March 29, 2010

Athletic, educational, scientific and technological races

There are two paths to success in this world. One is to create things of value. The other is to take things of value away from other people. There is more honor in the former.
This is Steve Landsburg in one of two blog posts devoted to explaining the problem of racing.

Take the school-test-scoring race. William K. Lim complains in Science that too much effort goes into test training in some Asian countries. For example, last year in South Korea parents spent $16 billion, and kids spent much of their time, inside and outside school, in test training.

Lim is worried that struggling to "memorize facts for regurgitation" detracts from "nurturing the creativity and thinking skills required in successful scientists." As a result, "Asian science will continue lagging behind the West." "A radical transformation of the educational culture must happen before homegrown Asian science can challenge Western technological dominance."

Notice the irony. Lim rejects the test-scoring racing culture but embraces the scientific/technological racing culture. But both cultures are silly and they are silly for the same reason. Landsburg explains it:
When your kid is an Olympic gold medalist, mustn’t you feel a little sheepish about all the superhuman effort that went into nothing more than taking a gold medal away from someone else?


  1. Dear Dr Fuentes
    Indeed the exam race is silly. But the technology race is for the benefit of mankind.
    Right now innovation comes mainly from the West, and is exported to the East. If you have been to a modern Asian city, you will see the modern airport, people using mobile phones and hospitals providing western medical treatment. All these technology came from the West. If one day the East is driving innovation, then the products of Eastern technology will be enjoyed in the West.
    Countries join this race to create jobs and bring in money, but ultimately everyone benefits from this race.
    William Lim

  2. William, thank you for your comment. I agree with you that non-Asians will benefit from Asian innovation. However, whether mankind as a whole benefits from Asian innovation depends on the costs of that innovation, which are mainly paid for by Asians.

    In order to score high in tests South Koreans have to acquire knowledge by memorizing facts. Knowledgeable citizens are an asset for society. If one is ignorant it is good to have knowledgeable neighbors. The efforts of students and their parents benefit the rest of society. Are these efforts worthy? You correctly argue that, given the purely competitive culture of test scoring, too much effort may go into memorizing facts. There is likely too much memorizing and too much (perhaps not very useful) knowledge.

    You and some institutions in the US and Europe support the same kind of competitive culture for science and innovation. If a purpose of investing in innovation is to avoid "lagging behind," and to "challenge" other people's "dominance," then you can easily have too much (perhaps not very useful) innovation.

    We tend to view some races as intrinsically bad (arms races, ostentatious consumption races) and others as intrinsically good. But racing easily gives you too much of things that would be good in moderate amounts. Caring for one's body is good; starving yourself or undergoing dangerous plastic surgery in order to look better than your neighbors is bad. Cycling and running are good; extreme training and taking certain enhancing drugs in order to go faster than the others is bad. Financial speculation is good;
    spending time just trying to outrun other speculators is a waste of human effort.

    Landsburg provides more examples and better prose in his posts.