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"belief in gift and natural born ability is toxic to all, and by eliminating it, we won’t alienate so many from technology"

There is certainly some inborn variation between people. Anyone with children is aware of it. Two children of the same parents can have very different personalities. So what exactly is it supposed to mean to "eliminate a belief" in variation in inborn ability? That we're supposed to believe something that's not true? That seems a bad road to go down. Not just because it's unwise to base your ideas on lies, but also because you won't convince anyone smart with an ideology based on a premise so obviously false.

Better just to say that determination can matter as much or more than inborn ability. That works just as well and has the added advantage of being true.

Paul, you are incredibly smart guy, so seeing you respond to scientific studies with "anyone with children is aware of it" is pretty disappointing.

As tokenadult points out, these studies are serious business. Anecdata doesn't really cut it.


How do you explain savants/prodigies?

We are all born differently. Our brains work different ways. Our muscles want to do different things. As such we have a propensity towards one thing or another.

It is true if you have kids you can see this. Every single baby is completely different, even newborns, in how they respond to things.

When discussing populations, and making statements about them, the presence of an outlier does not invalidate the statement about the characterization of the population.

We are, of course, all different. Diversity is a great strength. That doesn't mean that there's a biological basis for every kind of difference.

Certainly not, but I also don't believe that we are all born with the same abilities. Things that comes easy to some are more difficult to others. Even at the youngest ages kids show signs of what they like and don't like, and this will play out later as ability.

You should read the studies. What you're saying isn't the same thing.

Also, even if it was, I'll take scientific evidence over 'belief' any day.

I can see how it would be disappointing if you didn't have two children growing up in the same environment and the differences between them is the same as between night and day.

Not that I'm saying these type of studies are not useful.

Anecdotes are still not data, no matter how snarky you are. Hint: your claim AND the study can both be true.

I don't believe I said otherwise. Hint: I agree with you.

The blog post might not be very clear on this, but I think the research mentioned basically shows that some chlidren are very strongly convinced that they "don't have a mathematical mind" or something along those lines, and believe that other people grasp mathematics without effort, which produces some sort of psychological barrier that stumps their abilities. It's not really about denying genetic variation in intelligence, more about getting the children to understand that even very able people have to struggle quite a bit to learn hard things.

A sort of mirror image phenomenon mentioned in related studies is that kids who strongly believe themselves to be gifted may be unwilling to try things that are hard, because their self-image is tied up with things being easy for them.

The book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", quite often favourably quoted on HN, contains an interesting chapter on how what we perceive as "inborn ability" is much more the result of a very long chain of decisions (willingly or random), influencing an individual in certain directions. It especially quotes studies that many kids that were seen as excelling at a certain point turned out to be rather "normal" in all areas in the long run.

It is, unsurprisingly, called "Regression to the Mean".

What if determination is also significantly inborn?

> Broad genetic influence on the five dimensions of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness was estimated at 41%, 53%, 61%, 41%, and 44%, respectively.


It's important to remember that responsible researchers on behavior genetics (such as the researchers that I am about to quote here, from a review article) point out that just because an individual difference is "inborn" (heritable) does NOT mean that it cannot change under environmental influence. "Moreover, even highly heritable traits can be strongly manipulated by the environment, so heritability has little if anything to do with controllability. For example, height is on the order of 90% heritable, yet North and South Koreans, who come from the same genetic background, presently differ in average height by a full 6 inches (Pak, 2004; Schwekendiek, 2008)."

Johnson, Wendy; Turkheimer, Eric; Gottesman, Irving I.; Bouchard Jr., Thomas (2009). Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies in Behavioral Research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 4, 217-220


Indeed, there are psychologists who are fully aware of the research base on heritability of the "Big 5" personality dimensions you mention who nonetheless research interventions to change people's personality along one or more of those dimensions. It is already well known to personality researchers that personality changes over the course of life (from early childhood to old age) much more than most people think it does.

> just because an individual difference is "inborn" (heritable) does NOT mean that it cannot change under environmental influence

On the flip side, just because a feature isn't heritable, doesn't mean it can be changed through an environmental intervention. Many people assume that what isn't strictly genetic, must me malleable but there may be more than a fair bit of just randomness there or hard to alter circumstances (pre-natal environment, remnants of infections).

Good point. It probably is.

As with learning a language, I suspect that both inborn ability and determination are overrated as determinants of eventual programming success, and having the right experiences (opportunity to participate, and social encouragement to engage, and positive feedback for success) early in life -- when the brains ability to learn patterns of thought is at its peak -- related to the kind of symbolic reasoning that applies in the field (whether its just mathematics, or whether its programming directly, or whether its something else that fits the same pattern, or a combination) is underrated.

I like the way you expressed the matter in your essay "What You'll Wish You'd Known" (January 2005).


"Don't think that you can't do what other people can. And I agree you shouldn't underestimate your potential. People who've done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can't help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject's life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius. In fact I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.

"Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that's one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it's not our fault if we can't do something as good.

"I'm not saying there's no such thing as genius. But if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right."

We are NOT sure, on the basis of research, what anyone's upper limit of ability is. We have no idea about the extent of the "reaction range" constrained by the shuffle of genes a person obtains before a person is born, but we are absolutely sure that the reaction range is a RANGE, exquisitely sensitive to environmental influences. The discordance of identical twins for all human behavioral characteristics amply proves that. So, yes, let's say determination can matter as much or more than inborn ability. There are ample examples of that in today's world.


Yes, many children bail out of further study of mathematics because they assume school lessons should be easy, and so they think "they have no talent" for subjects that become hard. A series of FAQs I have written about mathematics learning,

"Problems versus Exercises"


"Repetition and Practice"


"Resources about Learning Mathematics"


"Courage in the Face of Stupidity"


were written to encourage learners to be willing to challenge themselves when they feel stuck learning mathematics. Most professional mathematicians feel stuck a lot of the time when they do their daily research work, but they keep going.

Well as with many things there is no black and white thinking here either.

As my dad always used to say, 50% is talent, 50% is effort. Someone with the 100% talent, who's a lazy fuck (50% overall) will be outperformed by far by someone with 50%/mediocre talent putting in 100% of work (75% overall).

A persons personality has very little to do with their actual mental ability to learn something.

Their personality might keep them from succeeding at learning (e.g. too lazy to read a book), but that doesn't mean they're mentally incapable of it.

It is easier to say determination matters more if you don't talk about inborn ability from the start. Talk about it as people are peaking out.

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