Tag: academic

How 457 data scientists failed to predict life outcomes

How 457 data scientists failed to predict life outcomes

This blog highlights a recent PNAS paper in which 457 data scientists and academic scholars were challenged use machine learning to predict life outcomes using a rich dataset.

Yet, I can not summarize the result better than this tweet by the author of the paper:

Over 750 scientific papers have used the Fragile Families dataset.

The dataset is famous for its richness of cohort (survey) data on the included families’ lives and their childrens’ upbringings. It includes a whopping 12.942 variables!!

Some of these variables reflect interesting life outcomes of the included families.

For instance, the childrens’ grade point averages (GPA) and grit, but also whether the family was ever evicted or experienced hardship, or whether their primary caregiver had received job training or was laid off at work.

You can read more about the exact data contents in the paper’s appendix.

A visual representation of the data
via pnas.org/content/pnas/117/15/8398/F1.medium.gif

Now Matthew and his co-authors shared this enormous dataset with over 160 teams consisting of 457 academics researchers and data scientists alike. Each of them well versed in statistics and predictive modelling.

These data scientists were challenged with this task: by all means possible, make the most predictive model for the six life outcomes (i.e., GPA, conviction, etc).

The scientists could use all the Fragile Families data, and any algorithm they liked, and their final model and its predictions would be compared against the actual life outcomes in a holdout sample.

According to the paper, many of these teams used machine-learning methods that are not typically used in social science research and that explicitly seek to maximize predictive accuracy.

Now, here’s the summary again:

If hundreds of [data] scientists created predictive algorithms with high-quality data, how well would the best predict life outcomes?

Not very well.


Even the best among the 160 teams’ predictions showed disappointing resemblance of the actual life outcomes. None of the trained models/algorithms achieved an R-squared of over 0.25.

Via twitter.com/msalganik/status/1263886779603705856/photo/1

Here’s that same plot again, but from the original publication and with more detail:

Via pnas.org/content/117/15/8398

Wondering what these best R-squared of around 0.20 look like? Here’s the disappointg reality of plot C enlarged: the actual TRUE GPA’s on the x-axis, plotted against the best team’s predicted GPA’s on the y-axis.

Via twitter.com/msalganik/status/1263886781449191424/photo/1

Sure, there’s some relationship, with higher actual scores getting higher (average) predictions. But it ain’t much.

Moreover, there’s very little variation in the predictions. They all clump together between the range of about 2.1 and 3.8… that’s not really setting apart the geniuses from the less bright!

Matthew sums up the implications quite nicely in one of his tweets:

For policymakers deploying predictive algorithms in high-stakes decisions, our result is a reminder of a basic fact: one should not assume that algorithms predict well. That must be demonstrated with transparent, empirical evidence.


According to Matthew this “collective failure of 160 teams” is hard to ignore. And it failure highlights the understanding vs. predicting paradox: these data have been used to generate knowledge on how the world works in over 750 papers, yet few checked to see whether these same data and the scientific models would be useful to predict the life outcomes we’re trying to understand.

I was super excited to read this paper and I love the approach. It is actually quite closely linked to a series of papers I have been working on with Brian Spisak and Brian Doornenbal on trying to predict which people will emerge as organizational leaders. (hint: we could not really, at least not based on their personality)

Apparently, others were as excited as I am about this paper, as Filiz Garip already published a commentary paper on this research piece. Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall so I haven’t read it yet.

Moreover, if you want to learn more about the approaches the 160 data science teams took in modelling these life outcomes, here are twelve papers in which some teams share their attempts.

Very curious to hear what you think of the paper and its implications. You can access it here, and I’d love to read your comments below.

How to Read Scientific Papers

How to Read Scientific Papers

Cover image via wikihow.com/Read-a-Scientific-Paper

Reddit is a treasure trove of random stuff. However, every now and then, in the better groups, quite valuable topics pop up. Here’s one I came across on r/statistics:

Particularly the advice by grandzooby seemed worth a like, and he linked to several useful resources which I’ve summarized for you below.

An 11-step guide to reading a paper

Jennifer Raff — assistant professor at the University of Kansas — wrote this 3-page guide on how to read papers. It elaborates on 11 main pieces of advice for reading academic papers:

  1. Begin by reading the introduction, skip the abstract.
  2. Identify the general problem: “What problem is this research field trying to solve?”
  3. Try to uncover the reason and need for this specific study.
  4. Identify the specific problem: “What problems is this paper trying to solve?”
  5. Identify what the researchers are going to do to solve that problem
  6. Read & identify the methods: draw the studies in diagrams
  7. Read & identify the results: write down the main findings
  8. Determine whether the results solve the specific problem
  9. Read the conclusions and determine whether you agree
  10. Read the abstract
  11. Find out what others say about this paper

Jennifer also dedicated a more elaborate blog post to the matter (to which u/grandzooby refers).

4-step Infographic

Natalia Rodriguez made a beautiful infographic with some general advice for Elsevier:

Via https://www.elsevier.com/connect/infographic-how-to-read-a-scientific-paper

How to take notes while reading

Mary Purugganan and Jan Hewitt of Rice University propose slightly different steps for reading academic papers. Though they seem more general pointers to keep in mind to me:

  1. Skim the article and identify its structure
  2. Distinguish its main points
  3. Generate questions before and during reading
  4. Draw inferences while reading
  5. Take notes while reading

Regarding the note taking Mary and Jan propose the following template which may proof useful:

  • Citation:
  • URL:
  • Keywords:
  • General subject:
  • Specific subject:
  • Hypotheses:
  • Methodology:
  • Results:
  • Key points:
  • Context (in the broader field/your work):
  • Significance (to the field/your work):
  • Important figures/tables (description/page numbers):
  • References for further reading:
  • Other comments:

Scholars sharing their experiences

Science Magazine dedicated a long read to how to seriously read scientific papers, in which they asked multiple scholars to share their experiences and tips.

Anatomy of a scientific paper

This 13-page guide by the American Society of Plant Biologists was recommended by some, but I personally don’t find it as useful as the other advices here. Nevertheless, for the laymen, it does include a nice visualization of the anatomy of scientific papers:

Via https://aspb.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/HowtoReadScientificPaper.pdf

Learning How to Learn

One reddit user recommend this Coursera course, Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. It’s free, and can be taken in English, but also Portuguese, Spanish, or Chinese.

This course gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines. We’ll learn about the how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information. We’ll also cover illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination, and best practices shown by research to be most effective in helping you master tough subjects.