Fake News about Whiz Kids

Often there is a news item, typically based on some highly misleading “study” by an even more highly biased analyst who has a direct vested interest in the outcome, that I would rather just ignore. Time is precious.

But occasionally such a news item is so widely disseminated that I get a number queries about it from my readers. Worse, in many cases those readers are taken in by said news item/”study.”

I’m referring in this case to the study by the National Foundation for American policy, reported in Forbes under the headline, “83% Of America’s Top High School Science Students Are The Children Of Immigrants.” The implication is that this is yet another “benefit” from the H-1B work visa and related programs. (NFAP is apparently a one-man operation. That one man is Stuart Anderson, the author of the Forbes article, who has long made his living by doing research favorable to H-1B.)

I’m sorry, but to me this is the worst possible rationale for H-1B, because  I consider the competitions, e.g. the Intel Science Talent Search, discussed in the study to be not only meaningless, but destructive.

Why my “I’m sorry” comment above? It is one thing for me to write blog posts that rail against the H-1B program, the employers who abuse it (which means almost all of them, large and small), the corrupt politicians who are bought off by the industry campaign contributions, the equally-corrupt “researchers” who accept money from the industry, the complicity of the universities, and so on. But my statement about the Intel contests will be construed by some to be critical of the kids. I can confidently predict that, because it has already happened, when I wrote a Bloomberg piece on this very topic; some of the reader comments treated me as some sort of ogre. How could I denigrate these hardworking kids’ stellar success? Indeed, after that, Bloomberg stopped inviting me to write pieces for them; no comment made, but I think this was cause-and-effect.

Yes, indeed, these kids are enormously dedicated. Good for them. But the claim that these are the top science kids in the U.S. is just plain false. As I wrote,

The contest doesn’t rank talent in the same way we identify the fastest hurdlers or longest jumpers.

First of all, most top science and math students don’t participate in such national contests. The commitment required is scary, and even energetic, motivated students may think their time is better spent on other pursuits. Participation in these competitions is largely a function of what school one attends. When Westinghouse ran the event, there were “Westinghouse schools,” with special programs designed to encourage participation, and today some schools have turned this into an art form.

Second, the project-oriented contests such as Intel aren’t measures of scientific brilliance. Yes, those who succeed are bright, extraordinarily dedicated kids. But the ideas for the centerpiece of the contest, the student’s research project, often originate with the student’s university mentor. The student will join a project already in progress and be given a piece to work on. During that work, the student will come up with ideas for refinements, but a focus on “their solutions” is exaggerated. Those “High School Student Finds Cure for Cancer” headlines are seriously misleading…

Professor Miriam Rafailovich, who runs an organized mentoring program for high school researchers at SUNY Stony Brook, told me in an e-mail interview that the contestants “get massive coaching from the schools.” There is even a how-to book, “Success With Science: The Winners’ Guide to High School Research,” written by winners of these national science competitions.

Moreover, the fact that so many of the kids who do so well in these contests are children of immigrants is no coincidence. I wrote,

As the book and Rafailovich point out, a big motivation for many contestants is to bolster their admission chances to selective colleges. That is a fine goal, but it also explains why many contestants have immigrant parents — who often have a “Harvard or bust” viewpoint. Those kids are more likely to participate. Given that the contests don’t really measure pure scientific talent, the demographics of the winners’ lists shed little light on what U.S. immigration policies should be in terms of maintaining excellence in science research.

A few years ago, I was at a research conference, and decided to attend a talk whose title interested me. In fact, the title seemed vaguely familiar; as I waited for the talk to start, I suddenly realized why: The young man presenting the talk had been an Intel award winner earlier that year, and his mentor was a professor whom I knew somewhat. This professor has mentored many such high school contestants. Well, the young man gave a great talk, but in the Q&A it became clear that his knowledge of his research was superficial. He gave answers like, “I don’t know; you’d have to ask my research adviser.” Again, it was an outstanding talk, very polished and professional, and my hat is off to the student. But the research that won him that award wasn’t his.

The Asian parents love these contests (the above student is South Asian), for the reason cited earlier: They believe (correctly in some cases) that the contests are steppingstones to the Ivy League. Most readers here are probably at least vaguely aware of this, but may not realize just how deep it goes. The contests are just one more way of gaming the system.

I must say that even I, with my connections to the Chinese immigrant community, was floored a few months ago in a discussion with Chinese friends about the college admissions application process. They easily bandied about their own acronyms that I eventually guessed the meaning of, saying things like “In my second meeting with the AO, I discussed the chances of my son getting accepted ED…” (Admissions Officer, Early Decision). And they took it for granted that this “market research” is cynically conducted by all parents of high school students, at least those who can afford tens of thousands of dollars for admissions counselors who have an “in” with the admissions offices of various elite schools.

Of course, “gaming the system” is a very pejorative term, but what else can one call it? And the worst part of it is that I consider this very destructive. Many have pointed out the emotional scars suffered by many of the kids. That’s bad enough, but the effect on American science is much, much worse. It teaches the kids that studying science is just a way to build up a CV for college applications, rather than something that is fascinating and potentially a boon to mankind. So sad.

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10 thoughts on “Fake News about Whiz Kids

  1. Yup, about once a year there is an article in the local paper about how some whiz kid, usually South Asian has discovered something miraculous which will alter the lives of millions of people. Yah, funny, they are at the level of “kid discovers cure for cancer”. But. The pernicious aspect of these articles and announcements is they give fuel for many people to claim that the social and economic problems of African Americans and Hispanics is totally their own fault–the awards give them fuel to claim there is no discrimination. After all, “look at this other minority group who came here with nothing and achieved success. These successful kids are proof that discrimination does not exist for African Americans and Hispanics.”

    I had a buddy who went to a local Intel competition because there was a local article about how a student had proved some important theorem. He spoke to the student and found out that the student’s project was simply describing the uses of the theorem. He felt there was some false advertising from the organizers of the competition.

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  2. The pressure on teens to achieve in elite competitions or class standing is not unique to immigrant parents. My children’s friends parents would not allow them to take courses that were not graded on a 5 point out of 4 scale or had them attend the state’s residential school for science and math.

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  3. I call it the spelling bee syndrome. I am inclined to wonder if it leads to “competitive” science? Probably a dumb question on my part. I assume grants, prestige and awards frequently are objectives as much as scientific discovery.

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  4. I would describe the contest as a pro-am (professional-amateur) event.

    Hope you had a nice “pi day”. Asians hold the top 8 positions for memorizing pi. Piphilology is one method of remembering pi.

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  5. What’s striking is what is not the concern. If 83% of top high school citizens are immigrants where is the concern for the low number of citizens?

    First lets forget the white males – don’t hold your breath waiting for help for us.

    Why no article on why aren’t female citizens, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native-Americans reaching the top?

    It seems that certain immigrants – South Asians, East Asians and Middle Eastern are the minorities du jour.

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    • “What’s striking is what is not the concern. If 83% of top high school citizens are immigrants where is the concern for the low number of citizens?”

      I guess you meant the low number of non-Asian citizens. I explained that in my piece. If I were a high school student today who is interested in STEM, there would be ABSOLUTELY NO WAY that I would want to participate in those contests. I regard those contests as shams that require huge amounts of time that could be used more productively in other activiites, a point that even many people sympathetic to my point of view have totally missed.

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