Much too certain: miscellaneous Sunday topics

Today, a topic that I mean to expand—greatly—in the coming weeks. That theme, as you might has guessed, is too many people are too certain about too many things. Nothing more than pointers to a couple of articles and some commentary for the moment.

Sad Day

Famed shark hunter Frank Mundus, who supplied the words to live by “A PhD don’t mean shit”, died this week. We earlier looked at Mundus’s philosophy in the essay “The BS octopus.” Mundus often proved that having letters after his name didn’t make him a better fisherman.

Don’t Go To College

On the same theme, Charles Murray’s new book on why most people don’t need to and shouldn’t go to college is out and making the blogs. Murray points out the obvious: not everybody is equipped to go to college, but most people are encouraged to do so. Many businesses want applicants to “have a degree” (same phrase we used in The BS Octopus). Meaning that the business doesn’t care what the applicant knows, since he can learn what he needs on the job, but they only want the letters after the name. Ridiculous.

Murray also does the simple math to show that most people would be better off skipping college altogether and heading for the trades: electrician (what I would have done), plumber, craftspeople of all types, farmers, and so on. Not everybody—and this is a shocker—graduates with distinction and makes the salaries at the top end of the range. Besides, Murray says, college should be saved for the people the brains to do it. Sound harsh and non-egalitarian? Well, not everybody has the body to be an athlete, nor the looks to be a model, nor the talent to become an actress or musician. We never have a hard time telling people the hard truth in those cases, but we’re squeamish about telling others that they might not be smart enough for school. It also goes smack in the fact of one of the guiding principles of the Enlightenment: education can cure all ills

High school guidance counsellors push too many people towards college. And colleges take them in. Generates big business, too. I speak from experience when I tell you that college is not for the majority. Since that is a true statement, but people desire college for the majority, this, in part, explains why college is not what it used to be, and why there are so many of them. Many modern-day colleges operate like expansion leagues in sports: too little talent to spread around, leading to watered down performance.

I taught too many kids who should not have been in my class. Sweet kids, mostly, big hearts. I never gave anybody a grade less than they deserved, but I admit to helping contribute to grade inflation. I recall two young men in one class. Both were part-time bouncers, both struggled, worked hard and came on time. They never missed a class or a quiz. Both were dumb as posts, but I loved them. They should have failed, but I weakened (I am a softy at heart) and I passed them. These guys were not isolated incidents, not for me, and not for many, many other professors I know.

Voting Complete

My study for guessing who will win the presidential election is now closed. It went well until one gentleman, who called himself a “godless liberal”, posted the survey on his blog. He called me a “right wing” blogger, and this somehow gave permission for his readers to go nuts and stuff the ballot box with all kinds of nonsense, despite my pleas that behave like good citizens. The good news is that I know who these “voters” are so I’ll be able to remove them from the answers.

Can’t, of course, post results on the actual survey until after the election. I might say some things about the ballot box stuffers before then.


  1. PaddikJ

    Hmm. . . I read this post twice & I couldn’t find the ostensible point – too much certainty in too many places. It seemed more about what needs fixing with our education system, and more generally, the intrinsic (vs perceived) value of a college degree (all of which I agree with, BTW).

    But – I saw the lead sentence & immediately decided I had to remind readers of Michael Crichton’s fine, wish-I’d-thought-of-that phrase, so here it is:

    “I am certain there is too much certainty.”

  2. Not that I disagree with the general thesis above, but no human being is as dumb as a post. We are all wired the same way. If you can talk, you can do math. Both skills arise in the same place in the brain. If you can read, you can learn anything. What a miracle it is to be able to read, yet almost everybody can.

    Kids come to college these days not with defective brains but with defective preparatory education. What we need are remedial college prep schools for those young adults for whom the public education system failed. And better placement, so that the prepared students are shunted to certain higher level courses quickly while the unprepared are taught at their appropriate level. Degrees should be awarded on the basis of level of learning acheived, not credits accumulated. The BS, MS, PhD degrees are too few; we need about 10 degree levels to fit the student mix better.

  3. Briggs

    PaddiJ, it’s coming. This post was just a couple of tidbits for a Sunday afternoon. The idea is that there are more people with advanced “degrees” out there than ever before, and these people are making more decisions for others about which they are too sure.

    Love the Crichton quip, orders of magnitude better than mine.

    No, Mike, I was being facetious as usual. However, I stand by the argument that not every body is equipped to learn every thing. We’re all laid on the same lines, but not everybody’s wiring is identical. Not everybody can be above average. Yet, as Murry says, “more than 90 percent of high-school students report that their guidance counselors encouraged them to go to college.”

    If our uncertainty in a person’s intelligence can be characterized by a probability distribution that is symmetric—and there is good evidence that it can be—then 50% of people will be found to be above average intelligence, and 50% will be found to be below average intelligence. Then 90% of all kids being encouraged to go to college is out of line with the reality of kids’ abilities.

    You’re often right that inability to learn is the fault of the teachers, and God knows I can do a better job. It is true that every body can be taught a little, or to improve. I don’t think we really disagree. Here’s a quote from Murray

    Liberal education in college means taking on the tough stuff. A high-school graduate who has acquired Hirsch’s core knowledge will know, for example, that John Stuart Mill was an important 19th-century English philosopher who was associated with something called Utilitarianism and wrote a famous book called On Liberty. But learning philosophy in college, which is an essential component of a liberal education, means that the student has to be able to read and understand the actual text of On Liberty. That brings us to the limits set by the nature of college-level material. Here is the first sentence of On Liberty: “The subject of this essay is not the so-called liberty of the will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of philosophical necessity; but civil, or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” I will not burden you with On Liberty’s last sentence. It is 126 words long. And Mill is one of the more accessible philosophers, and On Liberty is one of Mill’s more accessible works. It would be nice if everyone could acquire a fully formed liberal education, but they cannot.

  4. Alan Bates

    I know exactly who the guy was who crashed your survey.

    He makes a habit of it for reasons best known to himself. He is a professor at a liberal arts college/uni., a liberal himself and an atheist.

    Why he can’t just let other people get on with their own lives (and their own blogs), I have no idea. He makes a habit of crashing people’s blogs, especially it is a subject he disagrees with (whether he understands it or not) – like your poll.

    If you disagree with him on any topic you get a range of different types of abuse from his “fellow-thinkers”.

    I am impressed by the high standard of comments on your blog. You will never make “Blog of the Year” but if you really want to learn something (and I do) this is a place to come.

    best wishes

  5. Jim T

    Well OF COURSE you’re “right wing”. You insist on critical thinking, which isn’t popular at all among the Left.

  6. Ari


    I haven’t yet had the honor of being a professor myself, but I have been a TA at a so-called “good university” (let’s just leave it at one of the top 3 Univ. of California campuses). I also had the good fortune of taking classes as an undergrad at UCLA, which is arguably one of the top 25 universities in the US.

    One of the interesting things about publics is that the student bodies tend to be much more variable than their private university counterparts. I’ll use UCLA as an example (since I know it well.) UCLA and USC have similar median/mean scores amongst admits and matriculants, but UCLA has a lot more “less qualified” students in the lowest quartile than USC. What UCLA has, however, is a really strong 1st quartile that USC doesn’t seem to have. This biases the median, and makes it seem like UCLA and USC have equivalent student bodies when they do not.

    This holds true at the rest of the “top” publics. Strong top quartile, much weaker bottom quartile.

    As a TA, I was constantly blown away by how good the top students in my sections were. But on the flip side I was blown away by how poor the worst students in my sections were. I TAed a variety of courses (mostly East Asian history and gen ed.), but found that this held true at both the upper division and lower division course levels. Some of the worst students simply had no business being in my sections. They couldn’t handle small doses of reading, couldn’t deal with basic concepts, and were simply at a loss when it came to the big picture.

    And these weren’t very technical courses I was TAing, either.

    I had students who didn’t know what a thesis is. No joke.

    And what could I do? I suggested these students repeat the course, and I got called “too strict.” It felt wrong to me to say to these students, who didn’t even turn in halfway decent papers, that they should pass a course they didn’t comprehend.

    But I did it.

    Now, I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest genius. I’m not. I’m not even a genius. But it doesn’t take a genius to know that at least 1/4 of my students had no business being at the college they were at.

  7. Since I sent the email to the godless liberal blogger asking him to post a notice about your survey, I would like to apologize for my part in what has become an annoyance for you. My goal in contacting him was to get more self-identified liberals to participate (since you posted about needing more diversity, which I took to mean liberals, which I assume is not typical of your regular readership). I didn’t intend for them to flood you with bad data.

    I know you say you can remove the repeats, but I feel a bit responsible for adding an otherwise unnecessary task to your schedule. I hope the initial votes of the folks from that blog are useful and provide the diversity you were looking for, and I hope that the removal of repeats can be automated.

  8. Briggs


    Don’t worry about it at all. I got about 600 good data points before their 2 or 3 thousand came flooding in. I’ll still have enough to make my point.

    You were a sweetheart to help out.

  9. JH

    If a young adult is not motivated to work hard, he/she probably will not be a successful tradesman or college student. Oh, it would make my job so much easier if I had motivation pills (not Ritalin) for my students.

    Jim T, How about this!? There is nothing right in your left brain, and there is nothing left in your right brain. Oops, sorry, this was what my doctor told me when asked him why I had a headache.

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