Category: Education

What are the best analyses of small, innovative, productive groups?

Shane emails me:


What have you found to be the best books on small, innovative, productive groups?

These could be in-depth looks at specific groups – such as The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs – or they could be larger studies of institutions, guilds, etc.

I suggest reading about musical groups and sports teams and revolutions in the visual arts, as I have mentioned before, taking care you are familiar with and indeed care passionately about the underlying area in question.  Navy Seals are another possible option for a topic area.  In sociology there is network theory, but…I don’t know.  In any case, the key is to pick an area you care about, and read in clusters, rather than hoping to find “the very best book.”  The very theory of small groups predicts this is how you should read about small groups!

But if you must start somewhere, Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies is probably the most intensive and detailed place to start, too much for some in fact and arguably the book strains too hard at its target.

I have a few observations on what I call “small group theory”:

1. If you are seeking to understand a person you meet, or might be hiring, ask what was the dominant small group that shaped the thinking and ideas of that person, typically (but not always) at a young age.  Step #1 is often “what kind of regional thinker is he/she?” and step #2 is this.

2. If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together.  Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations.  The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.

3. Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust.  These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead.  Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

4. The bizarre and the offensive have a chance to flourish in small groups.  In a sense, the logic behind an “in joke” resembles the logic behind social change through small groups.  The “in joke” creates something new, and the small group can create something additionally new and in a broader and socially more significant context, but based on the same logic as what is standing behind the in joke.

5. How large is a small group anyway?  (How many people can “get” an inside joke?)  Has the internet made “small groups” larger?  Or possibly smaller?  (If there are more common memes shared by a few thousand people, perhaps the small group needs to be organized around something truly exclusive and thus somewhat narrower than in times past?)

6. Can a spousal or spouse-like couple be such a small group?  A family (Bach, Euler)?

7. What are the negative social externalities of such small groups, compared to alternative ways of generating and evaluating ideas?  And how often in life should you attempt to switch your small groups?

8. What else should we be asking about small groups and the small groups theory of social change?

9. What does your small group have to say about this?

I thank an anonymous correspondent — who adheres to the small group theory — for contributions to this post.

What should I ask Claire Lehmann?

I will be doing a Conversation with her (no associated public event), if you don’t already know here is Wikipedia on Claire:

Claire Lehmann is an Australian psychologist, writer, and the founding editor of Quillette.

Lehmann founded Quillette in October 2015, with the goal of publishing intellectually rigorous material that makes arguments or presents data not in keeping with the contemporary intellectual consensus.

Here is Claire on Twitter.  Here is her own home page and bio.  Here is the Quillette Patreon page.

So what should I ask her?

Kenneth Arrow says

1. The family of development economist Hollis Chenery owned the race horse Secretariat (!, related sources).

2. The opposition to putting the Reagan Library at Hoover and Stanford came from NIMBY considerations, not ideology.

3. The historian of Germany Gordon Craig was the greatest lecturer Arrow ever heard [TC: I can’t find any of him on YouTube.]

4. Arrow: “Well, I do remember an awful lot, and it’s not photographic memory.  I don’t remember the page exactly.  I read things in some order, and they come back, but I can’t explain how or why it happens.

…I think it’s just a desire to understand.  I just enjoy learning things.  Learning.  I don’t mean…I like to systematize, not just memorize.  To put them together.  I have this characteristic, even when I was young.  I treat everything like it was geography; in my mind I’d try to put the things on a map.  When I was reading history I’d try to make up genealogical tables, of the kings of England or something.  So I had this tendency to try to systematize things, to try and understand remote sounding things.”

5. His advice for Larry Summers [his nephew]: “Err on the side of too much regulation.”

6. Arrow once spent six months on the Council of Economic Advisors.  His two major effects may have been to veto an American version of the SST and to help veto the digging of a second Panama Canal.

Those are all from the frank interviews with Arrow in On Ethics and Economics: Conversations with Kenneth J. Arrow, by Arrow of course and also by Kristen Renwick Monroe and Nicholas Monroe Lampros.  Interesting throughout.

What should I ask Michelle Dawson?

I will be having a Conversation with her, here is part of her Ordre de Montréal citation:

Michelle Dawson is an autism researcher who is passionately engaged in promoting the rights of autistic people. Her research has led to important advances in the understanding of autism and its legal status.

Ms. Dawson is autistic and has never attended university as a student. In the early 2000s, faced with the devastating effects of human rights violation based on her diagnosis, she started learning about autism science, ethics, and law.

Since 2004, she has been affiliated with the Université de Montréal’s autism research group. Despite her lack of formal education and the precariousness of her situation, she has collaborated widely with academics here at home and around the world, and made original contributions to autism research in scientific journals, encyclopedias, scholarly books, and conference presentations. She has also used social media to promote better standards in autism research.

Her work has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in several areas, including perception, cognition, learning, and intelligence in autism. She has documented the poverty of scientific and ethical standards in autism intervention research, and the resulting harm to autistic people. Contrary to long-entrenched views, she believes that autistics deserve the same basic rights as the rest of humanity. She also believes that in research, as elsewhere, autistic and non-autistic people should work together as equals.

She tweets at @autismcrisis, and here is her work at  I also have a co-authored paper with her, on Alan Turing.  Many of you also will know Michelle as a long time MR correspondent.

So what should I ask her?

*High Growth Handbook: Scaling startups from 10 to 10,000 people*

Edited, produced, and partly written by Elad Gil, the book is also a series of interviews with Marc Andreessen, Sam Altman, Patrick Collison, Reid Hoffman, Keith Rabois, Naval Ravikant, and others.

Marc Andreessen says:

If you don’t start layering in HR once you’ve passed 50 people on your way to 150, something is going to go badly wrong.

Claire Hughes Johnson (COO of Stripe) says:

When I came into Stripe, I had a similar document.  I wrote a document back when I was at Google called, “Working with Claire.”  And when I first got to Stripe, I adapted it slightly, but it was pretty relevant.  I shared it with everyone who was working with me closely, but I have made it an open document.  It spread quite quickly through the organization…I think that founders should write a guide to working with them.

Patrick Collison says:

..the CEO ultimately does not have that many jobs, but I think culture is among them.  And it ought not be delegated.  Briefly speaking, I think there are five top responsibilities of a CEO: being the steward of and final arbiter of the senior management; being the chief strategist; being the primary external face for the company, at least in the early days; almost certainly being the chief product officer, although that can change when you’re bigger; and then taking responsibility and accountability for culture.

Self-recommending, you can order it here.

My Conversation with Elisa New

Here is the audio and transcript, Elisa is a Professor of English at Harvard, with a specialty in poetry, and also star and driving force behind the new PBS show Poetry in America.  Most of all we talked about poetry!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let me express a concern, and see if you can talk me out of it. I’m going to use the word best, which I know many literary critics do not like, but I believe in the concept nonetheless.

In my view, the two best American poets are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and they were both a long, long time ago. They were quite early in the literary history of this nation.

Is that a statement about the fame-generating process, a statement about somehow their era was better at generating the best poets because we had a much smaller population, or am I simply wrong in thinking they’re the best American poets?

NEW: I don’t know what to say to you. I revere them. They are the most important poets for me. They invent two ways of being a poet, and two of the ways that so many poets who have followed them also acknowledge.

Would there be Hart CraneAllen GinsbergCarl SandburgC. D. WrightC. K. Williams? Would there be any of those — Frank O’Hara — without Walt Whitman? And they would be the first to say, “No.”

Would there be Susan HoweMarianne MooreElizabeth BishopSylvia Plath? All in different ways, would we have them without Emily Dickinson? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

COWEN: I turn to European history, again using the “best” word, but it’s plausible to think Homer and Dante are the two best European poets ever in some regards, and they, too, are each quite early in a particular stage of history. What is it about poetry that seems to generate so many people as at least plausible bests who come at the very beginnings of eras?

NEW: Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists who would say, “Adam Smith is a really smart guy, but it’s not like we go to Adam Smith to understand Bitcoin.” They would say, “No. That knowledge has been superseded.”

In literary knowledge, we continue to learn from our predecessors and also continue to feel awe before the persistence of certain phenomena that they . . . Shakespeare saw that Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize.

We recognize ourselves. We recognize something enduringly human in these oldest of poets, and then, maybe, we elevate them even more.


COWEN: Is it possible that American English isn’t rich enough? I find if I go to Ireland, or especially to Trinidad, I envy the language they have there. They’re both speaking English. If you think of America today, there’s texting, now a long history of television.

Our language is great for quick communication, number one in the world for science. Now there’s social media. Nineteenth-century American English has longer sentences. It’s arguably more like British English. Isn’t the problem just the language we grow up with around us isn’t somehow good enough to sustain first-rate poets?

NEW: It is. It’s so rich. I love the way it evolves, the way my kids don’t say “whatever” anymore. “Whatever” had such incredible potency. “Epic.” When they started to say “epic” had such potency. When hip-hop artists say, “That’s really ill.”

I love the fertility of slang. I love the way mass culture, and its technological limitations, and then its new breaths does funny things to language. I tell my students about this. I say, “You know the way how in ’30s movies, the women are always sweeping around going, ‘Oh, darling,’ in The Thin Man, and there’s this ‘Hi, honey . . .’” [laughs]

If you watch a ’30s movie, and then you watch a ’50s movie, and you see the plasticity and the ingenuity that human beings put into . . . We don’t say, “Hey, kid.” We don’t call anyone a kid anymore. It sounds really archaic and corny.


COWEN: Which is more interesting, Instagram poetry or Facebook poetry?

Definitely recommended, interesting throughout.  We talked about Shaq too.  After the conversation ended, Elisa said something striking to me, something like: “I liked this conversation because you didn’t ask me about “the humanities,” you asked me about poetry.”

Claims about British and American English

1. The word “cheerio” does not precede 1910, and furthermore it has been obsolete for some time now, and not because it was pushed out by an Americanism.

2. The Brits are correct to insist on “I couldn’t care less,” rather than the American “I could care less.”

3. Americans used to call an umbrella a “bumbershoot,” yet nowadays if they hear the word they often think it is a Britishism.  The British slang term is in fact “brolly.”

4. When Americans speak, they prefer “repetitious” over “repetitive,” even though the latter is nine times more common in American text.  Perhaps repetitious is more…repetitious.

5. “One-off” is a Britishism that largely has caught on in America.

6. How can they call it “rumpy-pumpy”?

7. “The British use sorry at the rate four times the Americans do.”

All that and more is from the new and fun book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, by Lynne Murphy.

Why consume the most recent news?

Here is another left-over question from my recent talk:

How do you think about when it makes sense for to consume the most-recent news, in light of Robin Hanson’s “news isn’t about info”?  How would you advise the rest of us?

I consume the news avidly for (at least) these reasons:

1. For professional reasons, I am required to do so.  That said, I am happy to note the endogeneity of that state of affairs.  Consuming the news is fun, though in a pinch more sports, games, and the arts could serve much of the same role.

2. I actually care what is happening.

3. Consuming the news is one of the best ways of testing your views about the past.  We are always revaluing what we thought we knew, in light of new data.  Brexit teaches us that the UK was never quite so well integrated into the EU.  The election of Trump may imply that certain late 19th century strands of American politics are enduring, and the evolution of the racial income gap will induce us to reassess various policies of the last few decades.

Under this theory, reading a lot of history books should raise the return to following the news.  For most people, they haven’t read so many books and at the margin they need more books rather than more news.  In this sense, following the news doesn’t make intellectual sense for most people, though they may need it for social bonding, signaling, and conversation purposes.

I would stress the concomitant point that following the news does not make one a much better predictor of the future, if at all.  It may even cause people to overweight the most recent trends, due to availability and recency bias.

4. I also use the news to make history more interesting to me.  It is easier to get “wrapped up” in the news, if only because of the social support and the element of dramatic suspense.  If somehow the Balkans no longer existed, I would find it hard to wish to understand that “…the medieval Serbian Orthodox Church had established a new see at Pec in Kosovo in 1297…”  As it stands, my interest in that event is sufficiently intense, and it remains important for understanding the current day.

5. It is perhaps addictive that the news comes every day.  But that is a useful discipline.  If you follow the news, you will work at it every day, more or less.  Better those compound returns than to do something else once every three months and a half.

In essence, the news is a good, cheap trick for getting yourself to care more about things you should care about anyway, but maybe don’t.

Has the wage-education locus for women been worsening?

That question is the focus of some recent research by Chen Huang.

Women’s labor force participation rate has moved from 61% in 2000, to 57% today.  It seems two-thirds of this change has been due to demographics, namely the aging of the adult female population.  What about the rest?  It seems that, relative to education levels, wages for women have not been rising since 2000:

I discover that the apparent increase in women’s real wages is more than accounted for by the large increase in women’s educational attainment. Once I condition on education, U.S. women’s real wages have not increased since 2000 and may even have decreased by a few percentage points. Thus, the locus of wage/education opportunities faced by U.S. women has not improved since 2000 and may have worsened. Viewed in that light, the LFPR decrease for women under age 55 becomes less surprising.

You can consider that another indicator of the Great Stagnation.

Asian-American admissions at Harvard

Here is basic NYT coverage of the case:

University officials did concede that its 2013 internal review found that if Harvard considered only academic achievement, the Asian-American share of the class would rise to 43 percent from the actual 19 percent.

Here is the plaintiff’s brief by Peter S. Arcidiacono.  Here is David Card’s brief in defense of Harvard and Asian-American admissions.  Here is Arcidiacono’s response to Card.

Gabriel Rossman noted on Twitter: “Once you control for lacrosse, founding an NGO in high school, legacy status, alumni evaluation of personality, woke personal essays, and a 23&me test for EDAR, there’s no effect”

My take is simple.  Harvard is risk-averse with respect to the stream of future donations, as are many other schools.  Asian-American admissions don’t have the same donating track record as the white students traditionally cultivated by Harvard and other top universities.  Either Asian-Americans may seek out “diaspora philanthropy,” or they simply may have a more cynical attitude toward top institutions that they basically have never had any control over.

Furthermore, there is a common fear — repugnant to me I should add — that if a student body becomes “too Asian,” many white students will be less interested in going there.  I taught at UC Irvine for several years and found it to be a delightful experience, but this is exactly what many schools are afraid of (the UCI student body is disproportionately Asian, and the honors class I taught in my first year had only one non-Asian student in it).

And so they come up with every excuse possible — sometimes cemented in by self-deception — for maintaining a “balanced” student body.

It is incorrect to call it “racism,” but it is non-meritocratic and we should move away from those attitudes as quickly as possible.

In related news, the University of Chicago is moving away from the use of SAT scores in admissions.  The cynical might suggest this is so they are more insulated from potential lawsuits and also so they have more discretion in admissions.  If Chicago feels the need to do this, perhaps the system really is buckling under the strain of all these outside pressures.

Nonetheless, I predict ultimately the status quo will not change very much.  I just don’t see a strong enough popular or judicial constituency for righting the wrongs done to Asian-Americans.  Some kind of partial concession will be made, various terms and standards will be somewhat redefined, and we’ll be back to “rinse and repeat.”  Meritocracy: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

I am pleased to report that none of this tomfoolery goes on at my home institution, which is highly and truly diverse.

Raj Chetty is returning to Harvard

That is the word on Twitter.  Does he want grandchildren more than he used to?  You may remember my Conversation with him, a short while after he moved to Stanford:

CHETTY: So if you’re in your mid-30s, only something like a quarter or less of girls growing up in the Bay Area are married, and we show in our paper that every extra year you spend growing up in the Bay Area, you’re less likely to get married. I remember telling my wife, “I don’t think we need to worry. Our daughter will be fine in terms of earnings. It’s just that she might not be married if we move to California.”
COWEN: So, you’ve lowered your expectations for grandchildren?
CHETTY: Yes. [laughs]

Which system should be redesigned from scratch?

Here is another question I didn’t get to answer from last night:

Your blog talks about making small marginal improvements, but if you could redesign one system entirely from scratch, which one would it be, and how would it look compared to what is currently in place?

One answer would be “blogging, I would have much more of it.”  But my main answer would be higher education, especially those tiers below the top elite universities.  Completion rates are astonishingly low, and also not very transparent (maybe about 40 percent?).  I would ensure that every single student receives a reasonable amount of one-on-one tutoring and/or mentoring in his or her first two years.  In return, along budgetary lines, I would sacrifice whatever else needs to go, in order to assure that end.  If we’re all standing around in robes, arguing philosophy under the proverbial painted porch, so be it.  At the same time, I would boost science funding at the top end.

I also would experiment with abolishing the idea of degree “completion” altogether.  Maybe you simply finish with an “assessment,” or rather you never quite finish at all, since you might return to take a class when you are 43.  Why cannot this space be more finely grained, especially in an age of information technology?

At lower ages, I would do everything possible to move away from having all of the children belong to the exact same age group.  The Boy Scouts are a better model here than “the 7th grade.”

The NBA is one institution that I feel is working really well at the moment. and I don’t just say that because I root for Golden State.  Though that doesn’t hurt any, either.

Yale Politic interview with me

I enjoyed this one, lots of real questions from Eric Wallach, not “tell us about your book” and the usual snoozefest.  Here is one bit:

So you like the idea of pardons– how do you work through that one?

I don’t even firmly believe that punishment is justified morally. Maybe it’s necessary, maybe you just can’t do without it.  But the mere fact that someone has wronged another, I don’t think causes them to forfeit their rights in the way that was claimed in classic, early modern political philosophy. Once you think wrongdoers still have their human rights, on what grounds do you punish them? Could be that you simply have to– either the public won’t accept another option and they would overthrow your non-punishment regime and bring in fascism, and something with a lot more punishment would come about.

I get that– I’m not saying you can just toss away the keys to all these jails. But insofar as you have options of not punishing people – who in the cases I’ve read about it seems they’re not going to go out there and continue their serial killing sprees – I think we just simply ought not to punish them. Martha Stewart, again, that seems to me a very clear case. Undo the wrong. If I were a president, I’d consider just only pardoning people and then resigning. I know I couldn’t get away with it forever, but it’s one way to think about the job.

There are other points of interest, new and interesting throughout.

Is the reversal of the Flynn Effect environmental?

Maybe so, says a new paper by Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg:

Using administrative register data with information on family relationships and cognitive ability for three decades of Norwegian male birth cohorts, we show that the increase, turning point, and decline of the Flynn effect can be recovered from within-family variation in intelligence scores. This establishes that the large changes in average cohort intelligence reflect environmental factors and not changing composition of parents, which in turn rules out several prominent hypotheses for retrograde Flynn effects.

In short, IQ relates inversely to sibling order, and the basic effect is not being generated by a changing composition of married pairs over time.

In other words, we have started building a more stupidity-inducing environment.  Or at least the Norwegians have.  But of course the retrograde Flynn Effect is starting to pop up in the data more generally, and not just in Norway.  From The Times of London:

The IQ scores of young people have begun to fall after rising steadily since the Second World War, according to the first authoritative study of the phenomenon.

The decline, which is equivalent to at least seven points per generation, is thought to have started with the cohort born in 1975, who reached adulthood in the early Nineties.

Have a nice day!

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.