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The Sutton Trust proves Hayek right once again

Summary:
Hayek’s narrow point was that the economy is large enough, complex enough and even chaotic to the point that it simply is not possible for the centre to gain the information necessary to plan it in any detail. The Sutton Trust neatly widens the application of this thought for us:Universities’ positive discrimination measures risk descending into a farce as new research reveals that almost half of students flagged as “disadvantaged” are in fact well-off. Russell Group institutions could be handing out lower A-level offers to the wrong students because one of the main measures of deprivation is “conceptually flawed”, according to a new report.Conceptually flawed seems a bit strong to us. The report itself agrees that some proxy is going to be used to measure disadvantage. They just differ

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Hayek’s narrow point was that the economy is large enough, complex enough and even chaotic to the point that it simply is not possible for the centre to gain the information necessary to plan it in any detail. The Sutton Trust neatly widens the application of this thought for us:

Universities’ positive discrimination measures risk descending into a farce as new research reveals that almost half of students flagged as “disadvantaged” are in fact well-off.

Russell Group institutions could be handing out lower A-level offers to the wrong students because one of the main measures of deprivation is “conceptually flawed”, according to a new report.

Conceptually flawed seems a bit strong to us. The report itself agrees that some proxy is going to be used to measure disadvantage. They just differ over which one it should be. However the (Pearson) correlations for their preferred measures are only 0.69, 0.56 and 0.47. These being measures that are not widely and freely available. The information that is correlates only to 0.22 and 0.17 levels.

Mathematics doesn’t, quite and exactly, work this way but to translate into useful colloquial, the statement is that “Our preferred measure is only entirely wrong between half and one third of the time and the one used is mostly useless.”

We might think that the planning of society should be based upon something more accurate than this. Or, given that Hayek was and is correct, reality is a complicated place, we shouldn’t be planning given the impossibility of acquiring the information to do so.

We’re reminded of Sir John Cowperthwaite’s refusal to collect GDP statistics for Hong Kong on the basis that some damn fool will only try to do something with them.

Some other method of admission thus seems sensible. How about one or more academics from the institution meets the would be student and then asks themselves “Would I like to teach this person?”

After all, those trying to answer that question are the presumed to be intelligent and clever of our society. What could go wrong?

Or even, if the presumed to be intelligent and clever of our society have been using a measure which is so flawed then what value this idea of technocracy, that the clever and intelligent should be planning our lives for us?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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