Saturday, September 17, 2016

Another One Percent

Last week's Nature News Alert had an article misleadingly entitled: How to raise a genius: lessons from a 45-year study of super-smart children. The capsule sentence was just as far off:

A long-running investigation of exceptional children reveals what it takes to produce the scientists who will lead the twenty-first century.

The study in question, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) had nearly nothing to do with either of these things. Instead it identified gifted youngsters based on giving them the Math SAT at age 13 (the SAT is usually taken by university bound high school juniors and seniors). Those who scored in the top 1% were included in the study, and followed for the past 45 years. Some of the names will be familiar:

At the start, both the study and the centre were open to young adolescents who scored in the top 1% on university entrance exams. Pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng were one-percenters, as were Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and musician Stefani Germanotta ...

If that last name doesn't jump out at you, you are probably not a pop culture geek, but you may be more familiar with her performing name: Lady Gaga.

The results of the study show that these students go on to be much more likely than the general students to get doctorates, STEM doctorates, and publish scientific papers.

The tests given to these kids are not true IQ tests because they focus on math ability and spatial reasoning. Getting high math scores at age 13 means that they can usually solve many types of math problems that they have never seen in their class work.

The study speaks approvingly of accelerating students by having them skip grades. I declined to let my kids be skipped, partly because I had read Murray Gell-Mann's comments on his experiences with being skipped far beyond his age cohort, but mostly because they thought it was a horrible idea. One thing that I thought worked better was letting them take high school classes while in middle school and university classes in high school, while remaining for most classes with their age cohorts.

The comments in Nature online were nearly uniformly disapproving of the story, but substantive critiques were hard to find. Of course the Nature readership is also likely to be a very scientifically literate group.

The study is now taking a closer look at the elite of the elite, the top 0.01 %, or roughly four standard deviations above the mean.