Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Does Asian Parenting Cause Asian Success?

Scholars familiar with twin and adoption research will be sorely tempted to summarily dismiss Yale Law professor Amy Chua's recent defense of Chinese parenting. It's hard to find a stauncher defender of what Judith Harris called "the nurture assumption." Chua:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it.

Chua then lists all the fun things she denied her kids, the thousands of hours of academic and musical drill, and her generous helpings of shame.

My initial reaction is exasperation. Yet another essay on parenting that doesn't even contain the words "genes" or "heredity"? A vast literature finds that heredity is not merely part of the reason for family resemblance, but virtually the whole story. How can a professor at Yale act as if this consensus doesn't even exist? Nevertheless, there are two big reasons why Chua's piece deserves a closer look.

First, Asian parenting techniques seem so extreme, and Asian success seems so pronounced, that most people find it counterintuitive to deny causation.

Second, and more importantly, twin and adoption researchers have largely neglected Asian populations. The vast majority of twin and adoption studies focus on largely white samples in largely white countries. Bruce Sacerdote famously studied the effect of (largely white) American parenting on Korean adoptees, but to the best of my knowledge this social experiment has never been reversed.

When you put these two points together, the defender of the efficacy of Chinese parenting could easily say, "Aha! So you can't disprove our intuition that the extremely strict discipline typical of Asian parents causes Asians' adult success." And taken literally, this defender of Chinese parenting is right. Existing twin and adoption evidence can't "disprove" their claims. But the same holds for all empirical research. Even in a double-blind experiment, the nay-sayer can still stonewall, "Your results work for your sample. But my sample is slightly different, so who's to say?" The reasonable approach isn't to demand decisive disproof of your initial position, but to calmly weigh the available evidence. By this standard, Chua's claims about Asian parenting fare poorly.

1. There are plenty of strict non-Asian parents. Chua warns us that, "[W]hen Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers," but she also admits that:
I'm using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise.

So Chinese-like parenting styles are already in the data after all. If strict parenting worked the wonders Chua claims, existing twin and adoption research should detect big effects. They don't. Educational and financial success does run in families, but the reason is almost entirely heredity.

2. Why does the power of Asian parenting seem so intuitive to Asians and non-Asians alike? The reason, most probably, is that people make a big distinction between intelligence, where they admit that heredity plays a major role, and character, which they imagine is entirely environmental.

They're very wrong to make this distinction. Not only do genes have a strong effect on character, but upbringing does not. By the time they grow up, adoptees' work ethic and discipline moderately resemble their biological parents' - and barely resemble their adoptes parents' at all. See Loehlin's chapter in Unequal Success for the best single summary of the evidence.

3. Even more importantly, twin and adoption research shows that heredity has a stronger overall effect on educational and financial success than existing measures of intelligence, character, and everything else predict. Identical twins have much more similar incomes than fraternal twins - far more than their extra IQ and personality similarity can explain. The lesson: Genes demonstrably affect success in more ways that we currently understand. It's cheating to give parenting the residual.

4. Before we marvel at Asians' success, it's worth getting a handle on how successful they really are. They definitely earn more than whites, but only about 15% more. Yes, that pools all Asians together, including recent immigrants. But even if we double this figure to 30%, it's a modest difference that genetically-influenced differences in IQ, personality, and the like can easily explain.

5. Chua doesn't mention a minority that has been far more successful than Asians in general and the Chinese in particular: Jews. How would she explain Jews' vast educational and financial success? Yes, Jewish parents have been known to stress education and nag their kids to become doctors and lawyers. But very few are strict enough to meet Chua's standards. How do they pull it off? If you'll buy a genetic explanation for the Jews, why not for the Chinese? And if Jewish parents were far stricter, wouldn't we be quick to falsely attribute Jewish success to Jewish parenting?

The upshot is that the tough love that Chua heralds is not just pointless, but cruel. The defender of Chinese parenting might retort, "Well, at least it does no lasting damage." But only massive future benefits could conceivably justify the truly sadistic things that Chua proudly admits she did for her children's alleged benefit. Here's how she once taught her daughter piano:
I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling...

To my mind, the mere memory of this experience is lasting damage of a heinous kind.


Some skepticism about religious education

We are all so concerned about nabbing the hearts and minds of our littlies.

Childhood is seen as critical in the battle for the brain. Is it because children are seen as malleable meat for the proselytisers and propagandists? Or is it because this is a stage of life where compulsion is often mandated, so you have them trapped. Either way, both godless and godly are battling for educational air space.

There is a national debate surreptitiously raging about what godly or ungodly stuff should cleanse or pollute their tiny developing minds. Nationally, the Labor government has poured hundreds of millions into the Howard-created National School Chaplaincy Program, which may face a challenge as unconstitutional in the High Court. So God promotion is now bipartisan. But it always was.

Wayne Goss’s Labor government in Queensland created the chaplaincy program in that state in the early 1990s, and Labor’s premier Peter Beattie upped the ante in 2006, pledging $3 million for the program after five Liberal MPs started baying for Jesus. In Melbourne, during the state election campaign, then education minister Bronwyn Pike refused to allow the Humanist Society of Victoria to teach in religious education time as it is not a religion. That spat is headed for the courts and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The new Baillieu government has not yet made its view known on this matter. In NSW, the St James Ethical Centre conducted a successful trial on a secular ethics course, and the NSW Labor government has had to introduce legislation to ensure the Coalition can't dump the classes if it gets into government (given how on the nose NSW Labor is, this is a prudent move).

I suppose you expect me to rail against those politicians, scared of the Christian backlash, cravenly court the God vote. And part of me does want to throw that predictable tantrum. But before I do, let me opine on the question of how just how impressionable is the malleable meat of childhood. The orthodoxy is that the teaching of the parents’ incumbent faith moulds the brain forever. This is reflected in the Jesuit motto ‘‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’’, allegedly based on a gender-specific observation of St Francis Xavier. But that phrase was crafted in an age where one could monopolise the data input into your children’s brains and what is more, emphasise it with terrifying corporal punishment. Tragically, we live in a different world where kids have power and access.

Modernity might alter the Jesuit orthodoxy. I just wonder how influential all this godly and godless peddling might be in the future. Certainly the mullahs of Iran, kept in power by a violent military dictatorship, abhor and are powerless before the liberation of the young offered by the internet. The young mind is now free to roam the world in search of inspiration and education. Some tedious teacher sermonising on God in any land seems lame to the power 10.

Let me give a trite but emblematic illustration. One weekend, I am travelling down St Kilda Road in Melbourne with my 21-year-old daughter and I pass a building that has loomed large in my life. The Melbourne Synagogue is extraordinary. It stands out like a beacon with the incandescent green verdigris of its massive faux-Byzantine dome. It was the place of my bar mitzvah and endless days of compulsory worship. I must have spoken of it endlessly. And yet my daughter, who was compelled to study secular Judaism for her humanist bat mitzvah for a couple of years, insouciantly asks, ‘‘What’s that building?’’ I was horrified. How could she not know the building that played such a massive role in my life, our neighbourhood and our conversations?

Well the point is that the values of her upbringing count for not much when competing with all of the other intellectual sources of data in her life. She, like most engineering students, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of alcoholic beverages; a dazzling dexterity on Facebook; an exhaustive knowledge of contemporary musicians and, being slight of stature, an expertise is surfing mosh pits.

And so I have a somewhat jaundiced view of the competing battles to proselytise the young. The propaganda can be self-defeating. Adults have an endless moral panic about the young. We have some justifiable fears that they will kill themselves sticking junk up their arms or drink down their gullets. But we take those justifiable (although sometimes exaggerated) fears and extend them to other areas such as their cultural ignorance and moral turpitude.

I lament the fact that my kids don’t know the King James Bible and are religiously illiterate. But there is nothing I can do about it. And I think there is not much that the educational bovver boys of faith and the supine politicians they have snared can do either. I reckon the Chaplaincy Program is pouring an immoral amount of money down the educational toilet. There is nothing more boring and alienating than RE teachers. They are the unwittingly the assault pioneers of unbelief.


British exam board accused of 'brainwashing' pupils with inaccurate climate graph

Near enough is good enough in climate science, apparently

Britain’s largest exam board has been accused of “brainwashing” pupils by forcing them to use an inaccurate temperature graph that exaggerates the scale of global warming.

Climate experts have accused AQA of “scientific illiteracy” and “propaganda” after a graph in its most recent Geography GCSE exam paper contained a series of inaccuracies which magnified the rise in global temperatures.

The graph wrongly presented the current warm period as the hottest on record and pinpointed the world’s current average temperature at 59.5 degrees Fahrenheit (15.3C), when it has in fact never risen above 58.1F (14.52C).

The exam board also overlooked the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, instead marking the “previous glacial period” at around 180,000 BC.

AQA ignored the universally-accepted temperature records taken from Antarctic ice core samples over the last 15 years and instead opted to use a graph taken from a children’s textbook first published in 1990.

The ice core data has been used to reconstruct global temperatures going back 800,000 years, showing that the previous four interglacial warm periods were hotter than today.

Kato Harris, head of Geography at South Hampstead High School in north London, has written to the exam board to highlight the errors. He said: "It is demoralising and frustrating when we are trying to be accurate, rigorous teachers, imparting to our pupils the latest scientific knowledge, only for the exam board apparently to show ignorance of scientific developments in the last 15 years."

The graph published in the exam paper was titled ‘Timeline of the mean world temperatures over the last million years’, even though no such record exists.

Pupils were asked to mark with an X the “recent rapid rise in global temperatures”, as well as the coldest period.

AQA said the graph was simply meant to show “generalised trends” in global temperature and claimed that it displayed a "similar" pattern to the ice core reconstruction.

But Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation and a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, said the graph contained “shocking inaccuracies”. “I have no idea where they have got their data from, but it’s completely wrong. The graph exaggerates the case of global warming and it shows scientific illiteracy. “I think this is highly misleading and the fact that it was included in an exam papers just shows how suspicious we should be with a lot of the information presented to students.

“There is a lot of pressure on schools and exam boards from government to educate our children in this way, but if we want to have a well educated population children need to know how science works, and they shouldn’t be brainwashed with misleading information.”

The Global Warming Policy Foundation has recently commissioned a report into the way children are taught about climate change in schools.

Piers Corbyn, owner of the independent forecasting business WeatherAction and a vocal climate sceptic, said the inaccurate graph amount to a “dereliction of duty” by the exam board.
“The fact that an exam board is using this type of graph is monstrous and totally unacceptable,” he said. “On one hand, the government and schools claim they want children to be objective, yet in the real world pseudo science is used to propagate an ideology to justify increased taxation and carbon trading, and this anti-science must be stopped.”

The decision to pass over widely accepted climate data in favour of a “simplified” graph will also be seen by some as further evidence that exams are being “dumbed down”.

A spokesman for AQA said: "We always seek to ensure that we use accurate information that is up-to-date and relevant, but just as importantly we need to ensure that figures are fit for purpose, appropriate for the qualification and, as was the case here, applicable for both foundation and higher tiers.

"The figure is a graph showing generalised trends of global temperature. It was taken from a highly regarded and widely used Geography textbook, Geography: An Integrated Approach. We took if from the 3rd Edition published in 2000 but the graph also appears in the 4th edition published in 2009. We therefore expect that many teachers and candidates will be familiar with this graph.

"The ice core data is very detailed and would have had to have been simplified for the purposes of the question that we wished to ask. Therefore we used a graph readily available in the textbook above that showed similar general trends."


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