In a week in which two shadow education secretaries resigned, the incumbent secretary angled to run the country, and no one seemed to know if the education white paper was binned or on ice, it was reassuring to meet Andrew Sabisky, a 24-year-old polymath who is edging his way to becoming a “super forecaster” – one of a cadre of people whose ability to predict the outcome of political events puts them close to omniscience.
A livewire on the education conference scene, Sabisky first came to prominence with a talk at ResearchEd 2014 in which he asked why educators never talked about genetics. When we meet, he even uses the E word.
“Eugenics are about selecting ‘for’ good things,” he says. “Intelligence is largely inherited and it correlates with better outcomes: physical health, income, lower mental illness. There is no downside to having IQ except short-sightedness.”
He poses a question. If I were having IVF I might have nine embryos available. If I could choose to be impregnated with the smartest embryo, would I? (I say no).
“OK, but if you could choose the one that’s most likely to be healthiest, or have less propensity towards schizophrenia or depression, would you do it?”
I sigh. If I say yes then I’m effectively agreeing to sorting by intelligence. Which is why Sabisky, despite his youth and lack of experience in schools (he has studied full-time so far), is hard to ignore. His questions are penetrating and he needles at long-held ideas in education that many are too squeamish to address.
His core belief is that intelligence is mostly hereditary. There is an opportunity for shift – about 20 per cent of intelligence is down to environment, and he thinks that’s enormously important – but, for him, there’s no getting around the fact that people who score low on IQ tests tend to earn less and have worse health.
“Sure, it is not IQ itself that is causal but there is a lot of shared overlap with the genes involved in physical and mental health. You can view IQ like a general indicator for the functioning of the brain, which impacts on a lot of other things.”
So it’s the mental equivalent of taking someone’s heart rate to check their physical health? “Yes! That’s exactly it!”
In the two years since he first emailed the ResearchEd conference organisers to ask for a speaking slot, he has undertaken postgraduate study in educational psychology and become a “forecaster”.
Started in the US by IARPA, who complete research for the CIA, the first forecasting projects asked university-based experts to run tournaments in which they bet on political outcomes. “Will Britain vote to leave the EU?” would be a classic example. Forecasters say how certain they are the event will happen, and they accumulate a score based on how well they predict the outcome – known as a Brier score.
Sabisky explains that a score of 0 equals perfect foresight – “god level” whereas a “random dart-throwing chimp” would get around 0.5. The worst possible score is 2 – “maximum failure”.
His highest score is 0.22, “which is pretty good”, but he is at 0.3 after failing to predict Brexit. He is working hard to get back towards the 0.2. In the US, top scorers are starting to make money from their predictive powers, working as consultants and intelligence officers.
So, in this week of turmoil what does his crystal ball show for schools?
He wants a more specific question.
Given Boris Johnson and Theresa May are forerunners to be the next prime minister, and both are grammar school advocates, will grammar schools return within two years?
“If it’s Boris, and I do think it will be Boris, my gut answer is no.”
Sabisky instead believes Gove will have power over education regardless of who controls the PM’s office. Given his focus on academies over the past few years Sabisky feels grammars will therefore be irrelevant. It will be a steaming forward for Project Academy.
As for the next education secretary, he doesn’t have a clue – “it would make for a very good forecasting tournament” – but he believes that it will be someone “non-descript and fairly bland”.
“If you’re a new administration dealing with difficult situations you want as few disasters as possible. It will be another bland Nicky Morgan character, not a fiery loose cannon such as Gove.”
The Good Judgment platform where Sabisky spends his time making predictions is open to the public. Teachers can get pupils to sign up as learning experience for politics A-level students. But they shouldn’t expect to do well When a cohort of first-year undergraduate students at the University of Austin, Texas, signed up they were, in Sabisky’s words, “dreadful!”
“They made us all look like complete geniuses! There’s a lot to be learned from the wisdom of age,” says a man who is 24.
Given he is a member of the generation that most voted to remain in Europe, what are his thoughts on the current anger among his cohort over the result?
He is nonchalant: “How many people who voted for Leave this time were Remain voters in 1975? A lot, I would imagine. A huge amount. People get older, their minds change, they have more life experience, and they become more conservative.”
But he becomes more animated when asked if the large number of baby boomers versus a historically tiny number of 16 to 25-year-olds is a problem.
“Yes! It’s disastrous! It shows itself in funding allocation. It is an absolute scandal that education, especially FE, has been cut while doctors get pay rises. This is democratic fraud! We live in a gerontocracy. And where do you turn to get that voice heard?”
That said, his schooling was quite cheap. Like many of his five siblings, he was mostly home-educated by his mother (punctuated only by two spells at private schools). His father is the finance director of Unite, the trade union.
“The next education secretary? Another bland Nicky Morgan character”
“You can just have a lot more fun at home,” he says, “Your time is so much more productive, we would do four hours in the morning and then play tennis or do ballet or go to a museum.”
Given his views, then, would he think it acceptable for children with a low IQ to be educated by low IQ parents? “The benefits and productivity of a class size of one or two means mean it’s still worth it,” he shrugs.
We next turn to his latest talk-circuit topic of mind-enhancing drugs. In particular he is interested in modafinil, a drug that stops narcoleptics from sleeping, but which also cuts the need for sleep in healthy people by two-thirds and appears to improve brain functioning.
The down side? In children there is evidence of a slightly elevated risk of Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a life-threatening condition in which skin rots. Hence the US drugs agency has not approved its use for juveniles.
But, Sabisky points out, evidence is building that more hours spent in quality classrooms increases pupil outcomes and life chances, particularly for poorer children.
“From a societal perspective the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year,” he says, matter-of-factly.
I am aghast. But he reminds me there is a difference between the ideological and factual. He is personally uneasy about the ethics of many of the things he talks about and as a Christian – he married in church last year – he has moral views on the topics that may not be what people expect.
“But you have to separate yourself from what you feel and from what are the facts of the matter,” he says.
Before we finish, I ask if there’s one thing he’d like to say to the people who often take him for being nothing more than a trumped-up 24-year-old who had well-off parents.
“Come see me talk! People always say I am much more reasonable in person.
“I also want people to know that demography is not destiny. Social background is not even as important as people think it is. But it has a real effect and we should not have a single-minded focus on an achievement gap that the evidence says is impossible to erase.
“What we should do is make every child into the best person they can be. That’s it.”
It’s a personal thing
If you could give every 16-year-old a free book what would it be?
Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy. It’s readable, it’s not a gazillion pages long, and it taps into the same themes of Crime and Punishment but in a more religious way. The themes are of moral decline, degeneracy and the rebirth of a person’s moral character through suffering.
When in history would you have liked to
England in the 18th century, in about 1720. We had the best music. We had new Handel operas written at the rate of a couple of a year, and it was one of the most extraordinary, traumatic and exciting periods there has been.
If you could put a slogan on a bus that would drive around the country for two weeks, what would it say?
Stop being idiots and go to Mass. Lol.
If you could be invisible for a day what would you do?
I’d need the powers of being able to go to Korea and speak Korean too. But then I would follow Kim Jong-un around for the day. Or I’d follow Donald Trump. I’d find that interesting.
What is the animal that best represents who
An oyster catcher. It’s a wading bird with a really long red beak prodding, prodding, prodding into the sand for shells. I’ve always found it very evocative. It’s like an endless quest for wisdom.