Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
These problems were designed to prevent Jewish people from passing (2011) (arxiv.org)
156 points by apsec112 on Oct 7, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 170 comments

An alternate title would be: Jewish students were given more difficult math problems than their Russian non-Jewish counterparts

Otherwise, the title implicitly implies that Jewish and non-Jewish students received the same questions. That would be interesting!

An example of such a test, taken from the Old Testament, is a shibboleth. From the book of Judges:

Jephthah captured the shallow crossings of the Jordan River, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim tried to go back across, the men of Gilead would challenge him. “Are you a member of the tribe of Ephraim?” they would ask. If the man said, “No, I’m not,” they would tell him to say “Shibboleth.” If he was from Ephraim, he would say “Sibboleth,” because people from Ephraim cannot pronounce the word correctly. Then they would take him and kill him at the shallow crossings of the Jordan. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed at that time.

"In all, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed at that time."

Reminds me of the old joke which I can't remember enough details of to preserve the humor, where a dumb FBI agent is given the task of hunting communists, and his boss gives him a test which he humorously misunderstands, and at the end of the week he proudly reports "I've already killed several thousand communists sir. And you sent me here just in time, the communists were really entrenched, I haven't found a single loyal american." Sorry I botched it.

But anyway, this is a fascinating archaeological record of a classic bias, where you assume your test was 100% accurate because the opposite would be horrifying...

Like why the death penalty in the USA has never been applied to someone who didn't deserve it: because the alternative would be horrifying.

An addendum to the tale, from a historical linguist: http://sinesalvatorem.tumblr.com/post/140842586896/ilzolende...

Everyone involved was Jewish though (or, at least, they were all Israelites).

Well, then in case of identical tests the grader would just automatically pass members of the favored group and destroy the results/evidence right away. See also, USA history in denying African Americans the right to vote by any means necessary. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/06/28/voting_right...

I think, the idea that aluminussoma had (and which sprung to my mind when reading the title, too), is that the questions and the grading would be identical for Jewish people, but that somehow the questions were engineered to be harder to solve for Jews.

Sort of the obvious thing would be to just ask questions about parts of the culture that Jews don't typically experience. But that is what it is - obvious.

And then, yeah, it would be interesting to see what they would have come up with instead. What kind of discrepancies there are between cultures.

I could for example imagine something like countries with big Jewish population often having currencies that don't deal with floating point numbers and then Jews on average being worse at that.

Or maybe revolutionary books not having Hebrew translations, therefore just not being as ingrained into the Jewish culture throughout the generations.


If race is a factor in admissions decisions for some schools then I wonder why students don't just pick the one worth the most "points"? AFAIK, there are no objective criteria for classifying people by race. Anyone can choose to identify themselves however they wish.

Lots of people already do that. You haven't discovered some secret strategy for getting into a US college.

Can you point me to cases of overtly White Europeans applying and being admitted to top programs as another race?

I have multiple classmates and relatives who proudly did this. Interestingly, all are conservative and anti-affirmative action. Their pride was probably related to exploiting the system or proving that it's poorly policed.


What? I don't pay attention to Trump's speeches, but my question was asking about acceptance to top programs as a different race. Not a politician elected who claimed partial racial heritage.

Can a White guy apply to the top CS program as a Black female, simply because he identifies as one? Where is the line drawn?

Except Elizabeth Warren had already taught at UPenn and other top schools and was already a well known figure in bankruptcy law...

And yet all of that absolutely pales in comparison to the legacy advantage almost exclusively white US university students have at the top Ivy League schools. But sure, go chasing the race angle fed to you by the powers that be.

> pales in comparison

It's not a competition... To acknowledge one problem does not mean ignoring others. There is very real discrimination against people of Asian heritage in the US college system, with very similar parallels to discrimination against Jewish people in the past. To pretend this doesn't exist does all of the real individuals who've experienced it a disservice, as it would be a disservice to pretend that the extensive, institutional racism against black people is no longer an issue today when it clearly is. These are all problems worthy of attention.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/25/opinion/is-harvard-unfair... "A similar injustice is at work today, against Asian-Americans. To get into the top schools, they need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers."

Edit to add: I don't know what the solution to this is, or what should be done. I just know if I was one of those people rejected, I'd feel pretty bad. And as a privileged majority, I want to be judged on my merits, I don't want to benefit from racism or xenophobia, if someone is better than me then they deserve my spot. And I've got to speak loudly about it (even though I'd much rather stay out of political discussions online), because to do otherwise is to passively accept the advantages given to me by this institutionalized racism, which is almost as bad as explicitly endorsing it. We've got to acknowledge it, talk about it ...

Second edit: One very actionable thing is to make clear issues of access and discrimination are important issues when your college comes calling for donations. Ask them for their statistics, what their plans and intentions are. If enough people did it, this would matter. It would make a difference.

The discrimination against Asians is in some cases arguably not that much worse than discrimination against Whites, or even sometimes data shows Whites are discriminated against more.

Looking at LizzyM scores, for the most part Whites and Asians receive similar acceptance rates with similar scores, but in some cases Asians receive preference. You can see this w/ scores about 520 and 3.8(1).

However, Asians are admitted as a far greater proportion of their race than Whites. Asians are about 5% of US population, but can make up over 40% of incoming classes in med school, while Whites, who are over 60% of the US population, were only 37%, in this typical example at Northwestern(1).

Blacks, through affirmative action, enjoy a relatively equal proportion of matriculants as Whites, even though Blacks score on average many standard deviations lower than Whites and Asians. In many cases, a majority of Blacks are accepted with scores that Whites and Asians have, as data shows, a 0% chance of acceptance with.

So what is fair? Right now, it is hardest to get in to med school as a White, but that is so extremely politically incorrect that no one dare say it.



> So what is fair?

Isn't that the toughest question? I don't know what the answer is. I don't know where I stand on affirmative action: in any given instant, it seems unfair, but in a historical context it seems necessary that affirmative action should happen until the point where the damage done in the past has been undone, and we can have equal opportunities. LBJ's words resonate with me on this:

> That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society--to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.

> But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

> You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

> Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

Source: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27021

It's difficult because these injustices did actually happen, and were terrible, but they are not happening today.

Meanwhile there is enough injustice in the world right now make any good-hearted person's head spin.

I really believe the real problem was not fixed. We need to not just ensure, but try to maximize opportunity for all people, and not limit any group to it.

Instead, everything is focused on tail-end adjustments that are neither fair nor optimal for maximizing opportunity and prosperity.

I wanted MLK's idea of a colorblind world where no one is judged based on your skin, but we've gone so far down this rabbit hole that what we are in fact doing is this very thing! Yet no one dare say it as it is so incredibly politically incorrect to discuss it with honesty.

If you want honesty, look at banking, government, academia, and media, and see which race has orders of magnitude disproportionate representation.

> I wanted MLK's idea of a colorblind world where no one is judged based on your skin

I still believe this is possible, I just think we're one or two generations behind. I'm encouraged that the coming generation seems to understand fairness and equality much more naturally and intuitively than my own generation.

Where I still feel like I need to be vigilant against racist thought creeping in (simply from conditioning, stereotypes... I don't consider myself racist, but it's so easy to become tribal without realizing it), for people just a few years younger than me it seems it's just that much easier for them. And the next generation after will hopefully be better still. I have hope.

When you think about it, humanity went very quickly from largely homogenous, semi-isolated communities, to a global community, with lots of movement. It’s going a while for the system to equilibriate. And while there may be many little racist Maxwell’s demons running around doing damage in the short term, I have faith that in the long term we will get there.

You're effectively saying that white people should pay for the sins of their ancestors. Instead of making this about race I wish that they would make it about socioeconomic status.

How is it fair that I, a white guy from a poor family with no college connections, should have a harder time gaining entry to college solely because of the color of my skin for things I didn't even do.

For the record, I’m also a white guy from a poorer family with no college connections.

And we don’t bear the sins of our forefathers. That doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from them. I worked hard, I got lucky, but I can’t pretend my priviledge doesn’t also exist. That a minority with my background wouldn’t have had to work even harder.

I’m not saying it’s fair. As I said, I don’t know where I stand on affirmative action. I think there’s a fundamental tension there. But what LBJ said in that speech feels true to me.

Seriously. This is the invisible knapsack writ large. As a white dude from a family with no college connections, I was still basically allowed to half-ass my way into a career where I make $150K a year through a college that was all-too-happy to accept me.

"Privilege" is an uncountable part of that "luck" everybody in our shoes needs to recognize exists. That's why the concept is a thing in the first place.

> Asians are about 5% of US population, but can make up over 40% of incoming classes in med school

Isn't this because foreign students pay higher tuition?

The part that gets missed in most affirmative action discussions is the value of constituting class that is diverse goes beyond the value to individuals that are chosen despite lower objective selection criteria (GPA, SAT, etc). It also benefits the majority students who do get admitted.

University is a time to develop your thinking and students learn from their classmates arguably as much as they learn from their teachers. Studying slavery in an American History course was substantively different, for me, because I had African-American classmates that were able to comment on the lingering legacy of slavery from a perspective that I or any other white person could never get on our own. Had I only had white an Asian classmates, there would have been a far greater uniformity of thought and I would have had fewer of my preconceived notions challenged.

I will say that I find coarsely-grouped ethnicity to be a terribly reductionist way to achieve that diversity. That we group East Asians, South Asians and Southeast Asians together makes very little sense to me since I know these groups to have vastly different backgrounds, perspectives and opportunities. Grouping an American white person together with someone raised in Russia is also, similarly, nonsensical in my mind, as is grouping African-Americans with people born and raised in Africa. Genetic diversity is not the same as real diversity. But if Universities allow their enrollment to become 1 or 2 dimensional, they do a disservice not only to people who are disadvantaged by systemic challenges (the ones traditionally seen as the beneficiaries of affirmative action) but also to those in majority groups that would receive a more sheltered education.

I have nothing interesting to say about the topic itself, but this struck me: "fed to you by the powers that be". One of the things that's most bizarre to me about rhetoric around culture war topics in America right now is that both sides want to take as an assumption that the other side is in charge. I'm not sure if this is more because, as a practical matter, existential threats tend to produce more alarm and action, or if it's more about the American love of the come-from-behind-to-win underdog trope.

Exactly the same thing happens in Russian discourse.

Both major "sides" see themself as suppressed and the other as being in charge. That allows to throw tantrums without ever admitting of mistakes.

I wonder if it's universal in the age of learned helplessness.

> in the age of learned helplessness

It's nothing so new...

What's this "both sides" and "assumptions"? People who have wealth tend to have much better access to politicians and more control over the economic and social conditions and constraints of a society.

Consider for example this: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-poli...

There isn't a need to assume anything. To the extent it's possible to be in a social science, it is a fact that the connected elite (e.g. those who attend Ivy Leagues as a result of their wealth) is "in charge." It's debatable to the extent the data permit, but the "side" asserting the non-elite are "in charge" doesn't have much to offer on that front.

What you point out is true in most political discussions, but I don't believe it is the case here. The powers that be are not Republicans or Democrats. They are the schools and the alums.

Legacy is bullshit. I don't see how anyone who wants meritocracy can support it. The children of Harvard alums already are privileged and have an edge, but the school gives them an official handicap too?

Yep. With all the talk about privilege and White privilege that gets slapped equally on everyone from Trump Jr to Joe the Coalminer... It only adds to the pile of injustice, not subtract from it.

Sure it pales in comparison.

Having your house burgled pales in comparison to being in a high speed crash on a highway, but I still don't want either one.

Also, who are 'the powers that be', if not the federal and most state governments which endorses race based admission policy?

Oh, and one more thing: In 'civilized Europe', many countries have decided that affirmative action and race based admission standards are indeed racist, and are banned. Are 'the powers that be' operating over there too?

Actually it's Jewish advantage at ivy league schools. We can't consider jews white only when it's beneficial to our narrative

For decades there was a policy to limit the number of Jews accepted to the ivy league. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-ivy-leagues-history-of-di... :

> Here's how Karabel sums up the new changes approved in 1926, which would effectively allow the Harvard administration to limit its Jewish student population:

> The committee decisively rejected an admissions policy based on scholarship alone, stating that "it is neither feasible nor desirable to raise the standards of the College so high that none but brilliant scholars can enter" while stipulating that "the standards ought never to be so high for serious and ambitious students of average intelligence."

> When the faculty formally approved the report eight days later, Lowell was further elated, for they also approved measures making the admissions process even more subjective. In particular, the faculty called on [Committee on Admissions chairman Henry Pennypacker] to interview as many applicants as possible to gather additional information on "character and fitness and the promise of the greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education." Henceforth, declared the faculty, a passport-sized photo would be "required as an essential part of the application for admissions."

> Elite colleges also began to use legacy admissions during this period — giving preference to children of alumni — in order to maintain a predominantly Protestant student body, Karabel explains.


Sorry bud, but according to hillel.org its about half of that[1]. Admittedly that is the higher than the percentage of the US population, which is between 1-3%[2] depending on how you count.

1. http://www.hillel.org/college-guide/list/record/harvard-univ... 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Jews

I am not your buddy, and you cannot read.

I wrote "For decades there was a policy" and if you follow and read the link the immediately following text is "These policies eventually died out in the 1950s, as World War II veterans began to enter college on the GI Bill."

Since you brought up "the narrative", you must certainly know that narratives change over time.

I mentioned this to show that the narrative which once excluded Jews from the Ivy League has indeed changed, and Jews are now treated more "white" than they used to be.

For that matter, Finnish people are now treated as 100% white, when a century ago many Europeans and Americans considered them to be Mongolians and thus Asian - "China Swedes" in American slang - and some wanted them to be subject to the Asian Exclusion Act.

Does anybody else feel that comparing not getting into MIT/Harvard/Stanford to being disenfranchised or, in the case of the Soviet example, preventing you from earning a livelihood is a bit ridiculous?

At minimum, as an Asian person that did not go to a top school, it feels very elitist.

I assume you're referring to "affirmative action" type policies. Calling them discrimination seems to me to be intentionally ignoring the history of discrimination affirmative action is trying to undo.

Yes, taken in isolation it is discrimination - but a lot of good things taken in isolation seem like bad things. Prision seems barbaric without taking the crime into account.

We are talking about mechanisms for discrimination. US collage admissions certainly provide an interesting case.

When you start comparing them the differences are obvious and significant. The most important one is that US college admissions weighting is happening in a transparent way, and it was and is subject to intense debate, discussion, and quasi-democratic processes.

Great laugh, thanks.

Yes, from the title I assumed exactly that. I spent several minutes reading the paper till I realized that different students received different tests which made this much less interesting.

This is something I've heard people say about the SAT (a test high school students planning to go to college take in the US) that more affluent people tend to do better. I'm not sure about the specifics though.

IIRC this tends to be borne out--more affluent people are both more likely to have had the kind of structured education that lends itself to high SAT scores and more likely to be able to afford (both in terms of time and money) prep courses.

This matters much less than people think it does.

First, test prep has only a modest effect on test scores, on the order of 20-40 points combined ...

The average SAT score among those with a family income of $20,000-$40,000 is 1402 while the average score among those with an income $100,000 higher, $120,000-$140,000, is 1581 for a 179 point difference. Even if every rich family had a private tutor and none of the poor families had any test prep whatsoever, test prep would explain only 20% of the difference 37/179. If rich families rely on tutors and poor families rely on high school courses, the difference in test prep would explain only 6% (11/179) of the difference in score.

The second surprising fact about test prep is that it doesn’t vary nearly as much by income as people imagine. ...

The third fact is that test prep varies by race in the opposite way that people imagine. In the quote above, Chris Hayes suggests that whites use test prep much more than blacks. In fact, blacks use test prep more than whites ...


This is anecdotal, but there are different forms of test prep which the wealthy have access to that are way better prep than private tutors.

For example, Kaplan training offers 4-8 (you can pay for more) fully proctored fake SATs, written, tested and graded 100% in the style of the SAT, which they then use to tell you all the answers that you got wrong, where you lost points, what subjects those points were lost in, and then gives you test prep books specifically for the microtopics you don’t know, AND THEN gives you the books most people associate with test prep, AND THEN connects you with a group class, (AND if you wanted to pay for one) a private tutor. The tutors are trained on the subjects, are there to track your progress, and to teach speed tricks.

And if it’s still at all a possibility it doesn’t work, they guaranteed a refund on anything less than a 40% point boost on points you didn’t score or an 80% final score on someone untested.

My point is, test prep as I saw it for the wealthy is not just books, or a tutor, its a vast network of trained practitioners and materials which probe at your weaknesses and give feedback at a rate books or tutors alone could never match. Test prep between the poor and rich looks fundamentally different.

THAT, aside from all of the benefits of economic stability and the educational support parents making 100k+ can provide, is where you get these differences in outcome.

Well, that and the fact that IQ is significantly hereditable, tends to correlate with high income, and also correlates with high standardized test scores.

That only addresses one minor aspect of what might be implied by "structured education".

AFAIK intelligence (i.e., IQ) is correlated with lifetime financial success - or at least is indicated as such in psychological literature, and to me seems sensible intuitively. So, it is believable that the children of the affluent (and probably intelligent) tend also to be intelligent, in addition to receiving better education capitalizing on this. Both (or perhaps really two sides of the same coin) may play a role.

Consider the word "regatta". Someone affluent may have been to such a boating event, or at least heard of it. Someone poor, unless they were extremely well read, would not have had the same opportunity to know the word as someone affluent.

I remember having to ask the teacher to explain a word problem that involved a baseball player hitting "a double" and "a triple", because I had no clue what that meant. That test discriminated against nerds who don't give a shit about baseball.

Sports questions were added to IQ tests to make them harder for women, according (if memory serves) to a BBC documentary on stupidity.

(Fairly fascinating, though packed sufficiently with examples of its topic to make it painful to watch.)


Drat, that video is not available. (At least not in my area.) But I'll dig around for it now that I know the title. Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ82lJkR-OQ

>This documentary about stupidity tells us the history of the word "moron" ...

That's so relevant now that we all know the Secretary of State called the President of the United States a "Fucking Moron", and nobody challenged or disagreed with him, because they all knew he was right.

Yeah, I'm aware the video itself isn't available. I'd run across it on YouTube a while back, though that version is also down. I've not found a canonical link via the BBC yet though I'd expect there is one.

Cub scouts tend to have one every year.


But the elite catamaran style tends to dominate over the standard design.

But yes, there are concepts that allow a single question to be preferential to people of specific backgrounds.

There's also the Royal St. John's Regatta [1], the oldest annual sporting event in North America. The day of the race is a holiday in St. John's (if weather permits boat races) so everyone in town knows about it.

(There's a Dingle Regatta in Ireland, there's a famous dance tune named after it but I've not been to Dingle and don't know what their regatta is actually like.)

Come to think of it, for all the talk of recognizing the word as a class thing, isn't it much more likely to be an "old coastal area" thing? You might need to be fairly rich to have a sailboat to race, but every place I've been around boat races it's been a huge party environment with very broad appeal and probably 100% local recognition. They're just not called regattas in Michigan...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_St._John%27s_Regatta

And until very recently, gay people weren't allowed to join the scouts.

I guess a non-affluent, prepubescent (cub scouts are 7-10 years old), gay boy might have missed that chance to learn the word "regatta".

Well should not schools be trying to widen all their students reading ability? is this not a given if you want to goto university

Criticism of the SAT and other standardized tests ranges from the reasonable to the ridiculous. If your high school doesn't teach geometry, you're going to have a hard time. A lot of troubled schools can be several years behind the standard progression. Less reasonable is criticism like inner city kids being unable to answer "alice has two yachts, bobby has three yachts, how many yachts do alice and bobby have?" because they've never seen a yacht.

The yacht criticism is usually in the analogy section, where the meaning of the word is critical.

Ah, you're right. And it was the word regatta, not yacht, that was the problem.

You've just proven that regatta is such an unusual word, that you mis-remembered it as "yacht".

It sounds like a kind of Italian cheese to me.

As an elementary school child, I couldn't understand a word problem about baseball that used terms like "hit a double" and "hit a triple," because I didn't give a shit about baseball.

If more recently I read a word problem about rugby that used the term "scrum", I would understand it to mean the players were having a stand-up meeting.

In my defense, it's been a long time. The criticism of the question is more than 20 years old; the question older still. If I'd known this was SAT criticism test Saturday I'd have prepped better.

But for an American knowing basic facts about baseball is not that unusual after all you play it a school and American Football does have the concept of a "line of scrimmage" which is derived from scrum.

The point is that boys are EXPECTED to play it at school (while girls are expected to cheer from the sidelines), so if you don't spend your time doing all the gender-appropriate activities that are expected of you in your spare time, then you miss questions on tests.

The question I couldn't understand discriminated as much against girls who don't give a shit about baseball as it did nerds who don't give a shit about baseball.

I don't give a shit about football (soccer) but do know at least the basics.

University is about a rounded education not just memorising text books - even more so in the USA with 4 year courses and major /minor.

As someone said its passing the airport test - high school should make this clear to students just be thank full its not like the UK when until fairly recently you had to have done Latin at school to get into Oxbridge

I was in fourth grade at the time, not a university. And it was a math test, not a phys-ed test. At no point did anyone in school ever sit me down and teach me what a "single" or a "double" was in baseball. And phys-ed classes never had quizzes or lists of sports terms to memorize, they just told me to get out there in the outfield and wait until it was time to come back in.

My point is to give but one concrete example of some trivial cultural knowledge that was actually required in a real mathematical test, which some people (like you, for example) assume everyone knows the answer to, but that other people (like 9-year-old me, for example) don't, which could cause someone to fail to understand a mathematical question which they were otherwise capable of answering.

I learned a lot about software development from my Gesture Drawing and Rock Carving classes at university (they complemented each other: one was additive, the other subtractive). Gesture Drawing taught me to get something bold and energetic down immediately that captures the overall flow, then iterate quickly and fluidly to incrementally refine it. Rock carving taught me to imagine something hidden deep inside that's solid and tangible, and keep chipping away at it with little nicks and scratches over a long period of time, until it finally reveals itself and becomes smoothly polished.

(And the comment about "scrum" was a joke. Can you imagine a team of rugby players standing up together in front of a dry-erase board before a game, sticking post-it-notes with user stories about tackling and passing scribbled onto them? Isn't that how it works?)

Where does the "less reasonable" criticism you use as an example occur? I don't believe I've ever heard such a criticism in this context.

Part of the problem is that the context for the questions involves things that affluent students are familiar with. As I understand it, that can have a much larger impact than what one might think:

For example, imagine if you (or many HN readers) took a test with questions framed around coding ('I'm going to own this', I'd be thinking), or the same questions in an abstract sense but framed around the details of working in an oil refinery. Now add that you are 16 or 17 years old, from a family where nobody has taken SATs or gone to college before, wondering whether you belong, and under enormous pressure to do well enough to get a scholarship. Your future - whether you live as a college-educated professional or as a career Amazon warehouse picker and Uber driver - depends on it.

A major reason kids like that drop out of college at high rates is that they feel isolated and like they are living in a foreign culture with no other 'ex-pats' around. College is a big step for affluent kids but everyone they know has gone, and the campus and town are built around their culture; few or no college environments are like the poor side of town. The non-affluent kids feel like they don't belong, even that they are imposters (and when they go home, their new experiences make them fit in less and less, and people there question why they are wasting time and money). Now imagine those same kids taking the SAT.

I don't really understand this whole idea that this one test is the difference between a successful career and being an Uber driver for the rest of your life.

I didn't even take the SAT. I took the ACT, I have no idea how I did on it. I dropped out of college. And yet somehow I'm still making six figures at a technology company in Denver. And want to talk about coming from rough backgrounds? I'm totally blind. This, among other things, means that I never had math books I could use, often times having to have classmates read me the material so I could even try to do the homework. It means that my top reading speed in Braille is something like 90 words a minute, absurdly slow. But yet, somehow, that one test didn't ruin the rest of my life. survivership bias you might ask? Why certainly. But if I was able to make it through, maybe the tests in question don't act as quite the filter function you're indicating.

That's not even survivorship bias, that's a single anecdote. By that logic, you can't even argue that being blind is a disadvantage because you are blind and you were successful.


I went through the PDF going "what kind of advantage does a christian or otherwise non-jew has here?".

Then I started looking at the problem wondering how I'd go at solving them!

I misunderstood as well! I thought non-Jewish students were given hints beforehand.


> the title implies that heritage impacts cognitive ability.

In this case, the title was misleading, but genetic heritage does impact cognitive ability, otherwise we'd have no cognitive advantage over our Great Ape distant cousins.

Heritage, not genetic differences brah

This situation slightly reminds me of the interview process at some tech companies. Over the past year, I have interviewed on-site at 10 different companies. Two of those companies had one interview where the questions were extremely difficult and uncommon. When I told my friends those questions, many also thought the questions were bad interview questions.

It is important in any selection mechanism, like interviews, that we have a fair and consistent method of selecting applicants. Yet the questions need to be varied enough so that candidates cannot cheat by hearing the questions ahead of time.

This situation slightly reminds me of the interview process at some tech companies.

This is exactly the same as the whiteboarding algorithms questions. They all have a simple answer which is obvious if you have been recently cramming for your CS finals. But you are unlikely to remember them in sufficient detail if you are over a certain age, because no real actual working programmer needs to know that stuff by heart, it's either been abstracted into libraries or you just reach for a book when you need one. A perfectly plausible way to do ageism, right under the noses of any regulators.

I actually would not agree. There is a common set of knowledge that one is expected to know, even if it isn't actively used daily. During the interview process, it was clear that many of the companies asked similar questions. It was possible to prepare for.

However, the two companies I referenced asked questions that were close to impossible to prepare for. These were also not whiteboarding questions (both did have separate whiteboarding sessions which were fair)

What were the impossible questions? (You're not really expected to keep them secret, so it's fine to list them.)

To your point, it's strange that there's a common set of knowledge we're expected to know which we don't use, ever. Not just "in 99% of cases," but literally ever: If it ever comes up in the field, you can look up what you need to know in a few minutes.

Few would think that's a sensible way to hire someone, so I've spent a long time wondering why this is the case. I think it's because the hiring process implicitly selects for whoever makes it through. Meaning, if someone is giving you a test, they're biased into thinking it's a good test: After all, they passed it. That's why they're in a position to give it to you.

So it almost doesn't matter whether it's a good test or a bad test. Just that it's a test that the interviewer happens to like. There's enough talent floating around that people are willing to do whatever strange rituals you demand they do, regardless of whether it's efficient for them to know that knowledge. Since it's ambiguous whether the knowledge actually helps anyone, you get the present situation.

This totally does happen. The way it works is straightforward: the default set of interview questions is almost untenably hard, but sponsored candidates get abbreviated interviews. Especially in small-to-midsize companies, a significant chunk of hiring is network hiring, so this works for awhile.

I did get and take an offer at a solid tech company. On Glassdoor, there were some impossible questions listed. I was referred to that company and I didn't get asked an impossible question. I attributed that to being lucky, but perhaps I lucked out in getting an abbreviated interview.

Heh. I give interviews at a solid tech company. It's a moderate amount of work to come up with good interview questions, and I don't like changing them very often because having identical questions makes it easier to compare candidates and get a real feel for how they rank in relation to the rest of the population.

Imagine my dismay when I saw my carefully crafted problems posted on Glass Door. So, I made dozens of Glass Door accounts and posted the hardest, most bizarre, and occasionally literally impossible to answer questions on my company's Glass Door page to drown out the real questions posted there in a sea of insanity. Hope you liked it!

From a candidate's point of view, that might not have been a good idea. I try to keep in mind that glassdoor is easily astroturfed, and that competitors have an interest in posting negative content to someone's glassdoor. But some of the content still influences me. Especially the interview questions, since it's hard to make those up.

A candidate has to decide how to spend their time and which companies to pursue, so filtering out companies that have clearly-crazy interview procedures is a decent way to optimize.

> Especially the interview questions, since it's hard to make those up.

Nonsense. Have you ever even tried? ;)

Seriously, though, I see your point, but I'm still pretty satisfied with what I've done. If candidates who read interview questions are self-filtering out of our interview process, I count that as a win. Better to miss out on a good candidate than hire a bad a bad one.

Something like this might just disqualify you from most good candidates.

the modern tech version of this is 'culture fit' but it starts even before you get an interview, identical resumes with anglo vs. foreign last names have been studied with unfortunately predictable results.

We're hard-wired to be tribal and much more comfortable around our own kind, very difficult problem.

That presents an interesting problem for job seekers to solve. Can't do gov. Regulations effectively. I'd imagine a more thorough version of glassdoor would help job seekers identify when they are being gicen harder than normal questions, but that would require diligent community participation

You just look at hiring trends.

Pretty much exactly the same thing happens with Asian students in US universities today - admission standards vary widely by ethnicity/race. Jews were 2% of population but 10-20%+ of university students. Reverse discrimination was a thing then and is a thing now.

>reverse discrimination

No such thing. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter which way it's applied. I wish people stopped saying "reverse (discrimination|racism)" whatever as if these words meant discrimination against specific groups, but not others.

I think it's meant to imply the reasoning behind it. "Standard discrimination" is done out of fear or hatred, and "reverse discrimination" is done out of ignorance and a misguided desire to "help."

I guess they have "reverse discrimination" in handing out prizes for intellectual contributions too. From Wikipedia: "While only about 2% of the U.S. population is of full Jewish descent,[1] 27% of United States Nobel prize winners in the 20th century,[1][2] 25% of Fields Medal winners, 25% of ACM Turing Award winners,[1] 9 out of the 19 world chess champions, and a quarter of Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners have either full or partial Jewish ancestry."


That 2% figure includes full Jews. But what percentage of the population has partial Jewish ancestry?

No, it does not happen in US universities today. "Select applicants" are not given trick questions "distinguished by having a simple solution that is difficult to find" in the US.

Instead we have the black box of the college admissions office, deliberating over components of the college application such as essays and extracurricular activities intentionally designed for subjective evaluation, where the outcomes of applicants are incontestible and unexplained, where they do not even need to think about designing difficult questions around simple solutions that would otherwise be cause for dispute.

My dad was a mechanical engineer in USSR who got his education in late 70s. The discrimination was worse in some areas. Moscow - forget about it. My dad got his degree in Minsk, and had many jews from other "states" move there just so they can get into college.

That is why there are somany known Soviet mathematicians with Jewish names. They still had paths to persue higher education, just not in Moscow and other desirable areas.

For those who are interested, Edward Frenkel's book "Love and Math" chronicles his personal experience of taking such a test, and being denied entrance to Moscow State University despite superb performance in the exam. (He later got Math PhD in Harvard at age 23 and became a professor at UC Berkeley)

Some of his story is in this article from the Notices.


Reminds me of the white australia policy. You were given tests in european languages that the immigration officer chose. It was primarily meant to keep out the chinese and japanese, but also used to keep out southern/eastern europeans and of course jews.

A famous example was of Egon Kisch who was fluent in many european languages and kept passing the dictation tests in many european language. So they finally gave him a test in scottish gaelic and he failed. He was able to sue the government and win the right to stay in australia eventually.

"Jewish political activist Egon Kisch from Czechoslovakia, who was exiled from Germany for opposing Nazism, arrived in Australia in 1934. The Government of Joseph Lyons went to extraordinary lengths to exclude Kisch, including using the dictation test. Kisch was fluent in a number of European languages, and after completing passages in several languages, he finally failed when he was tested in Scottish Gaelic."


I grew up in the 90s and wondered why every single Russian person I knew was Jewish. The wikipedia link is interesting. [1]

One non-Jewish person claimed there was no anti-Semitism. Everyone wanted to escape the Soviet Union and people just resented Russian jews because it was easier for them to leave. So I thought maybe anti-Semitism is so engrained that they didn't even notice it. Kind of like how some white Americans don't believe racism exists.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Russia

It depends on what part of the Soviet Union he was from. If he was from the place with low Jewish population then what he said is actually true.

I am originally from central Russia and I've learned about anti-Semitism in Soviet Union only after moving to US. Yap, never heard or witnessed anything like that while living there.

Another interesting thing is that several of my Jewish friends told me that their parents asked them to lie about anti-Semitism when they were interviewed at the US embassy in Moscow in the late 90s.

Wasn't that also true, though?

In the 90's, most of jews packed their things and promptly moved out. Same for a million "germans" who last were to Germany five generations ago.

But russians were stuck, nobody wanted russians (other "mundane" people of Russia, too). I wonder if that's also racist.

1. It is possible both are true. But my problem with him is that he denied discrimination also existed.

2. I suspect it is due to the US government. We really don't want communists in our country. Source: my partner and I immigrated from different "communist" countries.

From what I observed (and learned from others), state sanctioned discrimination against Soviet Jews did not exist at the time of the last wave (say, 1989 onwards). Don't have an axe to grind as I came around that time to the US as a Jewish refugee myself.

PS: To put the OP in context (not to condone the practice in any way), the discrimination was directed not just against the Jews, but more generally against any graduates of a select few top specialized physics/math schools (most had over 50% Jewish students). From what I understand, the driving factors behind the discrimination were along the lines of: These schools at the time (70s through mid-80s) were viewed as disloyal; their graduates likely to emigrate to Israel/US post-graduation, overrepresented at top programs etc.

and before 70s there were other reasons for this sort of discrimination. As most of the Jewish kids were much better prepared for entrance exams than the kids from rural areas (90% of Soviets at that time were coming from peasant families) - the state had to limit the number of Jewish students to give others a shot.

No its a long standing prejudice against Jews in Russia even post revolution

eg the Doctors plot https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctors%27_plot

That was confusing for a moment - the "Lautenberg Amendment" with which I'm familiar is an ex post facto ban on firearms ownership for those convincted of crimes of domestic violence.

Also worth looking at are literacy tests for voting rights given to African Americans in the Jim Crow-era southern United States.


Or the English test questions the current Australian government wants to introduce for potential citizens:


So does New Zealand. I don't see how it's an issue that they expect skilled migrants to speak the language.

But Australia has had (and possibly still has) bigger issues with discrimination and xenophobia. Consider that the official immigration policy was called "White Australia" until the mid 1960s:


tl;dr Australia wants potential citizens to get at least a 6/9 on the IELTS English exam (similar to TOEFL).

You need to do it in the UK for any type of long term visa unless you are from EU/EEA.

For citizenship you need both the English proficiency exam and the life in the UK test which is now actually hard even for natural borne Britons to pass.

For the citizenship, a British University degree is also accepted instead of an English test. (Or at least was ~3 years ago)

There was a recent story that suggested they were using AI to score these tests and it was failing people with Irish accents.

Wow, neither I nor my PhD girlfriend could do it on time. I bet if they had given it to all voters less than 1% could have voted.

I did it exactly on time. I'm not sure what's meant by an "interlocking part" of circles in Q30, though.

The reasons for and way in which they administered that are appaling. Still it made me think doing this the other way around would be interesting: would making would be politicians pass some form of unbiased well-designed test on the constitution, political system, financial principles, ethics, etc. have a positive effect on their performance? My guess is probably not but I do wonder what you could do if you let anything go.

> would making would be politicians pass some form of unbiased well-designed test on the constitution, political system, financial principles, ethics, etc. have a positive effect on their performance?

Who would be the authority that either makes these test questions, or monitors that they are unbiased?

There's no such thing as an "unbiased" test.

In the context of tests being biased, I'll just note that your idea amounts to (unbiasedly) testing the test designers.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It wasn't just the USSR, though AFAIK it was much worse there (and still is in Russia and parts of E. Europe). In the U.S., I know a Jewish family that in the 1950s changed their last name to something not associated with Jewish people so that a child could get into college; there were quotas.

Makes you wonder what kind of similar things that are designed to prevent access that we have from other groups in the past, present and future.

Probably all the typical bad programming interview questions. The ones that target people who can set aside a month of no work, no family, and no 'other responsibilities' to study tangentially related riddles and similar.

Culture fit probably. Though it'll just be replaced with something similar.

I think you have to just assume that there is a lot of stupid in any system, so it can't be _all_ of those questions.

The people out there who drive drunk or without insurance aren't doing it with the intent of killing people or not having to pay for their damages: they're doing it because they "didn't think about it".

Hanlon's razor tells us that a similar phenomenon is at play in many "bad interview questions".

Or, the emergent result of our hiring processes (alienating and near-untenable interviews coupled with fast tracks for sponsored candidates) is that cultural outsiders (women, people of color, older workers) are effectively locked out of higher-status resume-building jobs, and when companies try to fix those processes even a little, engineers are confronted with culturally unfamiliar potential coworkers and experience the human default of hypervigilance in unfamiliar social situations, which creates a false perception that reformed, rationalized hiring processes are "lowering the bar" when in fact the opposite would probably be happening, with a long term net result that nothing changes, and our industry remains structurally biased against people who can't pass for proto-Zuckerbergs.

I call affirmative action policies lowering the bar. If you are intentionally seeking people based on criteria like race or gender, then you are less likely to find the best candidates, unless you believe those are relevant criteria.

What does intention have to do with it? Are you saying that if you unintentionally seek people based on criteria like race or gender you're more likely to find the best candidates? Affirmative action, as you call it, is an intentional effort to overcome the sort of unintentional bias that tptacek described.

By the way, one reason people react strongly to objections like yours is that a very direct interpretation is that you believe the distribution of people in high status jobs actually does accurately reflect differences based on race and gender. Not sure if you intended that.

> By the way, one reason people react strongly to objections like yours is that a very direct interpretation is that you believe the distribution of people in high status jobs actually does accurately reflect differences based on race and gender.

I think this is partly true. But then, a similar interpretation of "pro-affirmative action" is that one believes that whatever bad thing happens to a minority is never their fault.

I think both are only partly true.

The problem with affirmative action is that it (I don't know if it's always the case, but it seems to be often so) specifically considers minority status. It is obvious, I think, that this is not the kind of criteria a computer, say, would consider if it were to look only for the most qualified applicants.

On the other hand, you or someone else in the thread made a good point: this pro-minority bias can be seen as an effort to counter the systematic bias against "outgroups".

The problem is that I don't think we know the effect size of each of those: how strong is this systematic bias? In a protected status agnostic society, would all professional fields perfectly mirror population rates?

I don't think so. We know there are metal disorders/illnesses that impact cognitive functions (Down's syndrome) and obviously genetics is partly responsible (do Down syndromers have similar rates of Down syndrome babies?). Similarly, I don't think the success of Asians and Jews is due to some form of societal bias in their favor.

In the end, the question is whether the anti-bias bias is correcting towards 0 or in the other direction (i.e.: protected status is very important, just the other way).

I don't know what the answer to this one is.

False. If you believe that the best candidates are spread across genders/races and your current hiring practices are overlooking those not in a specific set, affirmative action policies would be raising the bar. You call it lowering the bar because you believe that all the best candidates are already being hired under the current system.

This isn't responsive to anything I wrote. Please don't use my comments as a coat rack to hang ideological arguments on.

Its a response to your comments on why people call these things lowering the bar. It seems like a direct reply to me.

You misread my comment, and in fact took away kind of the opposite intervention and perceived response to the intervention that I was referring to.

I don't blame you for not following, because I was sort of glibly/ironically summarizing a lot of other things I've written about[1] as a single very complicated sentence. However, I sort of do blame you for jumping at the opportunity to litigate affirmative action on this thread.

If you re-read my comment and come to understand what I mean by this, would you please take a moment and write a short comment to acknowledge that? Thanks.

[1] a starting point: https://sockpuppet.org/blog/2015/03/06/the-hiring-post/

> I call affirmative action policies lowering the bar.

To turn around the vocabulary a little, isn't the fact that most jobs in SV are effectively (rarely in a formalized sense and sometimes even unconsciously) 'reserved' for white and Asian males - isn't that the overwhelming majority of 'affirmative action' cases?

Very likely, many white and Asian guys who get hired are not the best candidates. Baseball is a simpler example because the number of jobs is strictly defined (25 per team, N number of teams): Before it was integrated, starting with Jackie Robinson in 1947, a lot of minor-league-level white guys had major league jobs for which they were unqualified, and it was because of what was effectively a huge 'affirmative action' program for white players. Imagine if for some horrible reason baseball re-segregated today, eliminating all non-white players (Latinos were banned before 1947 too): Who would take the jobs of all the qualified non-white major leaguers? White-skinned minor leaguers. Beyond a doubt, the quality of baseball would suffer greatly - which, if you think about it, seems very likely to be true of the quality of SV companies' talent pools.

If you care about merit, then the current system is a failure.

> If you are intentionally seeking people based on criteria like race or gender, then you are less likely to find the best candidates

Agreed, but evidently that is what is happening already on an overwhelming basis, except it is white-skinned and Asian people who get special treatment.

Real-world hiring isn't so meritocratic and discrimination has always overwhelmed merit (again, look at baseball, or all hiring processes back then - the same happens now). Beyond merit, how are people really selected?: 1) People hire those they know or are in their network, and white people tend to network with other white people (because that is who they work with and went to school with, due to past discrimination -- it's self-reinforcing). 2) People are prejudiced, some overtly, more covertly, and very many without realizing it. 3) People hire to not fail - the decision-maker doesn't want to stick their neck out and bring in someone unpopular; they want to fit in with their co-workers and not be the social crusader. 4) People tend to hire others who are like themselves; when someone told me about this tendancy, I realized I'd unconsciously been doing it for years.

Affirmative action-like programs balances those forces a little (not much, looking at outcomes).

Also, insane hours would probably just select for people who can do 60 hrs plus a week. You just intentionally burn out everyone else and your left with a team that can do it. Note, I am making no claims that this is a good solution or even effective.

Just sent this to my mom who’s told me how this happened to her.

> Wow wow wow. I knew I was not the only one, but it still hurts. I looked at some problems: the most horrific part was that the guy next to me was asked what is the tangent. He got 4(/5). I got 3.

What's the funniest here? Jews that were rejected from MSU went straight across the street to Institute of Oil. And were promptly admitted. Guess it helped them in post-Soviet times.

Today, Asians are required to achieve higher grades to be accepted to colleges. How is this different?

Asians are accepted to colleges. The point of these problems is to prevent any undesirable groups from passing the exam ever.

I was hoping for questions they couldn't answer right because of their beliefs.

Most of the kids applying were atheists or agnostics. They were Jews by ethnicity, not by religion.

I thought every ethnicity had jews

This is a source of major confusion. Ultimately, it boils down to how one identifies him- or herself or, alternatively, how one is identified by others. Jews in USSR were officially considered an ethnicity like any other, based on blood. The Judaism as a religion was suppressed under the Communist rule. But even before that, there was a lot of assimilation and secularization going on. Ultimately, in the 1970's there were very little Judaism practitioners left.

The word "Jew" ("Yevrey") in Russian usually refers to the ethnicity. They use a different word ("Iudjey") when they want to describe someone as a Judaism practitioner.

Unfortunately, these "ideas" for the problems are low quality. Problem 2: "use derivatives". How the heck that helps if F does not have to be continuous, let alone differentiable.

It suggests that F is differentiable, and as soon as you form the difference quotient you know everything. With the hint I think it’s a really cool problem.

Certainly, but if the examiners would be accused of asking a too difficult question, as the article alleged, this would be defended by showing a more elementary approach. Or both of them, wouldn't hurt to have more ways of solving it. Unless the Soviet science was banned from using reductio ad absurdum proofs in some math version of Lysenkoism.

Out of curiosity, I've searched it and this article was posted to HN at least four times. Opinions aside, turns out it was merely a footnote in the exam pipeline https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4761846

> How the heck that helps

If you look at the solution, you'll see how the idea of a derivative helps in that problem.

Let's put this in the context: the article is about problems which are supposedly killer problems because they require some hard-to-get hint to solve. Therefore, a hint is low quality, if another hint exists that is simpler, more elementary, or the problem is solved straightforward anyway.

In this case, a simpler hint is: "Do not use derivatives or anything fancy really. Only solutions are constant functions. Proof by contradiction. Use binary search".

One may only wonder what level were the problems given to regular candidates.

From the pdf we know these were still in use in 1975.

Anybody knows until when this went on?

Similar problems were given to everyone on the oral entrance exams in late 90s. They has nothing to do with ones ethnicity though and were given in case if there was disagreement if contestant deserves "5" or should be given "4". If problem(s) were solved "5" was given. (5 was max at that time)

At least, until mid-eighties. Some years were worse than others.

Strange to hear, my father got into Michmat (Moscow State University Math Department) in the 70's. In 80's we immigrated to Israel.

And now they are given to programmers at large companies during interviews... We should revolt as well ;-)

What was the percentage of Jewish applicants passing these examinations despite all these efforts?

The target acceptance rate was rumored to be 2% - which roughly corresponded to the percentage of Jewish population in USSR. I was one of those Jewish applicants in 1973 :) Exam was conducted in a separate room. When in doubt, the criteria for identifying Jews among all applicants was funny (in retrospect): they tried to guess by the last name. But some names are more "typical" than others, so the criteria was not 100% accurate. They preferred to err on the side of caution, and some perfectly Russian people were put in the same exam room with the Jews. This is my recollection.

> they tried to guess by the last name

You'll find this interesting:


Those cases were probably quite common. From wikipedia article about Glenn Gould, the great Canadian pianist: "The family's surname was changed to Gould informally around 1939 in order to avoid being mistaken for Jewish, given the prevailing anti-Semitism of prewar Toronto and the Gold surname's Jewish association"

I imagine quite small, if any were allowed to. Tests like these usually also have a hidden rubric such that the test taker never quite manages to reach the minimum passing grade. It's unlikely anybody with the education of a high-schooler (even a fairly advanced one) would be able to solve very many of these problems in a typical allotment of time for a test. They're not sophisticated problems, in the sense that relatively basic mathematical principles can be used to solve most (or all) of them, but they're really quite complicated problems for a test. I mean "complicated" in the sense that they require a fair bit of rather tedious busy work to arrive at a solution.

I recall reading elsewhere it was zero, they simply weren't allowed to admit Jewish students and these problems were just to try and cover up the discrimination.

There was a quota, like in the US in the 1930s. In the USSR, about 2% of population was Jews, so university was allowed to admit 2% Jews every year. But because of culture of education and desire to avoid conscription to Red Army[1] and non-uniform population density, it was very difficult for Jews to get admitted in the good universities in Moscow and Leningrad (the two largest cities with most prestigious universities).

1 - The Soviet military was bad for everyone, but Jews tended to get hurt more. Students accepted by a university would not be conscripted and would be listed as reserve officers, having never spent time in uniform

> The Soviet military was bad for everyone, but Jews tended to get hurt more.

I know one Jewish man from the USSR, now deceased, who told me he emigrated from the USSR to avoid conscription; he said that the military at times used Jewish soldiers as cannon fodder: They were sent to the front without arms to draw and consume enemy fire.

Not true at all. How that explain then world known physicists and mathematicians from USSR with Jewish names?

If not for this quota, you would have much greater number of "known physicists and mathematicians from USSR with Jewish names" LOL In some places (Moscow University math dep-t) the target was about 2%, but I heard some technical schools didn't accept anyone (after Natan Scharansky affair. Long story...)

I recall it was Moscow state university they wouldn't admit any, other schools would

Maybe one or several guys a year - winners of international math olympiads or folks on a similar level. E.g., https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim_Kontsevich

Jesus' full fish basket has a capacity of 0.1 cubic meters. Each fish in the basket has a volume of 0.0008 cubic meters and a packing density of 1.25. Jesus then distributes 33 fish. How many fish remain in Jesus' basket ?

Since the title of the post doesn't properly describe the article, this comment feels appropriate albeit insensitive.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact