November 21, 2009

"Twilight Saga: New Moon"

I don't have any exposure to the Twilight vampire books or the movies (the latest earned $72 million at the box office just on Friday, which is huge), so the only suggestion I'll make is that we're experiencing the slow, quiet emergence of the Mormon influence on American pop culture. (The books are written by Stephenie Meyer, a Mormon housewife.)

The first time I noticed the Mormon undercurrent was at a screening for Napoleon Dynamite where everybody else in attendance (lots of really wholesome-looking starlets) seemed to know each other from BYU, and they cracked up throughout the movie over jokes that I just didn't get. I felt like Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones: "Because something is happening here / But you don't know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?"

What exactly is the Mormon common denominator is far beyond my powers of analysis, but birthrates do have an impact.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

New Yorkers: Notice what we say, not what we do

I've pointed out before that New York's liberal media elite don't want the public to discuss IQ, but they almost all get their four-year-olds' IQs tested so they can win admission to fashionable private preschools. Now the New York toddler IQ testing madness has spread to New York public schools. From the New York Times:
Tips for the Admissions Test ... to Kindergarten

Kayla Rosenblum sat upright and poised as she breezed through the shapes and numbers, a leopard-patterned finger puppet resting next to her for moral support.

But then came something she had never seen before: a visual analogy showing a picture of a whole cake next to a slice of cake. What picture went with a loaf of bread in the same way?

Kayla, who will be 4 in December, held her tiny pointer finger still as she inspected the four choices. “Too hard,” she peeped.

Test preparation has long been a big business catering to students taking SATs and admissions exams for law, medical and other graduate schools. But the new clientele is quite a bit younger: 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents hope that a little assistance — costing upward of $1,000 for several sessions — will help them win coveted spots in the city’s gifted and talented public kindergarten classes.

Motivated by a recession putting private schools out of reach and concern about the state of regular public education, parents — some wealthy, some not — are signing up at companies like Bright Kids NYC. Bright Kids, which opened this spring in the financial district, has some 200 students receiving tutoring, most of them for the gifted exams, for up to $145 a session and 80 children on a waiting list for a weekend “boot camp” program.

These types of businesses have popped up around the country, but took off in New York City when it made the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or Olsat, a reasoning exam [i.e., and IQ test], and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, a knowledge test, the universal tests for gifted admissions beginning in 2008.

Kayla’s session at Bright Kids was an initial assessment; her mother, Jena Rosenblum, had not decided whether to put her through a full course of tutoring. She was considering it at the suggestion of Kayla’s preschool teacher. “Even though we live in the West Village and there are great public schools, obviously, any opportunity to step it up a notch in caliber, we would like to try,” Ms. Rosenblum said.

Melisa Kehlmann said her main concern was that her 4-year-old son, Adrian, would be shut out of the well-regarded but overcrowded schools in her Manhattan neighborhood.

“It’s quite pricey, but compared to private school, which averages about $20,000 for kindergarten, the price is right,” she said of the tutoring. “I just want the opportunity to have a choice.”

Private schools warn that they will look negatively on children they suspect of being prepped for the tests they use to select students, like the Educational Records Bureau exam, or E.R.B., even though parents and admissions officers say it quietly takes place. (Bright Kids, for example, also offers E.R.B. tutoring.) [Last I checked, E.R.B. gave the Wechsler IQ test to four-year-olds.]

“It’s unethical,” said Dr. Elisabeth Krents, director of admissions at the Dalton School on the Upper East Side. “It completely negates the reason for giving the test, which is to provide a snapshot of their aptitudes, and it doesn’t correlate with their future success in school.”

No similar message, however, has come from the public schools. In fact, the city distributes 16 Olsat practice questions to “level the playing field,” said Anna Commitante, the head of gifted and talented programs for the city’s Department of Education.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 20, 2009

What nobody says about Sarah Palin

A 45-year-old woman with five children is much less likely to have had time yet to learn everything about public affairs that one needs to know to be President than a 45-year-old man with five children.

In contrast, 69-year-old Nancy Pelosi, who also has five children, grew up marinated in politics (both her father and brother were mayor of Baltimore), but she didn't run for office until her youngest child was a senior in high school.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Predicting baseball performance

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bill James put a lot of effort into predicting how well young players would do. In 1988, he summed up 15 things he'd learned, and three of them related to forecasting young players' development:
  1. Minor league batting statistics will predict major league batting performance with essentially the same reliability as previous major league statistics.
  2. Players taken in the June draft coming out of college (or with at least two years of college) perform dramatically better than players drafted out of high school.
  3. The chance of getting a good player with a high draft pick is substantial enough that it is clearly a disastrous strategy to give up a first round draft choice to sign a mediocre free agent.
James essentially found, unsurprisingly, that the closer players got to the majors, the easier it is to predict their major league performance. Minor league hitters can be predicted reasonably well from statistics alone. Drafting college players was usually safer than drafting high school players. High draft pick high school pitchers, I believe, were especially likely to flame out.

Partly this effect was maturity and injuries, but, I imagine, it also had to do with the usefulness of college statistics v. high school statistics. If a prospect hits .350 for the Rice Owls, you can conveniently look up how that compares to what Lance Berkman hit at Rice (.385) and what Berkman is hitting in the majors (.299). But if the prospect hits .500 for Horace Mann High School, which hasn't sent anybody past Rooke League ball in decades, how do you know how good that number is?

One problem with predicting quarterbacks' performance relative to other kinds of athletes is that, typically, only one gets to play at a time. Baseball teams have five starting pitchers. Baseball hitters can typically get squeezed in for a look at multiple positions. Football running backs generally substitute in and out so that they get a breather. But second and third string quarterbacks can get stuck for years with very little opportunity in games to show what they can do. If Joe Montana had been as durable as Peyton Manning, Steve Young might have been a career backup.

Kurt Warner didn't get to start until his senior year in college, then went undrafted. He was invited to the Green Bay Packers camp, where he competed for a job with Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, and Heisman-winner Ty Detmer. Not surprisingly, he wasn't as ready for the NFL as those guys. It took him four years stocking shelves, playing Arena football, and for the Amsterdam Admirals to make it to the NFL. By his second year in the NFL, he was the MVP.

Because the quarterback is so central to the offense, quarterback changes are a big deal, hashed out endlessly on sports talk radio. Moreover, because coaches don't like to change quarterbacks, starters play banged up a lot. If a big league pitcher is at 85% physically, so that his fastball drops from 93 to 79 mph, he's out of the rotation until he gets better. But if a quarterback is at 85% physically, he probably continues to start to maintain team continuity. This means his per play performance (which Berri measured) drops.

This also means an overlooked quarterback can be healthier than a heralded starter of the same age, boosting his per play performance when he finally gets in the game. For example, Matt Cassell didn't start a game between his senior year in high school in 2000 (?) and his taking over successfully for the injured Tom Brady in 2008. (He was stuck behind two Heisman trophy winning quarterbacks at USC.) That's a lot of punishment he didn't absorb.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 19, 2009

Beating a Dead Horse, Part XVIII

Why is it worth thinking about Malcolm Gladwell?

Because Malcolm takes the politically correct conventional wisdom (you can't make useful predictions about people, heredity doesn't matter, just environment and effort, etcetera etcetera) seriously enough to apply it in all sorts of situations where a more prudent hack would shy away, making him the a One-Man Reductio ad Absurdum of fashionable thought.

Malcolm is the mirror image me. I'm always looking for novel ways to poke holes in the ruling discourse, to point out that the ideological emperor has no clothes; and Malcolm's always looking for ways to validate what passes for thought in polite society.

Of course, we end up demonstrating the same thing, as shown by the differing responses we get. Poor Malcolm gets laughed at because he gets so many things wrong, while I get sputtered at because I get so many things right.

With his complaining letter to the New York Times having received a terse thumping at the hands of Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell revisits the question of whether or not draft position is correlated with an NFL quarterback's career on his blog.

Without admitting it, Gladwell seems to have given up former position that NFL achievement "can't be predicted," there's "no connection," etc. etc. He now seems to be saying that, when you take into account the higher pay of higher draft picks, NFL teams aren't economically optimizing their draft picks, which is a wildly different thing. Gladwell blogs:
There’s a second wonderful paper on this general subject by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler—Thaler being, of course, one of the leading lights in behavioral economics—called “The Loser’s Curse.” ... The key here is that all NFL teams operate under a strict salary cap. So a player’s real worth to a team is the extent to which his performance exceeds the average performance of someone making his salary. ... In fact, according to their analysis, the most useful draft picks are in the second round, not the first: that’s where surplus values tend to be highest. ...

It is important to note here that we are talking about relative value. Personnel decisions in the NFL have clear opportunity costs: if you pay $15 million for a quarterback who only gives you $10 million of value, then you hve $5 million less to pay for a good linebacker. As they write: “To be clear, the player taken with the first pick does have the highest expected performance . . . but he also has the highest salary, and in terms of performance per dollar, is less valuable than players taken in the second round.”

In other words, Malcolm is now, effectively, admitting that he was wrong in his New Yorker article and in his snit of a letter to the New York Times.

But he immediately goes on:
What Massey and Thaler are saying, in essence, is that NFL general managers are not rational decision-makers. [Emphasis Gladwell's]

Malcolm uses words in a Manichean black-white way so that he can tell himself he's always right. He's unable to think relativistically, which makes him popular, but means he makes a fool out of himself when he runs into a meticulous thinker like Pinker or Charles Murray.

Potential correlations between draft order (reversed so that correlations are positive) and achievement run from:

-1.00 (perfectly irrational: intentional self-destructiveness: e.g., using your #1 draft pick to announce, "Ruth Bader Ginsburg is our Quarterback of the Future") to

0.00 (perfectly random: drawing of names from a hat) to

+1.00 (perfectly rational and competent, e.g., making Peyton Manning the #1 pick and not picking Ryan Leaf at all).

When Gladwell says that draft order and performance were "not connected," he was saying the correlation was 0.00. Well, you don't need to know much about football to say it's probably not 0.00. You just need to know that when human beings set out to select other human beings, the correlation with the selected humans' accomplishments is usually above 0.00 and below 1.00.

When, however, you add market-derived costs to the equation, so that a first round pick costs more than a second round pick, with each pick priced at what it's seen as being worth, then you don't expect a high correlation. In fact, in a competitive market, the correlation would tend toward zero under perfect rationality. It's like buying stocks: Apple has a better track record at making money in recent years than AIG, but that doesn't mean you'd make more money buying Apple stock today than AIG stock. Public information about Apple and AIG has already been included in the price.

But Malcolm's not buying any of this technical mumbo-jumbo:
That’s why I think its so useful in this particular discussion. Those who believe that draft position is a good predictor of quarterback performance are essentially voting for the good judgment of the people who make draft decisions. And what Berri and Simmons in particular—and Massey and Thaler in general—remind us is that that kind of blind faith in the likes of Matt Millen and Al Davis simply isn’t justified.
Malcolm's critics suffer from "blind faith" ...

What Massey and Thaler are actually saying is that NFL decisionmakers suffer "biases" that cause them to overvalue first round draft choices economically. In other words, they aren't perfectly rational, which I suspect isn't Big News. Thaley and Massey content that if the NFL executives used the full power of the data to predict individual performance, they would make better decisions.

You'll notice, however, that this is more or less the opposite of Gladwell's claim in his New Yorker article that "there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't." Thaley and Massey say there are better ways than the ones being used now.

And, of course, Thaley and Massey's findings don't validate Gladwell's analogy in his original article about inability to select good teachers ahead of time. Spending too much on the highest potential jobseekers is not exactly the problem with unionized school systems.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

NY Times publishes Gladwell's letter and Pinker's response

In the New York Times here.

You've already seen Malcolm Gladwell's letter, with his ad hominem attack on me as a crimethinker. I'd half-assumed that the NYT would cut that part out in the interests of saving space, but they left it in.

From the NYT:

Steven Pinker replies:

What Malcolm Gladwell calls a “lonely ice floe” is what psychologists call “the mainstream.” In a 1997 editorial in the journal Intelligence, 52 signatories wrote, “I.Q. is strongly related, probably more so than any other single measurable human trait, to many important educational, occupational, economic and social outcomes.” Similar conclusions were affirmed in a unanimous blue-ribbon report by the American Psychological Association, and in recent studies (some focusing on outliers) by Dean Simonton, David Lubinski and others.

Gladwell is right, of course, to privilege peer-reviewed articles over blogs. But sports is a topic in which any academic must answer to an army of statistics-savvy amateurs, and in this instance, I judged, the bloggers were correct. They noted, among other things, that Berri and Simmons weakened their “weak correlation” (Gladwell described it in the New Yorker essay reprinted in “What the Dog Saw” as “no connection”) by omitting the lower-drafted quarterbacks who, unsurprisingly, turned out not to merit many plays. In any case, the relevance to teacher selection (the focus of the essay) remains tenuous.

As a commenter pointed out, this debate over NFL quarterbacks is really a stalking horse for the debate over IQ and race, which, in turn, influences practically every other concept about how the world works. (See Gladwell's 2008 bestseller Outliers for examples.) Political correctness is essentially anti-knowledge.

For example, if NFL experts can't predict better than random which college quarterback will outperform which in the NFL, then why should we believe that, say, the SAT is any good at predicting who will benefit most from college? Why not therefore let the races in equally?

The correlations between draft position and NFL success (0.33 to 0.52) are quite similar to the correlations between, say, SAT score and freshman year in college GPA. Both sets of correlations would be much, much higher if it weren't for restriction of range -- e.g., pro quarterbacks are chosen only from college quarterbacks, and Harvard students are people who got into Harvard.

IQ-denialism is the "rotten core" (to use Stephen Jay Gould's phrase in a more accurate context) of the modern conventional wisdom. He who says A must say B, as Lenin liked to say. And Malcolm is naive enough to illustrate that. Gould, for example, wasn't dumb enough to follow his logic in Mismeasure of Man to its conclusions (e.g., he taught at Harvard, which uses IQ-like tests to select Gould's students), but Malcolm, in contrast, is a true believer.

Gladwell's basic problem is that he doesn't understand normal probability distributions.

The NFL quarterback problem is, roughly, this. There are about two million males who turn 22 each year. At, say, four standard deviations above the mean in current quarterbacking ability, there are 63 individuals, which is about the number of starting quarterbacks who run out of eligibility each year from Division I or the better lower division colleges. It's not a perfect depiction of the task, but you could approximate it as that NFL teams are looking for the one individual who will turn out to be five standard deviations above the mean -- the best NFL quarterback of his age cohort.

That gives us a simple way to calculate how good a job NFL teams do of picking quarterbacks: is the first quarterback chosen in a year's draft turn out to have the best career?

I have a database of the NFL career statistics of the 278 college quarterbacks drafted in the 1980s and 1990s (which gives us enough time to see how they turn out. Notice how a month ago Vince Young, the 2006 #3 overall pick, looked like an epic bust, but now maybe he'll turn out okay?)

Using one single-number measure --'s Career Approximate Value number -- for all the quarterbacks drafted from 1980 through 1999, we see that the first quarterback chosen proved to have the highest Career Approximate Value out of his draft class nine times out of 20. (And the "mistakes" include picking John Elway over Dan Marino; three times the first quarterback chosen proved to have the second best career of his draft cohort.) On average, almost 14 quarterbacks were chosen each year, so being right 45% of the time is a lot better than random.

Moreover, the second quarterback drafted turned out to be the best quarterback of his year five out of 20 times.

To some extent, Career Approximate Value is biased by higher draft picks being handed more playing time. If we use a higher measure of excellence to weed out the plodding mediocrities, number of Pro Bowl selections in a career, then the first quarterback picked wound up with more Pro Bowl honors than anybody else in seven of the 20 drafts, and tied for the most twice (Elway and Marino from 1983 with 9 each, and in 1980 none of the 17 quarterbacks drafted ever went to a Pro Bowl).

Also, the absence from the draft database of quarterbacks who are undrafted would bias this correlation upward somewhat. To estimate the impact, I checked the careers of four undrafted QBs who are inspiring NFL underedog success stories -- Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Jake Delhomme, and Jon Kitna -- and their inclusion wouldn't change these results much even if they had been drafted, since they all went undrafted in years in which the first quarterback drafted wasn't the best.

Gladwell's innumeracy shouldn't be such a fatal problem for the articles published under the lucrative Malcolm Gladwell brand name. Many successful authors have research assistants who help the face of the organization concentrate on doing what he does best. For example, I once met the research assistant to the octogenarian crime novelist Elmore Leonard. The assistant's job was to put in the shoe leather work scouting locations, studying old newspapers, interviewing people who have jobs that will feature in the book and so forth, so that Leonard's novels can have very realistic, very detailed senses of time and place.

Similarly, Malcolm could well afford to hire a young research assistant who understands quantitative analysis.

Why doesn't he?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 18, 2009

Good point

Yes, America clearly needs a close analysis of the President of the United States' first book. But who could possibly know where to find such a thing?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Philosophizing via phootball

In my Wednesday Taki's Magazine column, I use a popular football argument to explain the philosophy behind why my punditry is so off-kilter from everybody else's.

Last Sunday evening, while watching the final minutes of the now famous Indianapolis Colts - New England Patriots football game, I experienced a moment of middle-aged serenity. I realized that I didn’t actually need to have an opinion on perhaps the leading topic of office water cooler debate in this decade: Which quarterback is better—the Colt’s Peyton Manning or the Patriot’s Tom Brady?

I could just sit back and enjoy the show.

The everlasting Brady-Manning controversy reminded me of an epistemological insight that Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker suggested when I interviewed him in 2002 during his book tour for his bestseller The Blank Slate. It didn’t fully register upon me at the time, but what has stuck with me the longest is Pinker’s concept that “mental effort seems to be engaged most with the knife edge at which one finds extreme and radically different consequences with each outcome, but the considerations militating towards each one are close to equal.”

To put it another way, the things that we most like to argue about are those that are most inherently arguable, such as: Who would win in a fight, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?...

Read the rest here and comment upon it below.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 17, 2009

CJR: "Criticism of Gladwell Reaches Tipping Point"

Terry McDermott blogs for the Columbia Journalism Review:
Criticism of Gladwell Reaches Tipping Point

... I should add here that my hatred of Gladwell is boundless, at least the equal of any critic, but I, a much more rigorous (and therefore slower and much poorer) writer, at least know its source – pure unadulterated jealousy.

Gladwell’s earlier books The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers have been publishing phenomena. Tipping Point alone has been on bestseller lists for five years. Gladwell in many ways is the social science equivalent of the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman, another favorite target of critics whose books sell huge numbers. Both are popularizers, in some sense hucksters, adept at phrase-making and simplifying (and often over-simplifying) complex subjects. A key difference, however, is that when Friedman is wrong, he helps start wars. When Gladwell makes a mistake, he dilutes public understanding of science – not a good thing, surely, but he’s a feature writer; that’s what they do.

There is plenty of reason to criticize Malcolm Gladwell, but you get the sense that his chief flaw is being popular.

The comparison to Tom Friedman is a valid one.

Still, "being popular" correlates with being influential. That Malcolm is a tireless and influential proponent of wrong ideas is a problem, especially as his ideas take on (particularly in his most recent bestseller Outliers) an increasingly coherent and politicized form that reinforces and extends the dumbest tendencies in the conventional wisdom.

From the standpoint of the general welfare, there are two potential solutions for the Gladwell Problem: either Malcolm becomes less wrong or he becomes less influential. I would prefer the former solution, but Malcolm seems hellbent on the latter.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 16, 2009

Gladwell strikes back

Steven Pinker reviewed my new book "What the Dog Saw," in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday. I sent the following letter to the editor in response:

It is always a pleasure to be reviewed by someone as accomplished as Stephen [sic] Pinker, even if—in his comments on “What the Dog Saw” [which you can buy here] (Nov. 15)—he is unhappy with my spelling (rightly!) and with the fact that I have not joined him on the lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism. But since football has been on my mind these days, I do want to make one small observation about his comments.

I would suggest that the reason Gladwell is choosing to make a big deal over Pinker calling BS on Gladwell's assertion that performance as an NFL quarterback "can't be predicted" is because Malcolm senses that this minor issue is characteristic of his entire career as the foremost conduit to the public of wrong ideas.

He goes on:
In one of my essays, I wrote that the position a quarterback is taken in the college draft is not a reliable indicator of his performance as a professional.

"Not a reliable indicator" does not exactly get across what Malcolm actually wrote. Let's keep in mind that Malcolm's assertion in The New Yorker is quite uncompromising: there is no correlation:
This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. ... The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [U. of Missouri quarterback] Chase Daniel's performance can't be predicted. The job he's being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.

Pinker thinks of the term "can't be predicted" in the standard statistical sense of predictions not being better than random, that NFL teams are so bad at drafting quarterbacks that they might as well throw darts. Unsurprisingly, that's not true.

Gladwell is using it in the sense of, well, who knows?

Perhaps Gladwell is using "can't be predicted" to mean "can't always be predicted" -- as in, "How about that Ryan Leaf pick? Whattabout Tim Couch?" But everybody already knows that when it comes to drafting quarterbacks the glass is part empty as well as part full. So, if Malcolm comes out and tells the truth (NFL general managers are a lot better than random at drafting quarterbacks, but also lot worse than perfection), then he doesn't have much of a hook for his article.

But instead of Malcolm trying to laugh it off as him just being breezy and trying to hype his little magazine article, he instead gets all sanctimonious and tries to bring the hammer of academic authority down upon the head of Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology of Harvard U.

See, what makes Malcolm so successful as a speaker at sales conferences is that he believes his own hype. Many people can smell insincerity, but Malcolm is sincere. He believes whatever he's peddling, no matter how obviously wrong it is.

Malcolm goes on in his letter to the New York Times:
That was based on the work of the academic economists David Berri and Rob Simmons, who, in a paper published the Journal of Productivity Analysis, analyze forty years of National Football League data. Their conclusion was that the relation between aggregate quarterback performance and draft position was weak. Further, when they looked at per-play performance—in other words, when they adjusted for the fact that highly drafted quarterbacks are more likely to play more downs—they found that quarterbacks taken in positions 11 through 90 [what Malcolm means here is the 90 draft positions of 11 through 100] in the draft actually slightly outplay those more highly paid and lauded players taken in the draft’s top ten positions. I found this analysis fascinating. Pinker did not. This quarterback argument, he wrote, “is simply not true.”

I wondered about the basis of Pinker’s conclusion, so I e-mailed him, asking if he could tell me where to find the scientific data that would set me straight. He very graciously wrote me back. He had three sources, he said. The first was Steve Sailer. [You can read my January 29, 2009 posting here.] Sailer, for the uninitiated, is a California blogger with a marketing background who is best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people.

As a commenter below pointed out, Malcolm should be best known for his 1997 New Yorker article: The Sports Taboo: Why blacks are like boys and whites are like girls. (Actually, he should be: it's one of his better articles, back from when he was braver and poorer. In it, he, applies the same logic that got Larry Summers in so much trouble in 2005 to race. Unfortunately, like so many of Malcolm's ideas, it's wrong. )
Sailer’s “proof” of the connection between draft position and performance is, I’m sure Pinker would agree, crude: his key variable is how many times a player has been named to the Pro Bowl.

Why? It's a well-known measure of excellence for a single season. In my data set of 278 quarterbacks drafted during the Eighties and Nineties, there are 113 Pro Bowl selections, so the sample size is reasonably adequate.

The irony, however, is that the correlation between making the Pro Bowl and what draft pick a player was is less strong than the correlations for quite a few other important measures of accomplishment. That's not surprising. That's why I've emphasized Pro Bowls as measure recently -- because they are a more favorable measure for Malcolm's theory than most other plausible measures.

I've looked at the 278 quarterbacks drafted in the 1980s and 1990s, and here are the correlations between draft pick and various career statistics:

Draft and Pro Bowls: r = -0.33
Draft and Touchdown Passes: r = -0.45
Draft and Passing Yards: r = -0.48
Draft and Years Starting: r = -0.48
Draft and Games Played: r = -0.52

(The correlations are negative because, for example, Peyton Manning was picked #1 overall in his year and has, through 2008, 45,628 yards passing, while Randy Essington was picked #336 overall in his year and had 0 yards passing in his NFL career.)

So, the correlation between draft picks and Pro Bowls that Malcolm objected to turns out to be weaker than many other correlations, but it's still noticeable in real life.

(Are these correlations high or low? They're pretty normal for what you see in the social sciences. There is an old rule of thumb that correlations with an absolute value of 0.2 are low, 0.4 medium and 0.6 high.)
Pinker’s second source was a blog post [by Josh Millet, which you can read for yourself here], based on four years of data, written by someone who runs a pre-employment testing company, who also failed to appreciate—as far as I can tell (the key part of the blog post is only a paragraph long)—the distinction between aggregate and per-play performance. Pinker’s third source was an article in the Columbia Journalism Review [by Daniel Luzer, which you can read for yourself here], prompted by my essay, that made an argument partly based on a link to a blog called “Niners Nation” which in turn makes reference to a “study” of quarterbacks conducted by a fantasy football website. I have enormous respect for Professor Pinker, and his description of me as “minor genius” made even my mother blush. But maybe on the question of subjects like quarterbacks, we should agree that our differences owe less to what can be found in the scientific literature than they do to what can be found on Google.

What Berri is doing, in effect, by using his "per-play" measure is comparing quarterbacks taken at the top of the draft (most of whom get a lot of plays in the NFL) to those taken lower in the draft who turned out to be surprisingly better than expected, and thus get a lot of plays. He's essentially leaving out of his analysis all those lower drafted quarterbacks who turned out to be as mediocre as expected and thus didn't get many plays. In other words, his methodology is pre-rigged to produce the conclusion that Malcolm likes.

Through 2008, among quarterbacks drafted from 1980-1999, top ten draftees averaged 2,975 pass attempts in their careers. Quarterbacks drafted 11th to 100th averaged 1,470 attempts, a little less than half as much. And quarterbacks drafted 101st or higher averaged only 387 attempts.

So, Berri is more or less throwing away the lousier half of the sample of quarterbacks drafted 11th-100th (and totally ignoring all the quarterbacks drafted after 100) and comparing them to all the quarterbacks drafted in the top ten.

When you actually count everybody drafted, you get the following figures for career yardage (through 2008):

Mean Yards Median Yards
Top 10 20,296 18,148
11-100 10,099 3,881
101+ 2,614 0

The differences between the mean and the median (50th percentile) point out that the higher drafted players tend to be safer bets. The quarterback at the 50th percentile among the top ten draftees of his year goes on to have a fairly impressive NFL career, throwing for 18,148 yards. (The median top ten quarterback of 1980-1999 in career yardage was Jim McMahon, who led the Chicago Bears to the 1985 Super Bowl title.)

In contrast, the 50th percentile of the 11th to 100th picks of his year only accumulates 21% as much career yardage. The median quarterbacks of the 11-100 group are Mark Herrmann and Chuck Long.

And the 50th percentile of 101st plus picks never completes a pass in the NFL).

So, the top ten quarterbacks drafted in the eighties and nineties tended to be safer bets, which has its value. (General managers in this decade, however, might have gotten overconfident from a pretty decent run of luck with high draft pick quarterbacks in the two previous decades.)

On the other hand, there are lots of diamonds in the semi-rough of the 11-100 group, such as Brett Favre, Dan Marino, and Boomer Esiason. And in the 101+ group, there are diamonds in the real rough like Mark Brunell, Trent Green, and Matt Hasselbeck. (And that's not to mention the undrafteds, like Kurt Warner.)

To expand on what I pointed out in the comments to Gladwell's blog post:

Malcolm, the reason your reputation has plummeted in recent years as your net worth has risen is that you are too trusting of academics. As you blogged on August 29, 2006:
I will confess to having a slightly reverential attitude toward academia. I'm the son of an academic. Much of my writing involves taking academic research and trying to translate it for a more general audience. And I've always believed that if you set out to write about the work of academic specialists, you have a responsibility to treat that work with respect-- to acknowledge your own ignorance and, where appropriate, defer to the greater expertise of others.

You shouldn't be in awe of David J. Berri, Associate Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University in Cedar City. David J. Berri should be in awe of you, the (likely) highest-earning print journalist in America. You should make Professor Berri prove his theories to you by subjecting his ideas to rigorous reality checks.
You have to do the work.

But it's not that hard. The Internet is chock full of data. You just copy and paste it into Excel. Get your tax accountant to show you how to use Excel. I'm sure he owes you a favor by now.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Panhandling grinds on

More fund-raising ...

I wanted to thank everybody who has contributed so far (and guilt-trip everbody who hasn't).

There are, at the moment, three ways to give me money.

You can make tax deductible credit card contributions to me here (then, under "Steve Sailer Project Option" click on the "Make a Donation" button); or fax credit card details here (please put "Steve Sailer Project" on the fax); or you can snail mail checks made out to "VDARE Foundation" and marked on the memo line (lower left corner) “Steve Sailer” to:

VDARE Foundation
P.O. Box 211
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Second: You can send me an email and I'll send you my P.O. Box address.

Third: You can use Paypal to send me money directly, either by just using any credit card or if you have a specific Paypal account.

If you want to use your credit card, click "Continue" on the lower center-left to fill in your credit card info. If you have a Paypal account fill in your Paypal ID and password on the lower right of the screen.

I'll try to get the Amazon donation link working in a day or two, but, in the past, Amazon has been limited to $50 (hint, hint) and tends to stop working as soon as I've collected more than a pittance.

Thanks. I appreciate it, deeply.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

James J. Lee's review of Nisbett's "Intelligence and How to Get It"

Is now up in a gated version of Personality and Individual Differences. Here is the beginning and the end:
Abstract: Richard Nisbett’s intelligence and how to get it advances several interlocking claims: (1) the heritability of IQ is far lower than typically claimed by behavioral geneticists, (2) the IQ differences across social classes are largely environmental in origin, (3) the IQ differences across racial groups are entirely environmental in origin, and (4) these group differences can be narrowed substantially by interventions that social scientists have already discovered. In this review I show that Nisbett’s arguments are consistently overstated or unsound. ...

Conclusion: Continued research with the tools of genetic epidemiology, population genetics, psychometrics, and cognitive neuroscience is likely to settle many of the contentious issues raised in Nisbett’s book, even without a centralized effort toward any such narrow goal. Given that much of the critical research so clearly lies ahead, Nisbett’s certainty regarding his own premature conclusions is quite remarkable. Some of this may be owed to the disturbing possibilities raised by the alternatives. Even the prospect that current group differences might be eliminated by a combination of biological enhancement and environmental improvement will fail to put all observers at ease, since the prospect of biologically based remedies is itself frightening to many. For what it is worth, I believe that the possibilities regarding both the state of nature and our powers of control should leave us reasonably optimistic about what the future might hold. But I confess to less than total confidence in even this qualified remark, and I envy Nisbett his certitude.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

November 15, 2009

Fourth and two

With the New England Patriots leading the undefeated Indianapolis Colts 34-28 and 2:08 left on the clock, Patriots coach Bill Belichick decided to go for a first down on 4th and two yards to go at his own 28 yard line rather than punt and give Peyton Manning the ball back.

This was a violation of traditional coaching practice to always punt in that situation, but, after all, offenses, especially short passing offenses, are now much more reliable than when this tradition was invented decades ago. This also means the other team's offense is better, too. So, if you are Belichick, the question is, "Whose hands do I want on the ball: Tom Brady's or Peyton Manning's?"

The improvement in offenses is why you never see the "quick kick" (an unexpected punt on third down) anymore. As recently as the 1971 USC-UCLA, the Bruins surprised the Trojans by pitching out to halfback Greg Jones on third and long only to have him pull up and punt (using a sideleg topspin-inducing punting style he'd secretly practiced). With nobody on USC playing back to receive it, the ball finally rolled dead after almost 70 yards, pinning USC deep in their own territory. This helped UCLA pull out a 7-7 tie.

But there aren't many 7-7 ties anymore (at least not played on dry fields where a punt might roll a long ways), so nobody punts on third down anymore.

So, why should they punt on fourth down either?

A study by economist David Romer a few years ago argued in favor of teams going for the first down on fourth and two even on their own ten yard lines, even in the first half.

Unfortunately, according to Romer:
"Decisions to go for it on fourth down (that is, not to kick) are sufficiently rare, however, that they cannot be used to estimate the value of trying for a first down or touchdown. I therefore use the outcomes of third down plays instead."

In other words, what he actually discovered that it's a good idea to go for it on third and two at your own ten yard line instead of quick-kicking it away. But we already knew that you should go for the first down on third-and-two. The odds of you making it are pretty high because the defense is playing fairly back so that you don't score a 90-yard-touchdown on them. On 4th-and-two, however, the payoff to the defense from crowding the line to prevent a short gain is much higher, so Romer's analysis isn't worth too much.

A better way to analyze fourth and two decisions is from data collected on two-point conversion. In the NFL, a team that scores a touchdown gets to either kick a one-point conversion, or, from the two yard line, attempt a two-point conversion by running or passing the ball across the goal line. The defense doesn't play back at all because there is nothing they can give up worse than a two point conversion.

At present, the odds of making it from two yards out appear to be not over 50%, because no NFL team regularly tries a two point conversion. The universal default in the NFL is the one point conversion, which has nearly a 100% success rate, putting the expected value of kicking the conversion at just a little under 1.00 points. Hence, the success rate on two-point conversions can't be much over 50 percent because NFL teams today only go for two when there is some strategic reason to do so.

However, the success rate has been going up. The NYT reported after the 2006 season:
In each of the last two seasons, N.F.L. teams have made slightly more than half of their 2-point conversions, up from less than 40 percent in the late 1990s.

Eventually, an NFL offensive juggernaut might start going for two after each touchdown, but that hasn't happened yet. Coaches would rather have their players lose the game than the coach lose the game.

One thing to keep in mind, though, when apply two-point conversion rates to fourth-and-two rates is that two point conversions are usually attempted when the offense is hitting on all eight cylinders, while 4th and two attempts are made when the offense is sputtering.

So, all this theorizing is interesting, but you still have to execute on the football field, which the Patriots did not: Brady hit Kevin Faulk, running a pattern where he was coming back toward the line of scrimmage for a three yard gain, but Faulk juggled the ball and didn't grab it firmly until he was only a yard past the line of scrimmage, turning the ball over to the Colts.

Not surprisingly, Peyton Manning marched them 29 yards for the winning touchdown.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Peyton Manning v. Tom Brady

Let's continue kibbitzing in the argument between Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell over Gladwell's contention that "In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros."

The mass of evidence suggests that, yes, there is a correlation between where a quarterback is selected in the draft and how well he'll do. Let's note, however, that the correlation glass is half full. For example, Peyton Manning, winner of tonight's 35-34 come-from-behind win over Tom Brady's New England Patriots, was chosen first overall in the 1998 NFL draft. On the other hand, Brady, whose 4th and 2 pass on his own 28 with two minutes left, was juggled by the receiver, costing New England the win, was chosen 199th in the 2000 NFL draft.

I've now read the most recent paper by Gladwell's favorites, economists David J. Berri and Rob Simmons, "Catching a Draft:"
Our analysis revealed that there was a relationship between aggregate performance and where a player was chosen. But when we looked at per play performance, the relationship between production and draft position was quite weak. In contrast, a much stronger relationship existed between how many plays a quarterback ran and where he was selected. In sum, draft position can get a quarterback on the field. But quarterbacks taken higher do not appear to perform any better.

But, Berri is using a very, very slippery approach.

First, he likes to compare quarterbacks picked in the top 10 draft picks in a year to those picked 11 to 50 or to 11 to 100. (And, he ignores the many picked below # 100, where the accuracy of the draft becomes even more apparent.) But because the teams pick in inverse order of how well they did the previous season, those top ten draft picks are going to, on average, bad teams: the worst 10 teams in the league (leaving out trades of draft choices). In contrast, picks 11 to 50 or 11 to 100 will go, on average, to better teams. All else being equal, it’s easier to be successful on a good team than a bad team, if they let you play.

And here’s Berri's other major trick: he wants to measure success on a per play basis, rather than some more useful cumulative measure, such as Pro Bowl selections.

There are obvious problems with measuring success on a per play basis, such as if you’re no good, the coaches don’t let you get many plays. Here are all the quarterbacks drafted since 1980 with their career statistics.

They’re arranged per draft order for each year. You’ll notice that a high proportion of high draft choices played a lot. Some of the low draft choices played a lot, but a lot of them barely played at all in the NFL: the team didn’t invest much in them, and when they proved in practice, unsurprisingly, to be less than NFL starting quality, they went to the bench or into insurance sales.

So, there’s a huge selection bias built into Berri’s measure of success. If you turn out in training camp to be better than the NFL draft consensus (e.g., Tom Brady), they let you play. But if you are a low draft pick and you don't prove to be better than the NFL thought you were, they don't let you play.

For example, the year Brady was picked 199th, Tee Martin was picked 163rd. In Tee's career, he completed 6 passes in 16 attempts for 69 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception. In other words, Tee Martin proved to be exactly as mediocre as you would expect a 5th round draft choice to be.

So, Brady's statistics would weight much more heavily on a per play basis than Tee Martin's.

On the other hand, if they think you are such hot stuff that they'll burn a high draft choice and millions of dollars on you because they really need a new quarterback right now, well, then they make you play a fair amount at a young age, even if you aren't ready for the NFL, and even if you aren't as good as they thought you were.

Moreover, when those lower drafted quarterbacks did play, they played typically under conditions more fruitful for success per play. Typically, they weren’t thrown in as 22-year-old rookie starters on lousy teams. In their younger years, they probably played against second-string defenses in the last minutes of blowouts. Or the starter went down on a good team, and they stepped into the driver’s seat of a high-powered machine (like Matt Cassell taking over for Tom Brady last year, whose having a harder time this year in St. Louis where he can't just throw the ball in the general direction of Randy Moss.)

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

John Derbyshire's "We Are Doomed"

From my new column:
As the subtitle of John Derbyshire’s new book, We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, suggests, Derb has a serious message for his fellow conservatives in the post-Bush Era:
“Conservatism has been fatally weakened by yielding to infantile temptations: temptations to optimism, to wishful thinking, to happy talk, to cheerily preposterous theories about human beings and the human world. Thus weakened, conservatism can no longer provide the backbone of cold realism that every organized society needs.”

Derbyshire then embarks on a high-velocity tour of the worldview of the emerging Realist Right (also known as the Alternative Right or Indie Right, descended from the paleoconservatism of the 1990s).

And without the George W. Bush millstone around their necks, mainstream conservatives have the opportunity to conveniently check out what has developed in this underground during this decade: a comprehensive, coherent way to think about the world as it is.

This all sounds frightfully serious. But there’s nothing funnier than realism spiced with a little acerbic caricaturization. We Are Doomed, a high-spirited romp through everything likely to ruin our children’ lives, would make an excellent Christmas present for those with a sense of humor.

After all, who doesn’t like a little doom and gloom? Why should Al Gore have all the fun of roaring around the world on a private jet, making a fortune telling us we are ruined due to global warming climate change, when topics like demographic change are so much more alarming that we are not even supposed to talk about them?

In We Are Doomed, Derb does talk about them, mordantly and even gleefully, in chapters such as “Diversity: Nothing to Celebrate,” “War: Invading the World,” “Immigration: Inviting the World,” and “The Economy: In Hock to the World” (using my helpful categories).

Read the whole thing here and comment about it below.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Pinker v. Gladwell on NFL quarterbacks

Was Steven Pinker correct when dismissing in the New York Times Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article "Most Likely to Succeed" with the words, "It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros"?

Gladwell's statement of his position is quite uncompromising:
This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? ... The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [U. of Missouri quarterback] Chase Daniel's performance can't be predicted. The job he's being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.

"No connection" is not, in fact, the position of economists David J. Berri and Rob Simmons, whose new paper "Catching a Draft" (gated and therefore I haven't read it) has the following abstract:
The reverse order college draft gives the worst teams in the National Football League (NFL) the opportunity to hire the best amateur talent. For it to work effectively, teams must be able to identify the “best” talent. Our study of NFL quarterbacks highlights problems with the draft process. We find only a weak correlation between teams’ evaluations on draft day and subsequent quarterback performance in the NFL. Moreover, many of the factors that enhance a quarterback’s draft position are unrelated to future NFL performance. Our analysis highlights the difficulties in evaluating workers in the uncertain environment of professional sports.

They find what they characterize as "only a weak correlation," which is different from "no connection." Moreover, what is a "weak correlation?" In the selection business, a seemingly "weak correlation" is quite different from no correlation.

With most things in the human sciences, the glass is roughly half empty and half full at the same time. For example, in the 1998 NFL draft, San Diego used a #2 pick in the first round to choose Ryan Leaf, a notorious bust. However, immediately before that legendary bad decision, Indianapolis had used the first pick in the draft to acquire Peyton Manning, who, as I write, is still gainfully employed in the Colt organization. So, looking at the single most famous pair of quarterback drafts in history, you come up with the usual glass half empty / half full situation.

Further, coming up with one Peyton Manning and one Ryan Lean with your top two picks is a lot better than picking at random among the 100+ college quarterbacks who were eligible for the draft that year.

When I analyzed Gladwell's thesis just before the last Super Bowl, using all 278 quarterbacks drafted in the 1980s and 1990s, I came up with the following table, looking at Pro Bowl honors as a stringent test of success in the NFL. (This partly gets around the problem that high draft picks are often given more years to fail than low draft picks.)

Draft Rank Count Average Pro Bowls
Top 50 54 1.50
51-100 43 0.28
101-200 71 0.17
201+ 110 0.07

In other words, the 54 quarterbacks drafted among the top 50 players of their year averaged 1.50 Pro Bowl honors each, versus 0.07 Pro Bowls for the 110 quarterbacks drafted 201st or later. Per capita, the high draft picks were selected for the Pro Bowl more than 20 times as often as the low draft picks.

What about more recent experience?

Here’s a 2008 blog post byJosh Millet looking at the 2000-2004 quarterback drafts:
To take the most recent decade as an example, when one looks at all the quarterbacks (67 in all) who were drafted by NFL teams from 2000 to 2004, and compares their overall draft position to their statistics in their first four years in the league, it is clear that on balance NFL teams are very accurate in predicting statistical success in the NFL. Organizational psychologists measure the predictive validity of an employee selection technique by quantifying the strength of the relationship between selection measure and job performance; the strength of the association is expressed as a correlation coefficient. For the whole group, the correlation between draft order and passing yardage is very strong (-.73 — the coefficient is negative because the higher a player is drafted, the lower their draft rank).

For those concerned that a measure of total productivity such as passing yardage is somewhat correlated with opportunity, we can consider passer efficiency, as measured by QB rating. Only 51 of the 67 quarterbacks drafted attempted a pass in the NFL, a necessary requirement for calculating a QB rating: for this group there was a -.34 correlation between draft position and QB rating. This is still a strong association, and shows a clear, statistically significant correlation between draft order and future statistical success in the NFL.

Like the fans of the teams that drafted them, Gladwell has let the Ryan Leafs (a high draft choice that flopped) and the Tom Bradys (a low draft choice who became a superstar) of the world influence his thinking. These are outliers, a concept with which Gladwell should be familiar given the title of his latest book. (If you take Brady out of the mix the correlations strengthen considerably!) It turns out, in fact, that on average the NFL draft process is highly accurate at predicting QB success, and the draft is based entirely on things that Gladwell dismisses as useless--college performance, scouting, performance in the NFL combine.

If Gladwell had considered any quantitative measures at all relating to the efficacy of the draft he'd have no basis for his conclusion that "a prediction, in a field where prediction is not possible, is nothing but a prejudice." Gladwell, we fear, gets swept up in his own story telling, and in the process badly misconstrues the alleged "quarterback problem."

A commenter on that blog points out:
The best college QBs are typically assigned to the worst teams because of the rules of the NFL draft, which most likely hinders their chance for pro success, and weakens the association between draft position and pro success, at least for first- round draft picks.

This would tend to artificially strengthen the correlation (-0.73) between draft position and early career passing yardage and artificially weaken the correlation (-0.34) between draft position and passer rating, so the underlying “true” correlation is somewhere in between.

For example, in 1998 the Indianapolis Colts had “earned” the #1 draft pick by going 3-13 in 1997. For the 1998 season, they immediately plugged Manning in at starting quarterback at age 22. Having nothing else going for the team, they had him throw a league-leading 575 passes for 3,739 yards, but also a league-worst 28 interceptions. That gave him a passer efficiency rating of only 71.2, far below his career average of 95.3.

If Manning had been drafted by a better team, he probably would have only played as a rookie at the end of blow-outs against the opposition’s second string, and wouldn’t have inherited the starting job until he was mature. (The NFL career of Steve Young, who has the higher career passer rating, demonstrates this – one bad year at a young age in Tampa Bay, then a long sojourn as Joe Montana’s backup learning the job in the brilliant San Francisco organization before finally emerging as the highest rated QB in history) So, Peyton’s early career yardage would likely have been less if drafted lower, but his early career passer rating would have been higher. Thus, the “true” correlation between draft rank and NFL success is probably between -.73 and -.34.

Another thing to keep in mind is the semi-random role of injuries in reducing correlations. A lot of quarterbacks whose NFL careers are disappointments are simply too banged up to play up to their potential. In baseball, it’s widely accepted that a pitcher’s career is contingent on his arm staying healthy, but in football, there’s a certain amount of moralizing about how if the quarterback was tough enough, like Brett Favre, he would just shake it off and play through the pain.

High draft choices who are likely to be thrown in as starters before they are physically and mentally mature are more likely to get badly hurt early in their careers than a lower draft choice who doesn’t get the starting job until he knows what he’s doing and has a little extra muscle on him, and is mentally ready to have big years. So, that also lowers the correlations a little.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer