who are familiar with unpublished results from other parts of China claim they are very respectable.

Regardless of how well America compares to China, it’s still a fact that 13 countries score better than America and all have significantly lower GDP per capita. Maybe that would be a more constructive focus.

European Skepticism

A more disturbing reaction has come from some of the European underachievers. Recently, the largest newspaper in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter (Today’s News), has featured an article about the upcoming Pisa 2012, with the headline “Several Countries Cheated with School Results”, suggesting that countries like Italy, Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates has falsified their results. The article is based on an unpublished study by German and Canadian sociology professors Jörg Blasius and Victor Thiessen. “The result means that the credibility of the Pisa survey can be questioned,” says Blasius.

This story is also getting attention in Denmark, another underachiever, where one of the major papers, Berlingske Tidende has an article about it. The article includes other criticism as well, mainly that of Svend Kreiner, a statistics professor at the University of Copenhagen. Kreiner has analysed earlier results. He is critical of how a lot of questions are omitted for some countries but included for others. He claims the methods of scoring are so arbitrary Denmark could be ranked second or 42th depending on arbitrary tweaks in the evaluation. In the article, president of the Danish Teachers Association, Anders Bondo Christensen, says it’s time to scrap the survey altogether.

In the UK (also an underachiever), there is a similar discussion on the TES educational community. In an article, TES’s William Stewart writes,

“Politicians worldwide, such as England’s education secretary Michael Gove, have based their case for sweeping, controversial reforms on the fact that their countries’ Pisa rankings have “plummeted”. Meanwhile, top-ranked success stories such as Finland have become international bywords for educational excellence, with other ambitious countries queuing up to see how they have managed it.”


“But what if there are “serious problems” with the Pisa data? What if the statistical techniques used to compile it are “utterly wrong” and based on a ‘profound conceptual error’? Suppose the whole idea of being able to accurately rank such diverse education systems is ‘meaningless’, ‘madness’?”

Sour Grapes?

However, fact is the alleged cheating is only concerned with follow-up questions to principals that have been found to be largely identical in many cases. It doesn’t concern the performance of the schoolchildren. It hasn’t even been established if it is actual fraud designed to make the countries in question look better or if it’s just a matter of laziness or even the fact that some principals are heads of more than one school.

Also for Kreiner’s analysis, Pisa’s own statistician, Andreas Schleicher, questions it on grounds that Kreiner is using a very small part of the data in spite of having access to all of it. He also questions the methods Kreiner used and suggests that they our outdated. As a response to alleged cherry picking, Kreiner replies by accusing Pisa/Schleicher of doing similar things. To me, that sort of rhetoric doesn’t exactly increase his credibility.

It’s not easy for a non-expert to make any sense of this, but I have to say that there is something disconcerting with the fact that Svend Kreiner is being awarded a prize for his critique while no one in Danish press is asking the questions that Schleicher’s comment raises. Is everyone in Denmark so familiar with statistics that it’s a non-issue? And big headlines about cheating even though it hasn’t been established?

Alternative Explanations

Rather than blaming the statistics, there could be other things behind why some countries underachieve. The most obvious thing would be changes in national IQs.

The Pisa survey (and similar tests) correlates strongly to intelligence tests; so much in fact that it actually is an intelligence test although it’s rarely referred to as such. This explains a lot of the rank order, because we know that intelligence is highly heritable and resistant to external forces – like education policies. Smart people like the Chinese are going to rank at the top and less smart people like Ugandans are going to be somewhere at the bottom. This is also a reason to be skeptical of the European sour grapes skepticism I mentioned earlier. If there was something seriously wrong with the Pisa it wouldn’t correlate so much with similar tests.

But intelligence alone can’t explain under- and overachievers. If we look at the latest national IQ estimates, the underachievers score like this,

Austria 99, UK 99.1, USA 97.5, Germany 98.8, Denmark 97.2, Sweden 98.6,

and, the three overachievers score like this,

Finland 100.9, Estonia 99.7 and Poland 96.1.

There is not much difference; the averages for these groups are 98.4 and 98.9. But maybe this snapshot disguises a trend in which underachievers are on the way down and vice versa?


I would suggest that this is the case, and that the reason for this is immigration. East Asian countries don’t have much immigration to speak of, but in Europe there has been a varying influx of people in recent years, especially from Muslim countries. The national IQs in these countries are usually around 85 so Western countries that receive a lot of these immigrants should see a larger decline in national IQ averages than other countries. If we look at PEW’s survey of Muslims in Europe, we can make a comparison between over- and underachievers. The most striking overachievers are Estonia, Poland and Finland, countries that all have extremely small Muslim minorities making up 0.1, 0.1 and 0.8 percent of the population respectively. Compare that with the figures for the underachievers Austria 5.7, UK 4.6, Denmark 4.1, Germany 5.0 and Sweden 4.9. Many immigrants are very young children who will take the Pisa survey in years to come or are taking it now but have yet to become adults and have an effect on the economy. Since the Pisa survey is just an intelligence test for children they simply reflect the influx of young and low IQ people. Underachievers have a larger influx so they score worse than you’d expect from the current national IQs and wealth because the effects on these metrics will kick in some years in the future. And overachievers are just maintaining their national IQs and consequently rising in rank since the rank order is relative.

So the way to improve the scores is not to reform the education system but to change the immigration policy.

So, Any Bets for Tuesday?

If I was to guess I would base it solely on national IQs, immigration and introversion scores, although that last one is a bit speculative. This would lead me to the safe bet that East Asians will stay at the top and no real low IQ countries will surprise anyone with a high rank. Judging by the immigration projections from PEW, Eastern Europe looks like it could be on the rise, or at least maintaining positions, although Russia and Bulgaria look problematic. The real winners here are probably small to medium sized countries that are relatively stable, like Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. Western Europe will show a downward trend, especially for countries that are increasing their share of the Muslim population from an already high level, like the UK, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and France.

But whatever happens, you can be certain that many people in the underachieving countries will keep blaming the test. Because changing your view on human nature and society is hard work and shooting the messenger is easy.

For more details about the Pisa survey, check out Steve Sailers blog which features several interesting posts on this subject.

Darius, Bitches!

May 24, 2013

Recently, Black Country singer Darius Rucker was told by someone on twitter to “leave country to the white folk.” Is country music White and if so should it be?

Some who have commented on this affair, or whatever it is, seem to think that any connection between music genres and race/ethnicity is just coincidental,

“Music is color blind. It should have no boundaries. It’s supposed to unify us, not divide us as a nation.”

“Music has no color.”

This seems a bit phony to me. It’s obvious that Country music is White music. It’s as White as R&B is Black. Pretending otherwise is like denying that Asians are more conscientious than other groups or denying that White people engage more in airy fairy philosophy than others. As far as evidence goes, I haven’t found any specific studies on race and musical preferences although I’ve mentioned one study that links race/ethnicity to more general cultural preferences, as well as personality.

Does this mean that Rucker should leave Country to White people? No. He is of course free to do whatever he wants. It’s undoubtedly embarrassing when White people try to act Black and vice versa, but besides group differences there are also individual differences. Some individuals simply won’t conform to their group preferences. And there is no reason why their contributions should count as less or that they be branded as phonies because of that.

So yes, music has color. We are different. But no, that doesn’t mean that you always have to stick to your racial, ethnic or religious group in everything you do. There is absolutely no contradiction between the fact that Country music is White and the fact that Darius Rucker is a Black and talented Country singer. If you haven’t heard him just listen to the clip above – he is more Country than Taylor Swift will ever be.



An Alien Code in Our DNA?

April 18, 2013
"You won't remember any of this."

“You won’t remember any of this.”

According to Discovery News, Kazakh scientists claim that humanity may have been embedded with an alien code in our DNA and that for this reason the search for proof of extra-terrestrial life is more likely to be successful by looking in our genes than at the skies. I have to say I’m a bit astounded – I had no idea there were Kazakh scientists.

Seriously though, it’s an interesting hypothesis. If there is intelligent life out there, it’s fully possible that they are linked to us in some way – that we are related, that they’ve made or somehow manipulated us. Perhaps Charles Fort, the grand old man of all things paranormal, was right in his idea that we are someone’s property. But property or not, you have to wonder what would happen if they were proven right. Chaos and upheaval – or maybe people would calm down after a few weeks realizing that they still need to eat, sleep and work as usual. After all, not even the infamous radio broadcast of HG Well’s The War of the Worlds, declaring that the Earth was about to be invaded by aliens, led to much panic.

Personally I’ve always favoured a different hypothesis – that they could be here with us right now. If that sounds unlikely to you, then look at this experiment on the psychological phenomenon known as change blindness. It clearly illustrates how easily people’s realities can be distorted without them realizing a thing. Imagine what an intelligent life form whose survival depended on not being detected could do.

What Everybody Missed About the AP Poll: Democrats Have More Implicit Nonblack Racists Than the Republicans

October 29, 2012

You can’t argue with this girl. Seriously, you can’t.

That’s right. This poll reported that 64 percent of all Republicans and 55 percent of all Democrats show implicit racism against Blacks. But racism is practically without exception directed at other groups rather than towards people of the same group. I haven’t found any exact number on this but it’s unlikely to be more than one percent of such self-haters.  At least  I don’t think anyone would disagree if I say that an estimate of 5 percent black self-haters is an overestimate. But let’s be generous and go with that.

So we know that 64 percent of the Republicans are implicitly prejudiced against Blacks. And assuming that 5 percent of GOP’s 2 percent black voters are self-haters they would make up 0.1 percent, leaving us with 63.9 nonblack racists out of 98 nonblack Republicans – which makes 65.2 percent of nonblack Republicans. Now we look at the 55 percent of Democrat racists. Of these 0.95 percent are black self-haters, leaving us with 54.05 nonblack racists out of 81 nonblack Democrats – which makes 66.7 percent nonblack racists among Democrats.  Slightly more than for the Republicans. And again, that’s assuming 5 percent of all Blacks are self-hating racists.

No, my point is not that Democrats are more racist. I just made this little exercise to show how people interpret data to fit their preconceived notions. My suspicion is that this poll doesn’t even measure racism – how do you measure something without even defining it? But I’m sure there is a lot of tribalism, that people like their own and dislike others, and some of that is in the form of racism. That, however, is a universal trait and nothing that is exclusive to white conservatives. As you might be led to believe judging by the reactions this poll has generated.

Not Optimal-gate: Stop Pretending Like Obama Is the Bad Guy

October 23, 2012

I don’t think anyone outside the sphere of Muslim fundamentalism is glad over the attack against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans citizens were killed. Not liberals, not conservatives, or any third parties. So it’s really sad to see how Obama’s comment in the Daily Show when he said that this incident was “not optimal” has been exploited by right-wing media and pundits.

I say exploited because if you watch the clip  above it’s obvious that Stewart is using an understatement that Obama picked up and used himself in his response. Now, you may criticize both of them for using a rather humorous expression like an understatement when discussing such a tragic event, even in a comedy show. But if we ask ourselves what Obama (and Stewart) actually meant by this, the answer can be found in any dictionary or encyclopedia. Here is Wikipedia’s definition,

Understatement is a form of speech which contains an expression of less strength than what would be expected. This is not to be confused with euphemism, where a polite phrase is used in place of a harsher or more offensive expression.

That makes it pretty clear that Obama did not view the attack on the consulate as something to be taken lightly – quite the opposite. And every news media and pundit – like The Washington Post, The National Review, Mediaite, Rush Limbaugh, and Pamela Geller – who pretend to not know what an understatement is should be ashamed of themselves.  All of them also quote Pat Smith, mother of consulate staffer Sean Smith who was among those killed in the attack, as saying,

“It’s insensitive to say my son is not very optimal – he is also very dead.”

I’m not saying she didn’t say it, I don’t think it  changes anything, but why are all of them using the same single source – the infamous British tabloid Daily Mail? What does that say about their interest in getting to the truth? If you’re only source is the Daily Mail and you go with story anyway then you don’t give a crap about the truth.

Obama is not the bad guy here. It’s those right-wing vultures like Limbaugh and Geller who are using this tragedy to score points by deliberately misinterpreting what Obama said, while simultaneously pretending to empathize with the victims and their families.

And for the record: I don’t like the liberals who used to ridicule Sarah Palin and who are now demonizing Mitt Romney either. Politics should be about the issues – not about hating people.

72 Is Not Going to Be the New 30 for Honey Boo Boo – A Few Thoughts on National Character, Health, and Longevity

October 22, 2012

30 might just feel little bit like 72 for this girl…

Under the headline “Modern humans found to be fittest ever at survival, by far” Los Angeles Times recently featured an article about a study from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, on the increase in life expectancy,

A typical Swede, for instance, is more than 100 times more likely to survive to the age 15 than a typical hunter-gatherer. And a hunter-gatherer who has reached the ripe old age of 30 is about as likely to die in the following year as the world’s champion of longevity — a 72-year-old woman in Japan.

But are Swedes and the Japanese really representative of all modern humans, or even of populations in the developed countries? I think it’s safe to say that these two people are known to have certain traits, national characters, that set them apart. Hardly anyone would argue with the claim that they are less impulsive than the average.

Research on national characters – the specific collective personality traits that distinguish on nationality from another – has proven difficult. A large study by Terracciano back in 2005 found that the national characters don’t accord with mean levels of personality traits. So is this idea just in our heads, that say the Chinese are more introverted than Americans?

Most likely not, since all research into stereotypes so far tends to find a kernel of truth in them – Jews as a group make more money, African Americans as a group are more violent etc. But personality research is almost exclusively done with self-report questionnaires. When people answer question about their own personality they relate it to other people in their own country. This means that differences between countries can be due to other factors like how socially desirable a trait is in that country or how prone a certain people are to self-enhancement, portraying themselves as better than they are. Studies have found that East Asians are not as prone to this as Westerners which could explain why Americans for instance measure higher than the Japanese on conscientiousness.

Some psychologists have tried to get around this problem by looking at how personality traits are expressed in different cultures, or to use ethos in the form of institutions that embody ideals that are typical of certain traits. But that’s all very problematic since it involves measuring the same thing in different and indirect ways.

A better way to do this (which at least I haven’t read about) is to measure actual behavior related to personality traits. Because there are traits that have universal behavioral outcomes.  Take impulsivity for instance. This trait predicts drug abuse, violent crime, traffic accidents etc in all parts of the developed world.  So if these outcomes differ according to stereotypical notions of national characters then we have some evidence that these do reflect actual personality differences between nations.

Since I haven’t come across any such research I decided to dabble a little myself, just to see if there might be anything to this. I took two measures – adult lifetime use of cannabis, and road fatalities – and combined them into a composite measure of impulsivity. The countries included are mainly those commonly thought of as impulsive, New Zealand, USA, Australia, and Denmark. I contrasted these against the two nationalities mentioned in the article, those of Sweden and Japan. So here is what I found.

Adult lifetime use of cannabis according to Wikipedia/EMCDDA: Stereotypically impulsive nations like USA 42.4 percent, New Zealand 41.9 percent , Denmark 36.5 percent, and Australia 33.5 percent. As a contrast Sweden has 12 percent and Japan a mere 1.5 percent.

Road fatalities per 100K inhabitants and year according to Wikipedia/WHO: Again looking at the stereotypically impulsive nations we have, Australia 5.7, New Zealand 8.6, USA  12.3,  Denmark 7.4,  whereas Sweden has 2.9 and Japan 3.85.

If we combine these percentages to a composite measure of impulsivity by adjusting so both measures have the same average, we find the following order with life expectancy in the second column,

USA                       50           78.2

Australia               56           81.2

New Zealand        77           80.2

Denmark               67           78.3

Sweden                 24           80.9

Japan                    17           82.7

This gives us a clear indication that nations thought of as impulsive actually have more outcomes that are known to correlate with impulsivity on the individual level. Their average level is 62.5, which is 3 times the average of Japan and Sweden combined. It’s especially striking to see the big difference between the neighbors  Denmark and Sweden that are very similar in many other ways.  And this measure of impulsivity also correlates  -0.6 to life expectancy which is quite respectable.

…but not for this one.

Although it’s not a scientific study, I believe this little exercise clearly raises the question of whether any developed country can be taken as a measure of how technological progress translates to longer life expectancies in general. It suggest that this is not the case, and that differences in personality traits between countries, often referred to as national characters are in fact real, and affect health and longevity in the same way as they do on the individual level.

Twitter’s Censorship Puts the Lack of Free Speech in Europe in Focus

October 19, 2012

There are better ways to fight these guys than by abandoning free speech.

The Twitter censorship policy announced in January this year has now been enacted. Not in China, Russia or some Middle East dictatorship, but in Germany. Twitter has blocked the account for the Nazi organization Besseres  Hannover (A Better Hanover).

Does Twitter really have to comply with local laws? I don’t know. But I know this much – Germany has a serious problem with free speech. This fundamental human right can’t be confined to certain opinions that please those in power. Because that kind of free speech was provided by Hitler and every dictator throughout history.

We need to stop assuming that lack of free speech is a problem for China, Russia, or countries in Africa or the Middle East. Germany, as well as other European countries,  is more permissive, sure, but the principal is exactly the same – if the government doesn’t like your political opinion they will shut you up, sometimes put you in jail and freeze your assets. How is it even possible that this can go on without any significant protests?

I think the answer is that they target such a small and disliked part of the population. Most people don’t react until something happens to them personally. But this lazy attitude is dangerous in that it creates a slippery slope. If the government can shut Nazis up, then they can shut up fascists, terrorists, maybe activists, communists or anyone they feel lacks the popular support needed to create some form of organized resistance.

To ensure free speech it needs to be what it is – free. And it needs to be a part of the constitution as it is in America. This is what Germany and Europe needs to learn. We can’t complain about Muslims going crazy about cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and then pretend that prosecuting Nazis for speaking their mind isn’t hypocrisy. Germany, or any other country which prosecutes people for expressing their political opinions, is not part of the free world.

Thankfully, I think the internet will erode this oppression to pieces. The idea of putting “reality bubbles” over entire nations is ludicrous and it will never work. The cat is out of the bag, the flow of information can’t be controlled anymore. The sad part is however that this is only due to the nature of the internet and social media, a happy coincidence, and not due to civil courage or any form of active citizenship.

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