Steven Pinker's concept that "mental effort seems to be engaged most with the knife edge at which one finds extreme and radically different consequences with each outcome, but the considerations militating towards each one are close to equal." To put it another way, the things that we most like to argue about are those that are most inherently arguable, such as: Who would win in a fight, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?... Yet, if I were in charge of player personnel for all the NFL teams, [Malcolm] Gladwell would no doubt be right about the futility of the draft in forecasting quarterback outcomes: I, personally, would have chosen [Ryan] Leaf over Manning.
As you may have noticed by now, I'm like that: clueless about most subjects that most people are most desperate to discuss. Who will win the Super Bowl? Will the stock market go up or down tomorrow? Will the health bill pass? Which party will win the next election?
Don't ask me.
Those questions concern competitive institutions that are structured in ways that make their outcomes hard to foresee ... and therefore captivating.
The NFL has become the top spectator sport in America in part by contriving its affairs so that the winner of the next Super Bowl is very much in doubt. (No NFL team is allowed to dominate financially, as the Yankees and Red Sox do in baseball; last year's best teams get this year's hardest schedules; and the worst draft first.)
Paradoxically, that means that my being profoundly ignorant about these concerns wouldn't keep me from making quick predictions that would be almost as accurate as if I did nothing else but study the subject.
Who will win the [February 2010] Super Bowl? Well, two minutes on Google leads me to a betting site that says the New Orleans Saints are +360, while the Indianapolis Colts are +385. (I don't even know what those numbers are supposed to mean.) Here's another site that has the Colts at 3:1 and the Saints at 4:1, which at least I understand.
So, there you have my fearless forecast: the Saints will meet the Colts in the 2010 Super Bowl, and one of them will win.
You heard it here first.
... Instead, I've spent time studying other fields, such as the social science behind educational and economic achievement. That way I can generate a higher return on my investment by being able to make more accurate predictions than the conventional wisdom about the effects of crucial public policies such as immigration. (That's my metaphorical ROI I'm talking about. My financial ROI? Eh ...)
In contrast to more popular subjects, in which what you learn is as ephemeral as the mood of the Tennessee Titans, what I've learned about school test scores over the last 37 years doesn't become quickly obsolete. For instance, Chinese students are still averaging higher math scores.
Moreover, it's not a terribly competitive market niche I've selected, since many people don't ever want to think about it, and get angry at those few of us who do. Others just find these huge swathes of the social sciences as boring and depressing as if I specialized in being a bookmaker on Globetrotter v. Generals games. (Krusty the Klown explained after losing his fortune on an imprudent bet, "I thought the Generals were due!")
Still, as Pinker told me in 2002:
Q: Aren't we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any future we choose?
A: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.