On credentialism and selection systems

I’ve mentioned before that an Asian-American friend of mine, who is quite smart, disapproves of the whole campaign against Asian quotas spearheaded, or at least advocated, by Steve Hsu and others.

His words are the following:

  1. I don’t believe in legitimizing the credentialist culture of modern academia
  2. I don’t generically feel much kinship with Asian-Americans (who are the most affected by purported discrimination in admissions), even if I might feel more kinship with them on average than I would with any other large ethnic group in America (which is itself not necessarily true)
  3. I don’t find it implausible that there are legitimate reasons to discriminate against Asian-Americans in the admissions process, if by ‘discriminate’ we mean ‘weigh their formal accomplishments less than one would for a member of a different race’
  4. At the end of the line, I believe that persistent whining about this is a reflection of emotional immaturity on the part of Steve et al., in that they seem to have a ‘chip on their shoulder’ which they are incapable of overcoming, and if they were actually taking a principled approach, they would come together and try to create a superior alternative to the radically broken university system, which will likely not be saved by any infusion of Asian students

Here’s what I think.

On 1), I don’t like the credentialism culture of modern academia either. Much of it is a superficial and soulless arms race. Not that grades, test scores, publications, citations, impact factor aren’t strong signals but they are prone to manipulation and artificial inflation, and that there are qualities of work not well-captured by those metrics. People are more or less compelled to single-mindedly play this game, often at the expense of actually substantial scholarship, if they are to survive in academia nowadays.

On 2), I hate to say that this country has become more toxically consumed by identity politics over the years, not to mention that people are judged at least subconsciously by who one is associated with. So collective bargaining is crucial for a group’s position on the status hierarchy.

On 3), there is that due to Asian-Americans’ and Asians in general having traditionally been the underdog, as well as their lack of media presence, which is intimately tied to the alienness of their names in the Western linguistic context, some people are inclined to view Asians are grinds who aren’t actually as capable as they might appear on paper. Especially with the whole tiger mother phenomenon that Amy Chua popularized with her infamous book. Of course, China’s rise over the recent years has altered this perception somewhat, especially the one that Asians are smart but not creative, though surely, it does seem that controlling for grades and test scores, or IQ, Asians do seem less creative, though that may be due to environmental factors, such as de facto or implicit quotas imposed by diversity mandates and economic circumstances.

On 4), I mostly disagree. Asian-Americans don’t really have the power to create a sufficiently credible alternative in a world that runs so heavily on associating with prestigious, usually long-established, institutions like Harvard and Goldman-Sachs. In their ancestral countries, China and India, Asians can improve the university and research system and the economic and technological competitiveness of the country as a whole, so as to make their universities more credible as well. In America, all Asian-Americans can really do is make more noise around the issue to exert more pressure on the elite universities, and also donate more and enhance their media and political presence as their socioeconomic position improves, especially at the elite end, improves, so that the elite universities perceive themselves as having more to lose from discriminating against Asian-Americans based on race.

This is all I have to say as pertains exclusively to Asian-Americans. I shall now give my thoughts on credentialism and selection in general.

The job of admissions and hiring committees and HR is astronomically harder than in the pre-internet age. So many people apply for positions they are grossly under-qualified for, now that it’s so easy to shoot off a resume or application online. There are, of course, application fees for college and grad schools, but they are not enough to deter. This means in the selection process can be afford now significantly less time per candidate, and one can argue that as a consequence, the process becomes more bureaucratic and easier to game. Often, people will in the pre-screening stage eliminate all applicants who do not meet certain formal criteria, such as minimum GPA/test scores or a certain degree from a certain set of sufficiently credible universities. In the case of academia, to my limited second-hand knowledge, committees will look at publications lists with a focus on citation count and impact factor of the journals on which the papers were published and also verify the candidate against senior, tenured faculty in the same or at least similar area of research. In the case of industry jobs, what matters more is the interview, where for technical roles, technical questions will be asked to further test the technical aptitude and knowledge, as well as, the softer aspects of communication and personal chemistry. For non-technicals, I can only say it’s even more about credentials (school, companies, job titles, dates of employment) and how you present yourself. I can only conclude that way more energy is expended now in aggregate on application and selection than before, which is quite costly really. In the career world, people are mostly out for themselves and don’t really care about wasting other people’s time, so long as they can get away with it with impunity more or less.

I’ll say that there is a tradeoff between optimizing for one’s formal credentials and optimizing for one’s actual ability and knowledge. One loses out so much more now if one neglects the former too much due to more competition per position. Surely, there has been gross inflation of credentials. This is in its crudest form epitomized by college’s having become the new high school, thereby rendering prestige of institution a stronger signal. Furthermore, the largely consequent grade inflation and watering down of coursework has added more noise to school transcripts. Contest training, for math in particular, has become so much more popularized, that to not have credentials in those raises questions in some circles, and moreover, there is so much more of an obstacle course of summer programs and scholarships and grants and internships and jobs which one must pass through to some degree if one wants a reasonable chance of success at a specified level. In this sense, there is more pressure to conform to an existing, often complexity-ridden system. It may well be that people nowadays are not all that much better in terms of knowledge and proficiency than before, correcting for the positive effects of technology on learning, but they actually put in much more time and effort.

Now, if one expends much energy on actual substance, there is concern as to what would be lost if those translate not into formal credentials. Arguably more common is the other way round, where one turns into a soulless credential-chasing machine. I’ve been amazed at how many people manage to achieve much higher grades, test scores, and awards than what their knowledge and ability from interaction with them would reasonably indicate. Those people tend to be very boring and risk-averse, and they are often the types our current system selects for, like it or not.

I used to feel like to prove that one is actually smart, at least in STEM, one ought to do sufficiently well in one of those major math, physics, or computing olympiads or contests. I would say that for raw technical ability, that is probably still the strongest signal. Grades are somewhat noisy, because it’s not hard to copy or snipe homework solutions, and for tests, there is a large cramming and figuring out what’s gonna be on the test component. Perhaps they are more consequentially so as there are also some genuinely capable or even brilliant students who for related personality reasons have a hard time getting themselves to care too much about grades. I’ve personally seen some high GPA people, even in college, who signal in what they say or write complete idiocy that would make you wonder if they were pretending stupid, especially if said person were female. Some people learn much more deeply and also much more broadly, outside of what the system teaches them, to a high level of retention, much of which is not captured through any formal credential. From my personal experience, tests of a wide range of knowledge, sufficiently substantial but not too esoteric, are stronger signals since they cannot be crammed for, but they are, for the difficulty of organization, seldom administered.

In the real world and in academia though, what matters is the ability to deliver actual projects and conduct meaningful research, and those, while correlated with ability to learn, are not quite the same. Those are also way more context-dependent, which means more noise, both due to more variance and more ambiguity of judgment.

I will say that at times or even often, society is met with the problem of people finagling themselves into a position to judge what they are not really qualified to, per their ability and expertise, which means some resume-padding bozos rising up and actual competents being passed over. This problem I believe has been accentuated by the ever more credentialist culture that has emerged over the recent years. What’s kind of sad is how the more conformism and risk-aversion rises, the more these traits are pressured and selected for.

I’ve come to notice that there tends to be some difference between maverick genius and the conformist first-rate professional. If one looks at history, real genius, the ones who create paradigm shifts, tends to have more very lopsided profiles, though surely, it might go too far to say that *most* of the real geniuses were out of it in a Stallman or Galois like fashion, especially as it’s the deranged ones which garner more attention. But one can say with high level of confidence that there were many real geniuses who had a hard time fitting in even into the elite mainstream of his profession, who have even been marginalized. I’ve been told that the real genius mathematicians like Perelman, Langlands, and Shimura more or less cut contact with the mathematical community apparently out of disgust. There is also evidence that plenty would-be real geniuses did not actually make it, with their enormous potential having been thwarted by the system at some point and hardly realized. In an ideal world that optimizes for collective value, if somebody else can do the job much better than you and actually really wants to, you should let him do the job and get out of his way. Of course, reality is far from that. I have personally felt that way with regard to my mathematical ability, often feeling that I wasn’t good enough when I failed to derive something on my own, yet I see so many people worse than I am even so eager to play the whole credentialist game without recognizing how deficient they really are. This suggests that I am very partial towards a certain side of the spectrum. I even feel that in some sense, nothing is more embarrassing then formally being much higher than what one’s ability actually merits, since it demonstrates not only incompetence but poor character. However, I am, regrettably, or not, feeling that circumstances are pressuring me ever more towards the opposite direction.

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