July 06, 2005
James Heckman on understanding the world
Posted by Darren Roulstone

In my post on economics as a hot major, I stated: "A good economics course (coupled with a rigorous class in statistics) provides a lot of tools for making intelligent assessments of the world."  For a great example of an economist trying to assess how the world works, check out this interview with James Heckman of the University of Chicago, a Nobel prize winner in Economics (2000, joint with Daniel L. McFadden).  Heckman has done ground-breaking research into the statistical techniques necessary to properly evalute the "messy" data available to social scientists.  He has used those techniques to evaluate (among many other items) the effects of civil-rights legislation, job-training programs, and early-childhood education. 

The whole interview is great but I want to quote one portion that highlights both the difficulties facing social scientists and the importance of the work they do.  In discussing education and job-training, Heckman points out that 20% of all high school degrees today are GEDs (General Education Diploma or General Education Development Certificate), i.e., a high-school equivalency diploma.  Why is this important?  "[GED recipients] earn what high school dropouts who do not get GEDs earn, once you adjust for their somewhat higher cognitive ability...GEDs have the same Armed Forces Qualifying Test...scores as high school graduates who do not go on to college, so they're just as smart as those people.  But they lack something.  They're missing motivation, self-control and forward-lookingness.  I call these noncognitive skills."

Heckman goes on to discuss the importance of these noncognitive skills in explaining socioeconomic success ("the things we used to think of as soft and fuzzy have a real effect on behavior") and how failing to account for them leads to poor policy decisions.  Thus, as difficult as is it to deal with these "fuzzy" factors, social scientists need to develop the tools and collect the data necessary to incorporate them into their work.

(Thanks to Don Boudreaux for pointing me to the interview.  Andrew Samwick also has comments.)

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