Category Archives: Politics

The Asian discrimination lawsuit against Harvard won’t change admission rates. But it damages claims to meritocracy.

The lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard has produced enough evidence to prove Asian discrimination and quotas. Though perhaps not legally. This may not be obvious unless you’ve been following it. So I want to consolidate and reblog what I found convincing. Then discuss how this impacts meritocracy.

Stephen Hsu has taken the time to post key charts from the legal documents. So I’ll pull from and recommend Hsu’s blog, which focuses mostly on genomics and physics.

From this post, note the sudden change in Asian admission trend in 1993.

harvard rate1

The chart below is from Ron Unz writing in the New York Times in 2013. The tell is the collapse in variation of Asian enrollment rates across the Ivy League. In the 1990s Asian enrollment rates varied widely. Starting around 1995, this variation collapsed towards a ~17% rate, as the Ivy League rolled out a common Asian quota target. Caltech (purple line) is a compare because they have a race blind, test score based admissions process. Pure meritocracy. The dotted line shows the steady increase in college aged Asians.


Again via Stephen Hsu, below is how Asians rate for admissions compared to whites. What jumps out are the negative personal ratings. They were introduced by Harvard in the 1920s to stop Jews from overwhelming enrollment. Been around ever since.

personality harvard

Finally, to get a bit more technical, again via Hsu, a chart comparing four different models attempting to predict admission rates. Model 1 fits using academics only. Model 2 adds legacy/athletics to academics. Model 3 adds extracurricular and personality on top of Model 2. This means Model 3 includes the bad Asian personal rating scores! And yet model 3 still can’t match the actuals (far right column). Finally. Model 4 adds that special factor, race and ethnicity. Only Model 4 can correctly fit outcomes. Captain Louis Renault is shocked! Shocked I tell you.

model 4.png

The question of course is why. Here’s Tyler Cowen:

My take is simple.  Harvard is risk-averse with respect to the stream of future donations, as are many other schools.  Asian-American admissions don’t have the same donating track record as the white students traditionally cultivated by Harvard and other top universities.  Either Asian-Americans may seek out “diaspora philanthropy,” or they simply may have a more cynical attitude toward top institutions that they basically have never had any control over.

Furthermore, there is a common fear — repugnant to me I should add — that if a student body becomes “too Asian,” many white students will be less interested in going there.  I taught at UC Irvine for several years and found it to be a delightful experience, but this is exactly what many schools are afraid of (the UCI student body is disproportionately Asian, and the honors class I taught in my first year had only one non-Asian student in it).

And so they come up with every excuse possible — sometimes cemented in by self-deception — for maintaining a “balanced” student body.


Nonetheless, I predict ultimately the status quo will not change very much.  I just don’t see a strong enough popular or judicial constituency for righting the wrongs done to Asian-Americans.  Some kind of partial concession will be made, various terms and standards will be somewhat redefined, and we’ll be back to “rinse and repeat.”  Meritocracy: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

I have no doubt Cowen is correct nothing major will change in the racial makeup students admitted to Harvard. Despite the lawsuit.

Let me pull one more tweet from a Hsu post. Stuyvesant is an elite New York high school where admission is based purely on a single entrance test. About 30,000 kids take the test each year and about 900 are admitted. Here’s a Stuyvesant teacher being interviewed about Harvard admissions and the lawsuit, realizing mid-interview Harvard discriminates against Asian students from Stuyvesant.

What the lawsuit changes is it makes the Ivy League Asian quota system more visible. It’s gradually becoming common knowledge, and the lawsuit is nudging that process along. And really, that’s the main thrust of this post, making something not visible enough just a bit more so.

As for Stuvesant? It was mostly Jewish until the 1970s. Now it’s 72% Asian. Which is completely unsurprising. So of course, from a recent New York Times story “Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Saturday a proposal that would change how students are admitted to eight of the city’s specialized high schools, a group of highly sought-after institutions where students gain entry based on a single test.” And “Mr. de Blasio said that if both reforms were enacted, 45 percent of students at the eight specialized schools would be black or Latino.”

I want to end with a plea for less hypocrisy. Even if done only for Harvard’s self interest. It is perfectly ok for Harvard to try to get their student bodies to match the demographics of the country. This is a laudable goal. But doing that means racial quotas, even if hidden behind “character assessments” to make them legal. And perhaps most colleges in America should do the same. But they should do it openly, since in an internet age the data will get out there one way or another. Continuing a pretense of a race blind meritocracy damages Harvard, and by extension it’s graduates. In particular governmental leaders, who draw overwhelmingly from Harvard and Yale. Hypocrisy fuels resentment and partisanship. It is the friend of those who claim the game is rigged.

And lastly, we should allow at least a little bit of diversity in how schools admit students. It should not be illegal to have a few schools here and there using a pure test based admission system. We don’t need many purely meritocratic schools, but America should be big enough to tolerate a few. Caltech is 43% Asian, and no doubt that rate will continue to climb as it tracks demographics. As long as they stay the course. And hopefully Stuyvesant won’t change either, though it probably will.


more reading:

In the nineteen-eighties, when Harvard was accused of enforcing a secret quota on Asian admissions, its defense was that once you adjusted for the preferences given to the children of alumni and for the preferences given to athletes, Asians really weren’t being discriminated against. But you could sense Harvard’s exasperation that the issue was being raised at all. If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.

Using Hannah Arendt to understand the Islamic State. And other recommended reads.

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The primary focus of my blog is understanding how trends in technology, society and economics will unfold over the next 5-10 years. So on twitter I follow people like Nick Szabo, arguably the world’s most famous cryptocurrency expert. Last week, in regards to Syrian refugee policy, Szabo retweeted this:

Continue reading Using Hannah Arendt to understand the Islamic State. And other recommended reads.

Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition shows why climate-splaining is a fail. Plus applying it to Paul Krugman.

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The past few decades have seen a lot of excellent research into figuring out why partisan cultural battles never seem to get to agreement. Of course David Hume was on to this centuries ago, famously claiming that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” What’s great is this newer research is scientifically investigating exactly how and why reason is so often the slave to the passions. Dan Kahan (pictured above) is doing research into cultural cognition. He posits that cultural values drive perceptions of risk. And this makes information conflicting with cultural values appear risky, so it’s easily dismissed.

Continue reading Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition shows why climate-splaining is a fail. Plus applying it to Paul Krugman.

The Ideological Turing Test. What it is. Why it’s worth taking seriously.

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The above image is from the always wonderful xkcd. It makes fun of the turing test, a test where a human tries to tell if he’s having a written conversation with a computer or another human. More recently the economist Bryan Caplan suggested an Ideological Turing Test:

Continue reading The Ideological Turing Test. What it is. Why it’s worth taking seriously.

Demonizing along your preferred axis


Arnold Kling has an essay out called The Three Languages of Politics. It’s an easy read, a 25 page ebook selling for $1.99. The thesis is Progressives, Conservatives and Libertarians each have distinct axes for good and evil, expressed in different languages. Progressives default to oppressors/oppressed, Conservatives to civilization/barbarism, Libertarians to freedom/coercion. This seems rather lightweight. But sometimes simple is good. Now that I’ve been tipped off, I see Kling’s three axes underlying rants from pundits everywhere.

Continue reading Demonizing along your preferred axis

Living with a deep faith in science

science shirt

Last week’s post on Atheism as a sacred belief showed how atheists can be as dogmatic as anyone. The central insight is anything we care passionately about can become sacralized, and immune to reason. Even atheism. Since I’m a ra-ra science fan, science works that way for me. For example I love this “it works bitches” xkcd comic, and related t-shirt pictured above (only $19.99!). Not surprisingly, I can’t help but feel science denialism is a kind of sacrilege. I’ve already done a post on how science denialism does NOT exclusively come from the right. But this time wanted to dig a bit deeper, exploring the pitfalls of having a deep faith in science, as well as listing common anti-science beliefs.

Continue reading Living with a deep faith in science

Atheism as a sacred belief


The image above is taken from this nice 15 minute video interview of Jonathan Haidt (on left) by David Sloan Wilson (on right). I’m a big fan of Haidt and Wilson, and did a previous post on Haidt’s views on Republican science denialism. A key Haidt insight is a) all groups have sacred beliefs, and b) when sacred beliefs conflict with truth, sacred wins. This is a universal human tendency. It happens to me. It can happen to you. Ironically it can happen to atheists, if they are devout enough.

Continue reading Atheism as a sacred belief

Politics are driven by urbanization as much as race


One exaggerated explanation for the 2012 presidential election was “Only white people voted for Mitt Romney….Or not quite only.” That’s because 88% of Romney voters were white versus 56% for Obama. And given the ongoing relative demographic decline in whites, there’s a narrative predicting a parallel decline in Republican electability. But this narrative is a partial truth. To get the larger picture you have to slice the election map above by urban density, not just race.

Continue reading Politics are driven by urbanization as much as race

Sometimes bad policy isn’t caused by red state/blue state, but by biased human cognition.


Start with deeply opposed ideological beliefs, toss in some heated red state/blue state tribal conflict, and things can quickly devolve into bad public policy. We see it on the news every day. But sometimes bad public policy stems from another cause, the hidden flaws and biases in human cognition. This is more interesting since less frequently covered. One of these cognitive flaws is what Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman labelled the availability heuristic, defined as “a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events by how easy it is to think of examples.” Let’s take a look at some public policies that might be improved if we understood the availability heuristic better.

Continue reading Sometimes bad policy isn’t caused by red state/blue state, but by biased human cognition.