October 5, 2005

Don't they have fact-checkers at The New Yorker anymore?

Remember how in Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, the hapless narrator (known only as "you" in that second person, present tense novel) works as a fact-checker at a magazine just like The New Yorker?

So, how did this from Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, slip through in his article "GETTING IN The social logic of Ivy League admissions"?

"Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful."

It's a good distinction in the abstract, but the Marines are a terrible example of an institution unconcerned with "selection effects." The Marine Corps (and the military in general) has a huge "admissions office" that is obsessed with the quality of recruits, and indeed grades potential enlistees along multiple separate dimensions, including toughness (health) and intelligence (IQ)..

For example, the U.S. military is one of the world's largest employers of psychometricians. For the last dozen years, virtually nobody has been allowed to enlist in the military who scores in the bottom 30% of the population on the military's Armed Forces Qualifying IQ test. (This is the IQ test that provides much of the data in The Bell Curve.) Similarly, almost every recruit has had to have a high school degree.

There are lots of restrictions as well on accepting applicants with health problems and criminal records. My brother-in-law was an Air Force recruiter and he had lots of stories about kids who looked like they were going to help him make his quota, but then turned out to be car thieves or meth addicts or whatever. I don't know the actual figure, but I would bet that somewhere between 2/5ths and 3/4ths of all 18-year-olds are virtually ineligible to enlist.

So, what should the editors at The New Yorker have told their glamour boy writer to use as an example instead? If you are looking for a much purer example of a treatment effect institution, you should look at religions. The Black Muslims might be the most impressive example, since they do much of their recruiting in prisons, and have a reputation for sometimes turning around the lives of career criminals. (Apparently, the power of hate in encouraging moral behavior is much underrated.)

As for the rest of the article, it's Gladwell's usual mix of insight and disingenuousness. He recounts how Ivy League admissions became more meritocratic when the College Board testing service was founded in 1905, but by 1922 over a fifth of the students at Harvard were Jewish, so Harvard changed the admissions procedure to give a boost to athletic boys of good (i.e., WASPy) "character."

Gladwell makes the important point that Harvard athletes make more money afterwards (and presumably donate more to Harvard) than their lower SAT scores would suggest, because of their vigor and masculinity.

And he's correctly skeptical about whether or not going to an elite college teaches you anything more (although he ignores a major reason for the modern obsession with getting into the Ivy League: the Supreme Court's 1972 Griggs v. Duke Power decision that radically cut down on the use of IQ tests by employers, while allowing the IQ-like SAT.)

But he is utterly (and no doubt intentionally) misleading in his implication that there has been no major change in Ivy League admissions policy since the "Jewish crisis" of the 1920s led to the development of techniques for recruiting "well-rounded" applicants. There was a massive alteration in the wake of the Sputnik crisis of 1957 that led top colleges to try much harder to boost their average SAT scores. This is explained in depth in bestsellers such as Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test (here's my review) and The Bell Curve, so Gladwell was no doubt aware of this, but chose to ignore it.

For example, Yale was one of the last hold-outs to stick with the old system, which is how mediocrities like George W. Bush (entered 1964) and John F. Kerry (entered 1962) got in. But the class that entered in 1966 was admitted under much stricter policies for test scores and grades, and was radically different in demographics and politics. And radical was a key word. Bush's biographers point out that he became alienated from the new intellectual and leftist atmosphere that dominated Yale (and other elite colleges) during his last two years in college. A little-mentioned key to the famous history of the 1960s was the arrival at the top schools of huge numbers of red-diaper Jewish students raised in Stalinist, Trotskyite, and socialist homes.

Gladwell concludes:

In the nineteen-eighties, when Harvard was accused of enforcing a secret quota on Asian admissions, its defense was that once you adjusted for the preferences given to the children of alumni and for the preferences given to athletes, Asians really weren’t being discriminated against. But you could sense Harvard’s exasperation that the issue was being raised at all. If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.

A major purpose of Gladwell's article appears to be, while simultaneously denying that getting into an elite college matters much, to pander to the lucrative market for Jewish self-pity of the "Great-Grandpa had to go to CCNY because Harvard had an anti-Semitic quota" ilk.

He intentionally leaves out all evidence of the collapse of anti-Semitic admissions policies four decades ago. At the end he tries to leave the reader with the impression that the Ivy League today has a shortage of "Jews or pansies or parlor pinks," without presenting any data to support his implication that Jews, gays, and leftists (a big part of the New Yorker subscriber base) are currently discriminated against by the Ivy League.

According to the New York magazine annual "Who Makes How Much" guide, Gladwell's annual income is:

Malcolm Gladwell
$1.5 million
Author, Blink
(advance, plus $250,000 New Yorker salary and $30,000 per speaking engagement)

So, you'd have to say that Gladwell is an expert on profitable pandering. But, it has been asked, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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