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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tiger Mom

This spring, I couldn't escape the Tiger Mom in newspapers and the blogosphere. For those of you who missed the phenomenon, Tiger Mom was an Asian American woman (a.k.a. Amy Chua) who wrote a book about her mothering style, which fell just short of waterboarding her children if they paused for a bathroom break during their daily seven hour violin practice. I only read her essay in the Wall Street Journal, excerpted from her book. The essay evoked a loud outcry. While the mothering style Chua described in her essay struck me as harsh and counter productive, it did raise a basic question: Do Americans demand too little from their children?

For me, the answer is unquestionably, yes. I am not concerned with ensuring that every American child become a concert violinist, but I am entirely convinced that our public schools waste years of our children's lives, teaching them so little in school, especially middle school, that we stunt their intellectual growth. This is one of the reasons I would like to see school vouchers. Surely in large metropolitan areas there would be enough parents who believed that education was not merely an exercise in building self esteem to create a demand for strong schools. It is impossible to miss the extreme outperformance of home schooled children, covering subjects at twice the depth and range of public school students. Like Tiger Mom, home schooling parents I have known, respond to underperforming children by making them work harder. Yes, their child may not have a strong aptitude for mathematics, but instead of immediately surrendering and restricting the child to a diet of pablum math, they simply double down, increase the number of exercises until their child becomes competent. We all believe that exercise can make the 90 pound weakling a well muscled, albeit slight of stature 120 pounder, but we rarely admit the same opportunity for growth beyond our immediate limits in intellectual matters. I am not saying that it is worthwhile making all students learn calculus. Nor do I expect a career in mathematical sciences for the student who began life as the 90 pound weakling in mathematics. Nonetheless, giving up on the 90 pounders unnecessarily limits their intellectual growth. Limiting math limits science and economics. Imagine how much stronger our society would be if reporters knew enough basic mathematics to understand economics and the reality of our federal budgets.

While I agree with Chua that we demand too little of our children, I share the basic American fear of imposing my goals on my children. Perhaps in earlier societies, sons generally entered into their father's professions, but not in our country. I did not follow my father's profession, and I do not expect my children to follow mine. If, like Chua, I dictated my children's careers, they would gain the advantage of early preparation. I could have them ready for graduate level mathematics before they began college. On the other hand, they would lose the opportunity to discover their comparative advantage - the natural skills and inclinations which would lead them to outperform their peers in their chosen field, if they were allowed more freedom to explore and discover their strengths and intellectual loves. Every year I meet freshman upon freshman, children of Generic Tiger Mom, telling me that they love subject X or Y, but their parents require them to be premeds. Large number of these manage to underperform as premeds, until their parents release them to study a field which plays to their comparative advantage (or unfortunately, sometimes they never discover such a field).

In graduate school, I met numerous students who had been 'hot housed'. Some were taught advanced mathematics at a very young age, mastering calculus in fifth grade, and moving on to higher mathematics in middle school. None of these went on to successful careers in mathematics. Many, but not all, were emotionally or socially fractured. I know hot housing worked for Norbert Weiner and several other notable polymaths, but making such a choice for one's children seems a step too far to me. So, as in most aspects of life, there is a fundamental tension. Make our children work hard enough so that they can ultimately be good citizens and succeed at their choice of career, but don't push them to live our fantasies for us, breaking them in the process.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Government Funding of the Sciences

The press paints conservatives as mentally challenged whenever they support candidates whose policy proposals will hurt the conservatives' pocket books. The conservatives, of course, simply view themselves as principled. In the last election, I supported a fiscally conservative candidate who opposed most National Science Foundation funding. This was not, however, a selfless manifestation of principle on my part. I simply assumed that the candidate's anti-NSF position was so far from the mainstream that I could support him (for his generally fiscally conservative stance) without endangering my own (and my colleagues') NSF support. This does raise an obvious question, which I have previously avoided here: what is the proper role of government funding in science? I am too close to this question to give a dispassionate analysis, but at least I can try to frame the discussion.

There are several arguments for funding fundamental science research:
(i) economic,
(ii) infrastructure, and
(iii) national pride.
The economic argument is simple. Even Libertarians agree that it is proper for government to fund public goods. Recall, public goods refer to goods which have the properties that (a) one person's use does not limit another person's use of the good, and (b) it is not practical to restrict access to the good. Fundamental scientific knowledge certainly falls into this category. If I use Maxwell's equations describing electromagnetism, it does not limit your use of these equations. Unless we turn science into a mystery religion guarded by secret rituals and high priests, it is not feasible to charge a toll every time someone applies Maxwell's equations (although rumors abound that this was next on Pelosi's agenda before she lost the majority). Observe that the closer science is to engineering, the less likely the public good label will apply. Science leading to patentable products should violate condition (b), essentially by definition. Hence, the public goods argument applies primarily to basic or fundamental science. These terms are used to describe research aimed at understanding aspects of the nature of existence without an immediate eye to application. Politics tends to reverse the natural order here. Politicians are often more willing to fund research if it has immediate applications, even though such research can be profitably funded (and more deftly guided) by private industry.

Classifying science as a public good makes it eligible for public funding from a conservative perspective, but does not require the government to fund it. The decision to fund science then requires the voters to believe there is a significant benefit to funding science and then to decide, given the amount of money they are willing to surrender to the government in taxes, that science stands sufficiently far forward in the queue of priorities that it should be funded rather than some other programs. There is no doubt that advances in basic science have dramatically changed our lives. Who would prefer to live in a world where electromagnetism, chemistry, and quantum physics were unknown? While the patentable iPad is the product of private industrial research teams, it rests on hundreds of years of basic research.

As a nation, we could decide to be a free rider. Let other nations invest in basic research, and we will wait until our private industries see a profitable application. Let France, Russia, and China pay while we profit. If you feel comfortable with this scenario, imagine a world where we waited for the Nazis and Soviets to keep us up to date on nuclear fission. Without a deep bench of our own scientists, there is no doubt we would rapidly become a second rate economic and military power.

An overlooked feature of the scientific infrastructure is the manner in which scientists communicate up and down the scientific ladder. Industrial scientists study under and frequently communicate with basic scientists, basic science is informed by industrial questions, and industrial scientists benefit, of course, from all progress in basic science. Hi tech industry blooms near research universities. I suppose this latter observation suggests that some funding for basic science might be shoved from the federal to the state government. Many state governments have observed the synergy between the universities and hi tech industries and used this to justify high levels of support for state university systems, but in an age of email and skype, I can't predict how important proximity is in the future of this relationship. If proximity becomes less important, some states may hope to become free riders within the U.S. by defunding their research universities.

On a noneconomic note, I would be saddened if the U.S. was no longer a leader in science. It is fine to invest small change in great Olympic sports teams. If a few dollars more helps secure us Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, it can be money well spent if there is a budget line for national pride. At least it is a better use of resources than lowering the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits.