15 August 2014

The cleverest of the cleverest

When somebody tweets something that reinforces your own opinions and prejudices, it’s probably wise to take a closer and sceptical look. For example this from Dominic Cummings (former SPAD* for the former education secretary, Michael Gove) aka @oddyseanproject:

"DATA the cleverest of the cleverest do math/phys/engineering; the thickest of the cleverest do education & business"  

Naturally I’ve thought this for years and, of course, also believe that anything which comes from xxx.blogspot.co.uk or yyy.blogspot.com must be wisdom incarnate. Better still, the post a year ago on Psychological comments, Dr James Thompson’s blog, included this chart, well-matched to the math/phys/engineering way of looking at things:

But what exactly is going on here? Thompson took the chart from a paper in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2009 (I’ve reproduced Figure B1 in the paper rather than Thompson’s for clarity). V, S and M stand for Verbal, Spatial and Mathematical Ability. As I understand the paper, and I am no expert, V,S and M are composites, eg V is made up of three weighted measures: Vocabulary, Reading and English, the last of these being itself a composite of items measuring capitalization, punctuation, spelling, usage, and effective expression. S and M are similarly constructed from appropriate sub-measures.

So the vertical axis, Specific Ability Level, is the measurement of V, S and M for nine disciplines spread along the horizontal axis (the blobs, ha-ha). The lines join up V, S and M scores for three levels of educational attainment in those disciplines: Bachelor, Master, Doctoral. The order in which the disciplines appear along the horizontal axis corresponds to their General Ability Level which is “the average of S+M+V” (presumably the mean of S, M and V). To dig deeper, look at Appendix B of the paper. The numbers behind some of the blobs are small eg 71 engineering doctorates, 57 maths/computer science.

The purpose of the paper was to argue the case for spatial ability as a predictor of talent in STEM subjects. It was Thompson who suggested “Draw your own conclusions about the levels of intellect required in each discipline.”, something which Cummings choose to do, surprisingly given that he has a humanities degree. However, I think there are two points to be made. Firstly, we are looking at “the cleverest” to use his words, who all have more “Ability” to get higher scores in tests than the average person – beware the vanity of small differences among a select group. Secondly, if your occupation doesn’t require spatial abilities, and many don’t, or numeracy, but does require high verbal abilities, the average arts or humanities graduate has the edge over STEM types, as the chart shows. This was the point of a post here two years ago, OK techies have their limitations.

I can’t imagine an occupation with much lower spatial ability requirements than being a SPAD (*special political adviser) – perhaps Cummings knows how many of the current 100 or so actually have “math/phys/engineering” qualifications.

No comments:

Post a Comment