July 22, 2019

Who is the fastest runner in the world? That’s an easy one, you might think.

But is it?

Usain Bolt is certainly the fastest over 100 or 200 metres, but if he and his fellow sprinters were to compete in a major marathon, they wouldn’t stand a chance of winning. In 2016, it was reported that Bolt had never run a mile (in one go) – let alone 26 of them (plus 385 yards). At the middle and long distances, the top names change, and also the body types. Distance runners have long, lean muscles rather than thick ones, their wiry frames built more for stamina than explosive speed.

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The most dramatic shift in competitiveness comes in the ultra running events – i.e. any race longer than a marathon. These include ‘conventional ultramarathons’ such as the IAAF-recognised 100km race, but also jaw-droppingly extreme events like the Montane Spine Race, which stretches 268 miles along the Pennines from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.

In these supreme challenges of endurance, women are competitive against men. Earlier this year, the remarkable Jasmin Paris completed the course in 83 hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds – smashing the previous record of just over 95 hours.

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Who’s best at what is often a matter of time. From the less than 10 seconds of the 100 metres to the gruelling day-upon-day of the Spine Race, different people excel at different timescales. And not just in running.

It’s a subject that Malcolm Gladwell explores in two brilliant episodes (here and here) of his Revisionist History podcast. His particular focus is on America’s Law School Admission Test. The LSAT is a standardised exam that determines whether you get into law school – and also which law school. Needless to say, the most prestigious institutions take their pick from the highest-scoring candidates. And, of course, it’s the cream of the crop that get the plum jobs after graduating.

The podcast features a speech by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in which he said that he only chose clerks from the top law schools because it was the surest way of not making a hiring mistake. The kicker was that his remarks were made at a law school that did not fall within this highest echelon; yet far from reacting with hostility, his audience laughed along merrily.

So an awful lot rides on one’s LSAT score. But what exactly does it measure? Well, you can see for yourself in the current sample paper. It doesn’t test legal knowledge, but rather reading comprehension and logical reasoning. There are five sections – including three sets of multiple choice questions used to calculate each candidate’s overall score. There’s also an unscored ‘writing sample’ (essay) section, which can be used by two schools as a supplementary means of assessment.

The fifth section is also multiple choice – but instead of being used to assess the candidate in any way, the results are used to assess experimental questions for use in future exams. The examiners use the results to ensure that the LSAT is an effective measure of aptitude for law school students. Eliminating bias is a further objective. For instance, a question on which there was a significant gap in performance between male and female candidates would be rejected for future use.

And yet, Gladwell argues, the LSAT is biased – towards those who can blast through the questions at speed. Each section has to be completed in a strict 35 minute time slot. Therefore it doesn’t just measure comprehension and reasoning, but rapid comprehension and reasoning.

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This wouldn’t matter if a test that gave people more time to think produced much the same ranking of candidates. But what if time made all the difference?

It certainly does when it comes to physical challenges like running, and we can see a similar pattern in purely intellectual activities.

Gladwell gives the example of chess, which at the top level has an international ranking system established through competition. In a standard chess game, players have 90 minutes in which to complete their first 40 moves and 30 minutes for the rest of the game. However, there are various gradations of fast chess, in which players have much less time to make their moves. This changes the rankings significantly. The best player in the world in standard chess is not the best player in ‘blitz chess’ or ‘bullet chess’.

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In his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thought: “system 1”, which is instantaneous and instinctual and “system 2”, which is considered and calculating. One doesn’t have to limit oneself to that particular dichotomy to see that time gives us the space to deploy mental abilities that can’t be hurried. For instance, time to think gives the top chess players the ability to mentally picture the branching permutations of how a game might develop multiple moves ahead.

Of course, most things in life are not like chess. Being unconstrained by the rules and logic of a gamified environment, they’re immensely more complicated. But that makes time to think all the more important. Human beings are capable of all sorts of things beyond the split second and the unforgiving minute – like empathy, insight, creativity, inspiration. We’d all be lost without them, but especially those in positions of power and responsibility who have to deal with a bigger slice of life’s complexity than anyone else.

And yet the means by which we select our elites are biased towards quick thinkers not deep thinkers. The LSAT is hardly alone in perpetuating ‘fast privilege’. Similar against-the-clock methods can be found everywhere from IQ tests to civil service examinations.

And it’s not just pure aptitude testing either. In theory, our universities test students on their knowledge of whatever subject they’re studying. But what manner of knowledge: profound or superficial?

Oxford University’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) degree has been described by Andy Beckett in The Guardian as the “degree that runs Britain” – because so many members of the political and media elites are PPE graduates. There’s a very long list of them here, which includes David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch and Ann Widdecombe.

PPE students are required to ingest knowledge across a broad front and regurgitate it in the form of frequent essays, tutorial performances and exams. But though no soft option, it is a degree for generalists not specialists – and thus an all-too-fitting preparation for UK politics. David Willetts, another PPE graduate, describes British political life as “an endless recreation of the PPE essay crisis.”

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Writing about his book Bluffocracy (co-authored with Andrew Greenway), James Ball argues that Britain has “become a nation run by people whose knowledge extends a mile wide but an inch deep.” A reshuffle is always a good time to see their bluffing skills in action. Politicians walk into new jobs, pick up an unfamiliar ministerial brief and proceed to talk about it in parliamentary debates and media interviews as if they were life-long authorities on the subject.

Journalistic attempts to expose their lack of knowledge are usually thwarted because the interviewers are bluffing too – resorting to easily deflected gotcha questions, instead of deeper conversations that might reveal something important about what our politicians think (or don’t think).

Last week, Yascha Mounk floated the theory that the real problem with PPE and similar Oxbridge degrees is that they reward students for making deliberately counterintuitive arguments:

“…ambitious students at Oxbridge are taught to go for a First by doing something extraordinary. 

“And by far the easiest way of doing something ‘extraordinary’ is to make a spirited case for a counterintuitive (and probably wrong) conclusion.

“This pedagogical tradition is responsible for (or perhaps stems from) a lot of the best things about Britain… It’s why British commentators are rarely boring…”

However, he thinks it also encourages “influential people – including writers and politicians – and especially writers turned politicians” to make “fun cases for irresponsible positions”. Which, he suggests, is one reason why we’re facing the prospect of a no deal Brexit.

Mounk concedes his theory is “probably wrong” and, ironically, itself an example of making a clever argument for a wacky proposition. However, the serious point that can be made is that the quality most valued in our highflyers is the ability to assimilate as much information as possible in as little time as possible – and then reapply it with maximum speed and agility.

Whether it’s the debating society tricks pulled by our politicians, or the “delivery at pace” expected of our civil servants, or the ‘hot takes’ extracted from our journalists, or the frenetic workload of the corporate lawyer, what recruiters are looking for is processing capacity not understanding.

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In the wake of the global financial crisis, many books were written in an attempt to understand what went wrong. One of the best was A Call for Judgement by Amar Bhide. The argument is encapsulated in his Harvard Business Review essay, The Judgement Deficit – in which he says that while the decentralised, entreprising nature of capitalism saw off the centralising tendencies of state socialism, it then fell victim to a new kind of self-imposed centralisation:

“…one that is the work not of old-fashioned autocrats, committees, or rule books but of statistical models and algorithms. These mechanistic decision-making technologies have value under certain circumstances, but when misused or overused they can be every bit as dysfunctional as a Muscovite politburo. “

The most spectacular example is what happened to the financial sector:

“A host of lending officers used to make boots-on-the-ground, case-by-case examinations of borrowers’ creditworthiness. Unfortunately, those individuals were replaced by a small number of very similar statistical models created by financial wizards and disseminated by Wall Street firms, rating agencies, and government-sponsored mortgage lenders. This centralization and robotization of credit flourished as banks were freed from many regulatory limits on their activities and regulators embraced top-down, mechanistic capital requirements. The result was an epic financial crisis and the near-collapse of the global economy. “

It’s not that IT replaced all the people – humans are still an essential component of even the most advanced corporate systems. However, they have allowed a huge amount of previously human judgement to be automated and therefore centralised. A bigger proportion of the decisions that matter can be concentrated at the highest levels of management – allowing the financial rewards for such work to be concentrated there too.

A corporate operation that shifts the balance to IT-mediated systems as opposed to distributed decision-making by experienced human workers is also easier to scale-up. This allows markets to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer, larger companies – meaning even more money for those at the top. It also means that corporate growth can be achieved by exploiting monopoly effects rather than investing in product improvement, which of course is bad for innovation.

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Innovators, though, are disruptive of centralised systems – which is another reason to select the knowledge class elite on their ability to think fast, not deep.

I realise I’m painting a picture of them as cogs in a machine, which isn’t entirely fair. These are highly able individuals and some of the most able – e.g. those recruited into top law firms, consultancies, financial institutions and tech companies – are very well rewarded. They’re also made to work punishing hours – a reflection of their scarcity value and the desire of a corporate system to get the most out of its most expensively purchased components.

What’s true of the business world has a parallel in politics – only in this context the centre hoards power for its own sake, not to maximise profit and executive pay. In theory, a government minister should be in a position to think deeply about the policies they’re responsible for, drawing upon the expertise of their civil servants and the experience of frontline workers. Armed with such knowledge they’d then be in a position to pursue meaningful reforms.

But anyone who’s seen government from the inside could tell you that’s not how it works at all. The purpose of most ministers is not to exercise judgement on any significant matter but to process and communicate decisions made in Downing Street and the Treasury – if only by rubber stamping the mechanistic actions of whatever slice of the civil service hierarchy he or she nominally oversees.

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Of course, no centralised system of control is ever so perfect as not to need running repairs and work arounds. There’s always a demand for those who can improvise solutions when things don’t run according to plan and where local circumstances present unanticipated challenges. Dealing with such situations requires both judgement and creativity – but only in service of the system. Those most capable of it rise through its ranks; until, that is, they mess up irredeemably – at which point they can provide one final service: as a scapegoat for the failings of the system itself.

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The crying shame of the way we select our elites is that our finest, most fertile, minds are being wasted. They’re either sidelined because they don’t excel at tests of quick thinking, or because they can think both fast and deep, but are kept too busy by the systems they serve to ever think the disruptive thoughts that they’re capable of.

Sometimes an independently-minded individual does break lose – defying the selectors to follow their own paths. The tech pioneers who dropped out of college to start-up disruptive enterprises are a classic example. The irony though, is that some of the companies they founded have become monsters – corporate behemoths exercising super-centralised control not only over their own business, but ours too.

Neoliberalism was meant to set the market free – and yet, despite the IT revolution, this is an era of stagnant wages, growth and productivity. In seeking an explanation, we should start at the gateways of the knowledge economy.