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Meritocracy: Gelman’s Sixth Column

For reasons best known to himself, Columbia University statistics professor Andrew Gelman has now seen fit to publish his sixth(!)  lengthy blogsite column discussing or sharply critiquing my analysis of Ivy League university admissions.  Just like most of his previous ones, he seeks to rebut my particular claim that there is a highly suspicious degree of Jewish […]

For reasons best known to himself, Columbia University statistics professor Andrew Gelman has now seen fit to publish his sixth(!)  lengthy blogsite column discussing or sharply critiquing my analysis of Ivy League university admissions.  Just like most of his previous ones, he seeks to rebut my particular claim that there is a highly suspicious degree of Jewish over-representation in elite college enrollment.

Unfortunately, this latest 3,100 word piece contains new little substance beneath the paired photos of President Obama and House Speaker Boehner.  He continues to avoid the overwhelming bulk of the quantitative evidence I had provided in my 30,000 word Meritocracy analysis, instead producing a mass of obfuscatory verbiage mostly disputing the accuracy of a couple of my scattered sentences here and there, while characterizing my motivation as that of an ideological “political activist” following a pattern of “stubbornness” rather than “scholarly discourse.”  I’m no expert in psychoanalysis, but I believe Gelman’s reaction might be a classic example of what I think Freud called “psychological projection.”

As I had previously mentioned, after our initial blogsite debate became heated I sent Gelman a detailed private note outlining my own quantitative framework and suggesting that he do the same, thereby allowing us to determine exactly where we agreed and disagreed and narrowing down the scope of our dispute.  His response was that he hadn’t really investigated the issue himself and therefore didn’t have any contrasting estimates of his own.  But he asked for permission to publish our private exchange on his blogsite, which I readily granted.

I suggest that neutral observers read this Unz/Gelman exchange for themselves, and decide whether his response is as vacuous as it seems to me, even with the substantial P.S. he afterwards appended.  I believe it also provides a good indication of which of us is playing the role of the dispassionate researcher.  Indeed, Gelman’s complete refusal to engage with my data alarmed one of his agitated and anonymous commenters, who accused Gelman of pursuing an “escape route,” adding “Now that you’ve gotten into the fight don’t run away.”  Perhaps this sort of angry accusation from his erstwhile supporters helps to explain Gelman’s added P.S., plus his two subsequent columns on the subject.

Under normal circumstances it would be perfectly reasonable for Gelman to claim that he is just too busy or uninterested in the topic to produce his own quantitative estimates to compare against my own.  But given that he’s now written well over 10,000 words about my article across six separate postings, that claim begins to grow rather doubtful.


It is obvious that unavoidable emotional attachments, including those of an ethnocentric nature, may easily cloud one’s analytical thinking.  For example, my initial substantive response in the original comment-thread with Gelman had been as follows:

I had claimed that across the combined NMS lists, the Jewish estimates produced by the sampling technique of Weyl Analysis almost exactly matched those produced by direct inspection, thereby validating the latter approach.  You devoted a major section of your column to debunking this claim by pointing out that Weyl Analysis actually produced a substantially higher Jewish estimate than my direct inspection for the 8 states you listed.  However, you neglected to note that Weyl Analysis also produced a substantially *lower* estimate for the other 17 states I used.  This is exactly what one would expect of any sampling technique, and is fully consistent with my claim that the overall averages converged across the very large sample of 25 states.  Your blogsite does describe you as an award-winning Ivy League statistics professor, does it not?

America’s national elites in academics, finance, media, and politics are today drawn overwhelmingly from Harvard (which rejects some 95% of all applicants) and the rest of the Ivy League.  These universities publicly claim that they admit applicants less on objective academic merit than on broad “holistic” factors, which are known only to them.  This policy is partly to ensure that their student body is fully “diverse” and reasonably reflects America’s overall population.

According to Hillel, whose estimates are accepted everywhere, Ivy League undergraduates are 23% Jewish, implying that they are some 3,000% more likely to be enrolled than non-Jewish whites of a similar age.  You challenge the Hillel figures, suggesting that they are probably incorrect.  However, Jews constitute roughly 1.8% of the national college-age population, and unless the true enrollment figure were that low, Jews would be considerably overrepresented.  Given the extremely large gap between 23% and 1.8%, I tend to doubt Hillel’s numbers are off by nearly a factor of 13.

The least troubling possible explanation for the 3,000% overrepresentation of Jewish students is that Jewish academic performance is so enormously greater than that of white Gentiles, they are admitted by the Ivies at correspondingly greater rates, even though the Ivies publicly discount academic performance as an overriding factor in admissions.  The best means of testing this “Jewish out-performance” hypothesis is to estimate the number of Jewish students ranked as NMS semifinalists.  But unless an unreasonably large fraction of top-performing Jewish students actually have completely non-Jewish names, this approach fails.  I would suggest that the burden of proof is upon those who argue that Jewish students are actually 3,000% more likely to be high-performing than their non-Jewish classmates.

Let us consider the following thought-experiment.  The number of college-age Mormons in America is roughly the same as the number of college-age Jews.  Suppose an astonishing fraction of all top Ivy League officials were either Mormons or married to Mormons, while a leading Mormon campus organization reported that young Mormons were 3,000% more likely to be enrolled in the Ivy League than young non-Mormons.  To avoid dark suspicions, one would surely attempt to locate some solid evidence that Mormon students were 3,000% more likely to be top-achievers than non-Mormons, or perhaps were 3,000% more likely to apply to the Ivy League.

To which he responded in part:

Regarding your last point, nobody has shared with me the data you discuss on Mormons.  My impression is that Mormons mostly live far away from Ivy League schools and are less likely to apply to them and that Mormons are not represented in the same proportion as Jews in the various groups that you looked at in your article.  But, again, I haven’t looked at these numbers.

Readers may draw their own conclusions from this.  I’ve been told that Gelman originally studied physics, but perhaps he never encountered the term “thought-experiment.”


Turning to a far more substantive matter, a couple of very prominent academic scholars, both of Jewish background, have indicated that they found my quantitative evidence of Jewish over-representation at the Ivies reasonably persuasive, but were puzzled at the actual mechanism.  After all, relatively few admissions officers are Jewish, and although a huge fraction of the top university officials have that ethnicity, it seems very implausible that they would actually order their subordinates to maintain a particular level of Jewish enrollment.

My short answer is that I just don’t know.  But if I were forced to provide a speculative hypothesis, it would be along the following lines.

First, consider the evidence that most admissions officers are of shockingly unimpressive academic quality, partly because the job usually pays quite badly.  For example, my article had mentioned that the head of admissions at one of America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges had previously been employed as an animal control officer, and I provided numerous similar examples.

Next, let us consider the revealing 1999 Princeton case, in which it was discovered that Jewish admissions had been gradually drifting downward for the previous decade or two.  The decline partly reflected the changing demographics of the college-age population and was less severe than the decline in non-Jewish white numbers at Harvard, Yale and the rest of the Ivy League, but nonetheless provoked a massive national media firestorm, in which Princeton’s top officials—who were themselves both Jewish—apologized for their university’s apparent “anti-Semitism” and agreed to drastically reform the obviously flawed admissions process.  Presumably, many or most of the responsible admissions officers were terminated, and had to go back to catching raccoons for a living.

The world of elite admissions officers is an extremely small one, and it seems likely that admissions officers at all the other Ivy League and highly selective schools immediately took that lesson to heart, recognizing that any substantial decline in Jewish enrollment might have career-ending consequences.  This would certainly lead to the results we now see in the data.

Consider the analogous reasons that industrial production statistics were very often unreliable in Soviet Russia.  Although officials were probably not ordered to fabricate their numbers, they quickly discovered that those who reported insufficiently positive results risked being purged.

I strongly suspect that if Princeton’s 1999 admissions officers had attempted to persuade Prof. Gelman or his agitated commenters that their sharply declining admission of Jews was simply due to the objective academic weakness of their Jewish applicants, those arguments would have fallen on unsympathetic ears.   And it is far more pleasant to sit in a warm university office selecting America’s future ruling elites than having to wander around the Northeastern countryside during wintertime in search of a possibly rabid dog.