Monday, March 30, 2015

How the American education system doesn’t fail

Fareed Zakaria makes a number of excellent points in this article -- Why America's obsession with STEM is dangerous -- about the U.S. education system, whose faults are regularly exposed by those infamous international math tests – but whose huge advantages are almost never discussed, including a culture that seems to engender a major portion of the world’s creativity. 

Zakaria is spot on in many ways… yet he betrays the topic by buying into zero sum thinking. He argues, for example, that calls for increased emphasis on STEM education (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) must necessarily undermine these creative advantages, by robbing American students of exposure to English, the arts, humanities and other tools of a broad and generally adaptable, modern mind.

Sorry, but that part -- like most zero-sum reasoning -- is pure hokum. 

Oh, Zakaria’s premise is on-target; we need to double down on  our investment in creative generalist education. But his fretfulness distracts from a key point here – that the “well-roundedness” trait is embedded far too deeply in the North American system to be threatened so easily. Its bulwark is fundamental and potent – in the four-year U.S. Baccalaureate degree. 

Most Americans are astonished to learn what a “bachelor’s” degree consists of, across most of Europe and Asia. Taking just three years (nominally), it calls for a 17 year old to dive into a single specialization, almost as narrowly as someone in law or medical or grad school, with only token requirements to lift her or his head and look beyond.

That is a fine way to make science “boffins” (the contemptuous British term for STEM specialists)… or upper-crust history majors who are destined for roles in government or boardrooms, without a clue how the world really works.  But it seems a wretched thing to do to teenagers whose prefrontal lobes haven’t even kicked-in yet, and who should taste from many pots, before deciding which one to cook. Yanks and Canadians rightfully recoil from such a dismal life sentence for any poor teenager who is caught in that premature-specialization machine.

Breadth requirements University of Michigan
The North American university pattern is inherently different in its program, but also in its expectations for what it takes to be a well-rounded citizen. The fourth year of a U.S. Baccalaureate degree consists entirely of breadth requirements. 

A young person who enrolls in a science or math curriculum, at almost 99% of accredited U.S. colleges, may not graduate without taking six or more courses in the arts, humanities, history and literature. Precisely the prescription demanded by Fareed Zakaria, only without the fragility that he implies.

As one side effect, our nascent boffins not only learn much about the color and texture of human experience. They also discover how easy those subjects can be! And hence, an inventor who wants to start a company might decide to get a law degree, or MBA, “on the side.”  Indeed, many do. And this helps to explain Silicon Valley, where boffins rule.

Likewise, North American students in arts or humanities are required to take half a dozen light-but-fascinating science and math survey classes. I taught “Astronomy for Poets,” one year, and saw how happy the guys and gals were, to lose their fear of nerdy things. They left with at least a general awareness of the universe, its scope and rules, and how quickly this adventurous civilization is learning more. See: The Surprising Effectiveness of College Literacy Classes, by Art Hobson.

(Always, every year, one science survey class was more popular than our introductory astronomy course. It was “the Biology Of Human Sexuality.” Curse you, bio nerds!”)

This, too, has had a major outcome. The United States may do badly in international tests of memorized facts and rote skills. But we always score in the top three, at “Adult Science Literacy.  Last year, U.S. citizens scored in second place. I believe another year we were first!  

Is this an unadulterated success?  Of course not. In order to rank number one or two, the U.S. had only to score twenty-eight percent in adult Science Literacy Rate (SLR) -- a shamefully low bar, that helps to explain why forty percent of our population actually credits blithering nonsense, like climate change denialism and anti-vaccine mania.  What the ASL scores actually show is how bloody awful the rest of the world is, at graduating well-rounded citizens.  Yes, even worse than America.

(Homeopathy? Oh, my.)

Clearly there is just one reason why U.S. "adult" "science" "literacy" would be so much higher than our other scores, measuring the memorized/rote skills of children.  That difference is college breadth requirements. Indeed, during the last decade, reformers in both the EU and Japan have been hand-wringing about this very point, promoting changes in primary, secondary and university education, demanding that they be taught “in a more American manner."

Is everything rosy?  Of course not! Part of the 4-years in the U.S. is making up for the fact that American high school students memorize almost no facts (but learn argumentation skills that are unmatched, anywhere) and must relearn many basics.  Moreover, the skyrocketing cost of a U.S. bachelor's degree is a travesty, in a country that should be investing more in this peerless infrastructure of human development.  There are also increasing concerns that corporations and even rich donors are using their economic power to sway the focus of university education away from the "wide stance" method that engenders so many competitive startups, and more to the old model of providing "boffins" to serve and never ask "why?"

But the main bone that I have to pick with Fareed Zakaria (author of the new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education) is that a balanced view tends to be more accurate.  Most of what he says is right! But he buys into zero sum thinking and jeremiads of doom, when the real news is actually quite mixed. 

Evidence suggests that North Americans have backed the right horse – aiming to teach well-rounded generalists who then, at age 21 or 22, can choose to specialize with a broad grounding and a wide stance. We do this at a cost – doing more poorly than other nations at tests measuring rote skills and memorized facts. This fact, in turn, has hurt those U.S. students who need basic or vocational proficiencies, more than they need exposure to stars and art. We have abandoned vocational education, and betrayed those kids.

But for the 50%+ who do go to college of some sort, there is as much good news, as bad. The pattern is the right one for developing agile, creative citizens. It is a pattern that engendered eighty of the one hundred best universities on the planet. 

Moreover, we can work with that pattern, making it ever better at preparing students for this ever-changing world.


Duncan Cairncross said...

I'm in two minds about this,
The Scottish system was four years for a BSc in engineering
The English system was three years under the theory that the students had specialized in high school

I found the learning rate at university much faster than high school so the purported advantage of the earlier specialization had gone by the end of the first two months

When I was working in the USA the general feeling was that a UK BSc was the equivalent of a Masters from the US universities

It was also noticeable that a very large percentage of the senior engineers were "foreigners"

I helped out at the local High School (Columbus North)when I was there (we won the national solar car event)
The science and maths education was terrible
No experiments - everything from textbooks
Algebra was not taught until about age 14!!!!
And even then it was "optional"

From a considerably more advanced starting point (Scottish High Schools) we worked damn hard to absorb enough engineering in four years
No way that we could have done as much if we had had to spend 25% of our time on "soft" subjects

Saying that the engineers I worked with in the UK from English universities had not gone into as much depth as we had - and they did OK

We could have added liberal arts to our degree - but it would have needed to be longer
Or we would have had to cut a lot out

IMHO you can learn the liberal arts stuff at home

A section on "Civics" how the political and legal system work
would have been useful

A final point
Why do people think the liberal arts help creativity??
There is a huge amount of creativity in any engineering or science work

Duncan Cairncross said...

Just another small comment

17 year olds + 3 years for BSc

Most of us were 18 in going to University and finished after four years
In Science and engineering you could theoretically finish in three years with an "Ordinary" degree but anybody who had done that well would almost always do an "Honors" degree
So the bright ones would do "Honors" and the less bright would take four years to do an "Ordinary"

So we would be 22 before we finished

One of my friends did finish her science degree a week before her 20th birthday
But she was unusual in being very very bright and doing an "Ordinary"

Tony Fisk said...

University of Melbourne switched to the US system a few years ago. Views on this are mixed.

Time vs balance.

I can see the benefits of a well rounded education. However, the bulk of the current waves of woo seem to be emanating from the states. There may be something else going on here as well, like ready access to a good quality broadcast network.

Alex Tolley said...

As an ex-pat Brit with a UK education and teaching experience at a US university, I concur with Duncan. He was especially fortunate in that Scottish education to 18 is still considered extremely good. Despite my focused education, I was often complemented on my creativity.

I don't pay attention to Zakaria, but there are some very worrying trends in US education:

1. Cost is getting extremely high, arguably already too high. This seems to result in students going purely to get the ticket to a good job, the degree being of little importance and grades being considered vital by students. We are going to see a fall off in enrollment unless the trends change.

2. There is an increasing emphasis on skills based learning demanded by companies, or at least those peddling the courses say so. Executives may want passionate all-rounders, but lower ,management is apparently wanting proof of competency. Creativity be damned, just follow instructions.

At this point the education system doesn't look too precarious, apart from funding. However frequent the education groups on Linked-In and the pushing of narrow, skills based education is becoming a little alarming. Add in the GOP push for changes in curricula, and oligarchic benefactors determining content in exchange for donations and we are approaching the slippery slope, if not already on it.

So like Duncan I am not convinced an all-round education is provably better. The increasing number of foreign, especially Chinese students who come to US universities suggests that they consider the US education better, although the reasons may vary.
I do like the US system, but much more for the ease of entering higher education at any point in life, which was very different in Britain where you needed to get on the escalator from school and if you missed it, it was extremely hard to reenter.


Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex

The problem that I saw in entering higher education later in life was not so much the "entering education" but being able to afford to stop working

And I'm not sure that that is better in the USA

That is very important - I have worked with a lot of people who would have really benefited from university - only not when they were 18!

As far as companies "interfering" with education
When I was at Lucas Diesel systems (LDS) in Kent I had some students working for me
I was surprised to find that they had almost no Thermodynamics and Fluid mechanics on their curriculum
What really horrified me was to find that as one of the largest local employers the college had consulted LDS and the morons in HR had told them that Thermofluids was not useful!!

This was for a company that was manufacturing and developing diesel injection systems!

As far as "Skill based learning"
is concerned
IMHO that is incredibly important,
this is the old apprenticeship system that we threw away

The best thing that could happen to education would be if we could get that back

As I come to think about it,
Here (NZ) I have been very cynical about a lot of the university programs that are being offered
I think I have been wrong - what they are doing here is calling a lot of the old skills based training "a degree"
I have been thinking - you don't go to university and get a degree in THAT!
When I should have been thinking is that is valuable training

Paul Harper said...

I have to disagree with Alex Tolley that if you fail to 'get on the escalator from school [in the UK] and if you missed it, it was extremely hard to reenter'.

The UK Open University and many of the Polytechnic's (sort of like Community Colleges in the US) have very flexible entry requirements for mature age students. The Australians are similar with their TAFE system and the Open Universities Australia.

The days of being trapped by the results of an exam at ages 11 and 16 are long gone at least in the English speaking world.

The Dutch and the Belgians have also have Open Universiteit. I am not aware of other European countries with this level of flexibility in their education.

Paul Harper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
locumranch said...

What we have here is a basic disagreement as to the Purpose of Education:

Is it political?
The US Founding Fathers thought so & placed a premium on the classics to encourage 'self-governance'.

Is it moral?
Horace Mann thought so & placed a premium on ethics to encourage hierarchical stability.

Is it economic?
Enter the industrial 'Work Ethic', created by Methodism, designed to create the ideal (unquestioning; obedient; sober; conscientious) factory worker.

Is it classist?
Originally, yes. Universities first served as finishing schools for the ruling elites, then later as technical training for the managerial class, serving little or no purpose for fry cooks or baristas.

Is it occupational training?
See above note on classism.

Is it creative?
Not hardly. First & foremost, the goal of formal education is conformity rather that creativity. Creativity occurs in the absence of formal education, examples include Srinivasa Ramanujan, Einstein, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bill Gates & James Cameron to name a few.

STEM is a peripheral issue that relates to educational content rather than purpose.


David Brin said...

locum is unusually eloquesnt and cogent! But also silly. For every self-taught auto-didact... And Einstein only sort-of qualifies... there are hundreds who benefited from the modern university, which only turns natural conformists into conformists.

Talk to any sophomore. They WANT to be nonconformists... in part to conform to the value system that is preached (non-conformity) in almost every Hollywood film and in almost every book they are assigned, from Catcher in the Rye to Camus to Hemingway to Vonnegut.

Yes, the preceding paragraph's ironies are very hard to wrap the head around... and I do not expect locum to try. But it is still the truth.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

This may seem a bit off-topic, but this is the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about a word that has always perplexed me. That word is boffin. The main post describes boffin as "the contemptuous British term for STEM specialists."

I first encountered the word as a teenager in trying to read the books of Nevil Shute. A few years ago, I began to encounter the word "boffin" quite frequently in many British online news articles. By then, the internet made it possible to easily actually look up its meaning. I was surprised to learn that I had been one for more than 40 years.

In recent years, I have asked several U.S. boffins if they knew what a boffin was. So far, I have yet to encounter any U.S. boffin who knew that he (or she) was a boffin, even among those who have spent a great deal of time in other countries. Does the average British person know what a boffin is?

Since there are several people here who grew up or have spent time living in the U.K., my question is how common is the term "boffin," and how exactly is it used? I know its technical definition, but it is sometimes described as a contemptuous slang term, although I still see it commonly used by science reporters in serious news articles.

Alex Tolley said...

@paul Harper. I graduated in 1975. Last education in UK in 1985. Glad to hear that mature students can get into a university more easily today. OU had been available even then but was the only solution. In my year we had only 1 mature student and he was 27, less than a decade older than the main cohort.

@duncan. Skills based learning should only be in vocational schools. I still think it is inappropriate at university. But it is encroaching. I recently spoke to a CS student graduate and was surprised at how little theory was taught. I much more practical usage of languages so that the student can get a job coding. The course was looking like a halfway house to a trade school.

As I understand it, the UK model made all teaching institutions universities. How does that help apart from making all qualifications a bachelors?

Call a vocational course what it is. Today most students are over qualified for the job they are in, and in the US burdened with a non-dischargeable debt that is a huge economic drag. I would prefer education to be free and paid with taxes. If we really believe in a broad education with a major, then the relevance of the degree to the job market should be largely moot.

Alex Tolley said...

@ jerry. I think boffin is a largely archaic term. You can see it used in a lot of early 20th century movies. Sometimes it is mildly contemptuous , like egghead. At others more as a term of respect for expertise. I can't say I have seen the term used in a contemporary setting.

Google gram has the term peaking in the 19th century!

Alex Tolley said...

@locum. - I actually agree with you. That must be a first.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex
I agree with you that skills training is not what universities used to do
They effectively "did away with" the apprentice system and said that everybody should go to university
In which case it makes sense that the universities should do the skills training

Part of me is thinking - my BSc is a "proper" degree and should not be degraded by all of these BSc's hospitality and the like

Another part of me is thinking - "get over it" why should a more intellectual degree be worth more than a skills degree??

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Thanks, Alex. That is the sort of information that I was looking for. I hadn't thought of using Google Ngram

Google Ngram, however, shows a sudden and steady increase in the use of "boffin" starting in 2002.

A Google News search for "boffin" returns 39,100 results.

One of those results is an opinion piece in the Huffington Post that attaches some significance to the return of the use of the word. See:

Boffin Fallacy

Alex Tolley said...

@duncan - I kind of feel the same way. I think that businesses in the UK still know how to select "real" bachelors from what were the quality universities. You and I still remember the status issue of 11+ exams sorting kids into grammar schools and secondary moderns. Appalling in hindsight, but I think it inculcated the mindset of who was to do the trades and who was to run business or go into academia. Very much part of the British class system. Put on the life escalator at such a tender age was not a good idea for individual talent ( how often did you see a student transfer from secondary modern to grammar school or vice versa?).

Educational background is a version of class and all that implies in attitudes and behavior. It can require effort to overcome. But education is also a signaling device - a shortcut to who you are, and a crude indicator of expected intelligence. I don't expect someone with a higher degree to communicate incoherently ( although that isn't a guarantee)

Alex Tolley said...

why should a more intellectual degree be worth more than a skills degree??

That opens up a whole can of worms about the value of labor and compensation.

Mike G in Corvallis said...

@ Alex Tolley...

I think boffin is a largely archaic term. ... I can't say I have seen the term used in a contemporary setting.

You need to read The Register. They have a fetish about using the word.

locumranch said...

That the higher education (academia; university) is a classist hierarchical system is indisputable, from its upper & lower 'classmen' to its national & international rankings on stature, prestige, price, quality & exclusivity, making the university process more about 'who you know' & 'where you go' than 'what you learn'.

David is sure to point out that higher education HAS played a huge role in upward class mobility and HAS helped to create a vibrant middle class & 'diamond-shaped' WW2-to-Baby-Boomer society, the key phrase being HAS as this boat has long since sailed, calling into question the importance of university training for non-professionals.

Interestingly, the West does appear to be rushing toward a Galt's Gulch of sorts, especially in terms of education, as the well-to-do (who control 90% of financial resources) retreat to posh upper class communities secured by private security and sequester their offspring in increasingly expensive ruling class universities, representing more of a retreat to pre-WW1 social conventions than progress toward a Randian dystopia.

Ask David how many poor people live in his neighborhood, go to his local schools, beg on his streets, frequent his fancy shops or matriculate at his children's pricey 4 year universities because 'no community vocational colleges for the Brin children, nosiree'.

None for my children, either, if I can afford it.


John Kurman said...

Call me a hairy-eyed bomb-throwing anarchist, but 1) higher education in the US should be free, 2) we should have a student debt jubilee, and 3) college should be challenging. No 'trigger warnings' or accusations of 'microaggression'. Don't like what you hear? Tough titties!

Robert Krawitz said...

It's a matter of learning other ways of thinking. Engineering may encourage a certain kind of creativity, but it's a very narrow kind.

I went to MIT myself. The humanities requirement was not trivial; 8 classes, with 3 in a concentration and 3 "distribution" classes, and 2 others (then again, my concentration was in economics...).

What I learned in those classes is hard to quantify, but a lot easier to describe. Three of those classes were law-related, one a constitutional law class that I found absolutely fascinating; another one was in science, technology, and society taught by some significant movers and shakers (Carl Kaysen, Jerome Wiesner, Emma Rothschild among others). The thinking and coursework of the latter covered the impacts of science and technology on society, and included works such as The Puzzle Palace. In other words, understanding the impact of technological decision making on people in general. That topic never came up in engineering and science classes (although it did come up in my economics classes).

Constitutional law, of course, had no impact on my career. Other than learning enough to be able to read a legal document prepared by the lawyers for a startup I was at 20 years ago and catch some errors by the lawyers (not the biggest errors in the world, but the CEO wasn't unhappy with what I did). And knowing a bit more about the law, so that I can better understand and hence follow it in my day to day work, and have some idea how engineering decisions interact with it. And understanding why corporate legal requirements are what they are. Things that people keep getting wrong, in other words. It's hard to pull out a specific example, but the kind of thing that comes up now and again.

There was one class requirement in the computer science curriculum called Computer Systems Engineering (6.033, if I remember correctly). It was a bit...shall we say, controversial. It was not a problem set and lab class. It involved reading a lot of papers, some of them quite famous, and writing a 2-3 page discussion each week, in addition to two term papers. It was derisively called the "Course 6 HUM-D" (Course 6 is electrical engineering and computer science; HUM-D, short for Humanities Distribution, classes require at least 25 pages of writing) by some. People either loved it or hated it. If you wanted to be a pure hacker, you hated it. Those of us who took a broader view thought it was one of the best classes we took.

Overspecialization, particularly at a young age, is in most cases a vice. I hesitate to say "all" cases, because some people are very specialized savants, but all too many cases. When I was a manager, I always liked to hire people with breadth, and I found that that breadth gave them a base that they could learn more specialized things on top of. Specialists tend, in my experience, to have a harder time branching out. Non-traditional backgrounds never bother me, as long as there's evidence of ability to do good work.

Hans said...

I'm going to second both John Kurman and Robert Krawitz.

It's often difficult working with people with narrowly focused educations: They are socially difficult people for one thing. They usually can't write worth a damn for a second.

Two things from University stay with me:

1) My second year quantum mechanics instructor making the point that my classmates and I could consider ourselves fully educated. His point was that after two years of university we were fully equipped to teach ourselves what ever we needed. Formal instruction from that point on was more of a convenience.

2) My professor in a civil engineering class pointing out that engineering is 50 percent social. If your team can't get along, nothing gets done.

When I hire people, these are the things I look for (the third: does the person I'm talking with "get it" apropos science and engineering being fundamentally cool toys).

One final note, a concern I have with education modernization: When I went to school, I was able to place my liberal arts distribution requirements into fairly broad categories, allowing me to complete a minor in Latin American studies. During my program the school changed the requirements to be more specific. It became impossible to take a minor program without adding a 5th year to a students program. I don't feel this change served the needs of the students.

Alex Tolley said...

It's often difficult working with people with narrowly focused educations: They are socially difficult people for one thing. They usually can't write worth a damn for a second.

That is a very broad statement. If the narrow focus was a UK BA in "English", or "History", that grad could probably outperform any US STEM major in writing.

matthew said...

Any educational system that emphasizes brute force rote memorization is ignoring the advent of the smartphone. America is once again ahead of the world when it comes to educational outcomes. My 13 year old child is attending a high school ranked in the top 20 of all public schools in the US. I guarantee that her education is not ignoring the portability of "external brain enhancers" like a smartphone with an unlimited data plan. Children of her generation will be the first to never know a question that cannot be Googled. What they are learning is the key of what question to ask, and how to better separate the wheat from the chaff.

My undergraduate study was at New Mexico Tech. I took a fifth year to finish my BS because I took a bunch of courses outside my major (metallurgy). I took enough political science and psychology classes to qualify for a minor in each, mostly because there were exceptional instructors in both fields. Also a ton of art and music classes. Nice thing about going to a university where the costs to attend were low enough that I could afford to feed my curiosity with a fifth year of undergraduate classes. I was not alone in my choice to branch out. Less than half of all those graduating with a BS from Tech did it in four years. And while the academic rigor was very high, it was not bad grades that caused the "don't hurry" ethos - it was a lot of folks doing what I did, taking the interesting way through college and not feeling the need to specialize too much too early.

Alex Tolley said...

What they are learning is the key of what question to ask, and how to better separate the wheat from the chaff.

Add curiosity about the world and that goes a long way to being "educated". STEM subjects in particular obsolete quickly. Learning how to acquire new information and applying it is a more useful lifetime skill. Curiosity is a driver for this.

In my experience, STEM students need more critical thinking skills and mental tools to look for, and understand, information beyond the textbook.

Hans said...


We have technical writers that are English majors that can't write worth a damn. They would likely have benefited from more technical material in their educations. Or perhaps not. Maybe they are fundamentally incapable of writing well.

It's not an issue to generalize in informal communications. I feel justified in assuming that most people won't assume my unqualified statements are assumed to be absolutes by either assumptive party.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex
"STEM subjects in particular obsolete quickly."

Only if you do it wrong!
If you teach people how to use the latest CAD system then YES

If you teach them the maths behind engineering and the basic science then NO
It will "obsolete" very very slowly
You won't know how to use the latest CAD package but that is "Training" - not education

Decades ago Glasgow Uni took pride in educating us in the basics - not in training us in the current systems

"In my experience, STEM students need more critical thinking skills and mental tools to look for, and understand, information beyond the textbook"
I would agree with this and describe it as a major failing in the educational establishments

"Engineering may encourage a certain kind of creativity, but it's a very narrow kind."

Engineering - NARROW!!!
You need to get out a bit more

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Hans

IMHO - writing is a skill that has to be taught BUT
most people at university are taught the wrong thing!
Universities tend to teach people to write to impress
Which is OK when you are trying to get a good grade
In the real world you will probably be writing to:
Inform - This is what is going to happen
Persuade - This is why you should let me spend all of that money

And those are both completely different from writing to impress

Alex Tolley said...

We have technical writers that are English majors that can't write worth a damn.

I have never met such incompetence in technical writers. I was talking about UK English grads, not US English majors. Plus my wife is a [US ed.] history major and writes better than anyone I know.

There has to be something wrong if an English major can't write well. Is it something about the way your company recruits? :)

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - my expertise is biology, and that is obsoleting very quickly as new knowledge is gained. Unlike harder sciences & engineering, there are few fundamental rules and almost no maths to describe inviolate mechanisms. Much of biology is just phenomenology, or "natural history". Very different from physics, or even chemistry.

Sorry to lump in all STEM subjects in my description (I should be more careful).

Alex Tolley said...

Persuade - This is why you should let me spend all of that money

I notice that scientists are particularly poor at this. I think they see themselves as neutral Mr. Spocks, providing unbiased, supporting information to decision makers.

They also are appalling at slide presentations, but at least they can be trained to do better in this regard as this doesn't upset any beliefs about their role.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex
I was trained in writing to persuade based mostly on "improvement projects"
You normally have a series of options - starting with - Do Nothing and going through the options
As the guy wanting the improvements you will have your favorite and will be trying to persuade the money men to give the go ahead

I would have thought that scientists would have been working on the same lines?

Support MY research because...

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - An MBA would do a net present value calculation for the options to show +ve value for the improvements. This may or may not involve technical expertise to support the desired approach as being feasible, or doable within a time frame which supports the risk assessment and value.

In my experience scientists tend to be involved in selecting the best approach to a scientific issue using experimental data. For example, we should select these genes for out signature device, or perhaps, these data show that the best protocol... What they do not do is get involved in business decisions. When they do, it is usually based more on non-financial factors.

Alex Tolley said...

Note that financial, engineering and scientific persuasion is technocratic. This is very different from other approaches to persuasion - e.g. political or legal which use different skills.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex
An engineer would use NPV -
An MBA would probably use...
I don't know?
Cutting open a sheep and looking at its entrails?

I am extremely cynical about MBA's - it's a good qualification for an engineer with a few years experience but a stand alone MBA is pretty useless

I'm less convinced that there is a real difference between technical and non technical persuasion
The man/woman you are persuading (1) May not be that "technical"
(The route to the top in rarely technical)
(2) Puts his/her jacket on and turns into an ordinary person after work - so persuasion that works on an "ordinary person" should work on him/her

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex
Scientists - making decisions
When Scientists are presenting a proposal they should use "finance" simply as a method of comparing proposals
Cost and benefit are universal
using financial "guesses"
(and that's all engineers use)
Is simply a mechanism so that different ideas can be compared

When its all done and dusted money is simply a way of comparing apples and oranges

Alex Tolley said...

An engineer would use NPV

Where/when would they learn financial concepts?

I'm less convinced that there is a real difference between technical and non technical persuasion

I see it as a sliding scale of degree. Scientists stay more to the technical end where they are more comfortable. They tend to use facts as a support. Non-technical people tend to focus their persuasive efforts using other techniques, e.g. rhetoric.
Obviously an oversimplification, but with a grain of truth based on my experience.

I am extremely cynical about MBA's - it's a good qualification for an engineer with a few years experience but a stand alone MBA is pretty useless

Back when I did my MBA, the B-school had a policy of having 1/2 the cohort with business experience and 1/2 straight from their bachelor's degree.

Jumper said...

I have known a fair amount of people in the scientifically educated fields and notice it's sort of funny how few of them refer to themselves or are described as by people who come in contact with them,"scientists." IBM did have that for some as an official title but I found that the exception.
I even suspect that when the public refers to "scientists" some of the people listening who do qualify, half-consciously don't consider themselves included in the group being discussed.
It's not on too many resumes is it?

Duncan Cairncross said...

"An engineer would use NPV
Where/when would they learn financial concepts?"

I learned how to use things like NPV on the first major project I initiated
I had already been introduced to the concepts - but like all tools you only learn how to use them when you actually need to use them

How can you lead any project above the petty cash level without understanding the financials?

I suppose I should not be too scathing about MBA's as I have a DMS (Diploma in Management Studies - sort of a 1/2 MBA)

Randall Winn said...

When it comes to persuasion, I recall the words of a Con Law prof, roughly:

"1. All successful legal arguments have the same conclusion: 'My client wins'.

2. Your task is to make that conclusion follow logically from the relevant FACTS as applied to the relevant RULES.

3. Such combinations of facts and rules that would lead to a different conclusion must be dismissed as irrelevant, using a sub-argument in the same form as above."

It's a remarkably flexible and vexingly effective method, whether you are arguing politics or money. I lack the knowledge to tell whether this would apply to engineering, except to the extent that choice of engineering project may be a matter of politics or money.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Heh. Despite attending several years of an engineering college:
*I learned how to sweat pipes together (solder copper) in a jewelrymaking class.
*I was horrified when my Industrial Design classes failed to take into account whether or not the design could be easily manufactured with then-standard processes (by now, with 3D prototyping and CAD/CAM, a lot of stuff that was impossible 20 years ago can probably be whipped up simply).
*I was the only one who had any idea what a 'presentation storyboard' looked like, thanks to extensive fine art classes and lots of reading. This was pre-PowerPoint.
*One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a senior engineer, who told me, "If you want to make sure your projects fly, make friends with the guys in the machine shop, plumbers, welders, carpenters. They have years of experience and their knowledge and backing is invaluable." Most of them could eyeball a project and produce a parts list or prototype; it was almost black magic.
A working technological society requires a blend of both arts and sciences.

BTW, I heard the term 'boffin' less than 6 months ago in a TV show. Marvel's Agents of Shield used it to refer to their resident scientists, Fitz and Simmons.


Alfred Differ said...

I learned about NPV and expected NPV from a mining engineer who had to figure out how to get his projects financed. He had to learn the language and he did it in grad school.

STEM People who get through the US system without the breadth requirements fulfilled (like me in some ways) are at a disadvantage here. We don't know our own history, but might think we do. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play quickly.

I still remember reading for the first time that the evolution concept doesn't come from biology. It can be found earlier in economics. When I was younger I thought science was the alpha and omega of all. Pfft. Unfortunately, I DID treat my STEM education as a zero-sum game, so it came at the expense of breadth. I had to make up for that on my own later.

raito said...

I'm a bit amused at that course list for an ME degree. For my EE, statistics, speech, and foreign language were also required.

I did score perfectly on that science knowledge test. I might have been able to do as well in fourth grade, except that fracking wasn't around then.

But there is definitely something to the idea that there are forces that want us to specialize in our education like insects.

I was accepted as one of the outside advisers for the local school district's long range planning committee. And the issue of what education is for came up time and again.The most prevalent, perniciously corrosive attitude was that school should turn out 'good workers', and 'ready for the future'. I'll also note that this attitude was most prevalent in those who self-identified with being 'economically disadvantaged'.

As a slight aside, it's faintly humorous being told by a 350-lb., 5 foot tall woman how horrible it is being poor. I asked in all seriousness if she'd ever missed a meal. She said she hadn't. I pointed out that when I was 18 I was nearly homeless and eating from a food pantry (but I did help make deliveries, because I was physically able). She was at least then able to appreciate that whatever my present circumstances, I was indeed able to understand poverty.

But back to the other subject. Whenever someone said that we should train good workers, I countered that I'd prefer school to teach my children to think, because that would make them the best workers, and further pointed out that I'd rpefer my children to be people who hired workers rather than workers themselves.

And when they said they want children ready for the future, I said I wanted my children to create the future and not be held hostage to it.

Those with the other viewpoints looked confused. The apparently had never considered that those things were possible. On the other hand, several teachers came to me after the meetings and thanked me for voicing those views.

Nicholas MacDonald-Wu said...

Here's the problem:

Corporate America decided to outsource much of their training to the university system. Increasingly, having a degree in a technical subject (or business, accounting or finance) is all that they ask for in entry-level candidates; while some jobs still simply want a holder to have a "four year degree" of any sort, those are quickly vanishing.

If we look at a lot of the autodidacts mentioned earlier on the thread, many of them weren't all that autodidactical (Bill Gates had the best formal education money could buy up through the age of 20, including access to a mainframe computer in the 1970s!), but what many of them had in common was on-the-job training and mentorship- something that is increasingly hard to get.

And it's really bad if you're trying to change careers in your thirties. Even with a finance MBA, I've found it very difficult to find work where I can get properly trained and licensed. Very difficult- as in, a year and a half after graduation, I'm still working temp jobs as a receptionist and knocking on doors, looking for a firm that will take me on...

"An MBA would probably use...
I don't know?
Cutting open a sheep and looking at its entrails?"

That's how you know the difference between someone with a strategy MBA and someone with a finance MBA. The finance MBA rolls a DCF, checks the IRR, and then prices an options spread to manage the risk. The strategy MBA pulls out his tarot deck. :)

Alex Tolley said...

@raito - I think your comment on education shows that different people are at different level's on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Those that want education to deliver some tangible skills for employment are lower on the triangle to those, like yourself, who see it as offering something different. Business owners also want skills education apparently, to acquire plug and play employee drones.

In some ways this was the aim of the traditional UK education that separated children at 11. By 16 you had cohorts of factory ready young adults as well as a small clique of university ready people.

The US model seems to aspire more towards the ideal of a broader education with later specialization. Unfortunately, attitudes about what education is for, who benefits and who pays are driving the system to be evaluated on ROI for the individual. As those who know about NPV and discount rates, the higher uncertainly of a more general education increases the discount rate and therefore lowers the NPV of education, not to mention increasing the fraction of -ve returns. I think this is a worrying trend that needs an urgent fix.

Alex Tolley said...

The finance MBA rolls a DCF, checks the IRR, and then prices an options spread to manage the risk. The strategy MBA pulls out his tarot deck. :)

LOL. I like that comment.

Why are you even thinking IRR though? DCF to NPV should be the best approach. If still using IRR, at least use MIRR to avoid the pitfalls of IRR.

As we know, there is still a lot of sticking fingers in the air to guess values for the cash flows, and fudging of appropriate discount rates that don't reflect project risk. All this results in very fuzzy estimates unless it is done in a disciplined way.

Having said this, how many small/startup tech companies even talk in those terms?

Nicholas MacDonald-Wu said...

"Why are you even thinking IRR though? DCF to NPV should be the best approach. If still using IRR, at least use MIRR to avoid the pitfalls of IRR."

Oh, totally agree. I never saw IRR or MIRR as really useful tools compared to an NPV analysis.

"As we know, there is still a lot of sticking fingers in the air to guess values for the cash flows, and fudging of appropriate discount rates that don't reflect project risk. All this results in very fuzzy estimates unless it is done in a disciplined way.

Having said this, how many small/startup tech companies even talk in those terms?"

Finance is a very fuzzy business as it's all about the management of future risks; the tools we have are better than nothing, but they're still all nonsense to some extent. I recently read Peter Thiel's book, Zero to One, and he pointed out some of the absurdities of the financial field in there and I wish he'd gone in a little deeper, showing how some of the assumptions behind a lot of the tools we use are a little crazy. I noticed this in business school as well.

Alex Tolley said...

showing how some of the assumptions behind a lot of the tools we use are a little crazy.

I agree. Sometimes they appear to be crutches based on very little actual information. (Economists often seem to do something rather similar). Finance works best when conditions are well known and there are a lot of constraints on the values to reduce uncertainly. However even here it all fails at the macro level. e.g. the portfolio insurance induced 1987 stock market crash and the more recent 2008 financial collapse due to the edifice based on MBS with faulty ratings.

Math and numbers often offer a false sense of purity, certainty and security that is belied by reality.

Undergraduate finance courses (even MBA courses) focus on the tools (which is hard enough), and far too little on critiques of those tools. I'd like to see more time apportioned to projects that illuminate where the tools go wrong and how to recognize those situations.

David Brin said...


Duncan Cairncross said...

I agree that finace is a bit murky and that there are very broad error bands around things like NPV

One of the Engineering Institutes leaders once said

Engineering is the art of using materials whose properties we cannot predict to resist forces that we don't understand in such a way that our ignorance is not obvious

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - in the spirit of this quote from Star Trek IV McCoy: "No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people's facts. "

"I feel surer of engineering rules of thumb than financial calculations."

Jared Frick said...

I dropped out of college twice before joining the Army. Later I finished and became a science teacher. STEM was becoming a big word on campus then, but I always worried about the lack of philosophical and art experience for kids - notably my own kids weren't math-kinds-of-kids, but liked art. I briefly toyed with the idea of STEAM - dropping in a little Art with the STEM. These days I think every class needs a class pet, a HAMSTER:
*actually, I'm still a bit lost on the R, but I find my students have a demonstrated lack of respect for reality.
The doom and gloom of the YA FIC part of the library is definitely having an impact, and the cheap copies of crap coming out of Hollywood lately are uninspiring.
But ultimately I think I am a bad fit for teaching. I do not think the current system is really benefiting the kids' futures, and I don;t support the status quo and always find myself at odds with the system in general. I am going to miss it.

Alfred Differ said...

One way to fold Reality in is to remember that Math includes Statistics. If you get out of a US high school without that, someone has done you a disservice.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
As well as statistics kids should know that all numbers (outside of pure mathematics) are "fuzzy"
I was one of the first cohort to use calculators at uni
One of my professors gave us a problem
If you stuck the numbers into a calculator you got something like
He marked us all as WRONG
With the data at one significant figure the answer could only have one significant figure at most
He would accept 9 or at a stretch 8.7
as answers

He was absolutely correct I don't know how often I have seen problems caused by this

The marketing goons are forecasting
About 40,000 pumps
about - 25% will be 4 cylinder
of those - 25% will be...

This comes down to a forecast that we will need 5,643 of one type of drive shaft!

The poor bugger who get that forecast thinks that that is how many we will need!
When what it actually means is between 3000 and 7000

We all need to understand the limits of our numbers
Error bands are great for this

Alfred Differ said...

Yah. I have to agree.

I got to be a judge in a county science fair yesterday and got to say much the same to a junior high kid who was ready to hear it. His two data runs were very close together. He correctly recognized there wasn't much of a distinction, thus his hypothesis was only partially tested. I tried to point him in the right direction without making 'error' bands imply that he had made an error.

Joe said...

Whatever you may think of Adam Savage, I think he's right on he mark when he advocates for adding an 'A' for art to STEM, making it STEAM.

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