Not Over the Hill

The Washington Post reports on some research about intelligence that is as irrelevant as the candle problem. Specifically:

[R]esearchers at Canada’s Simon Fraser University … have found that measurable declines in cognitive performance begin to occur at age 24. In terms of brainpower, you’re over the hill by your mid-20s.

The researchers measured this by studying the performance of thousands of players of Starcraft 2, a strategy video game….

Even worse news for those of us who are cognitively over-the-hill: the researchers find “no evidence that this decline can be attenuated by expertise.” Yes, we get wiser as we get older. But wisdom doesn’t substitute for speed. At best, older players can only hope to compensate “by employing simpler strategies and using the game’s interface more efficiently than younger players,” the authors say.

So there you have it: scientific evidence that we cognitively peak at age 24. At that point, you should probably abandon any pretense of optimism and accept that your life, henceforth, will be a steady descent into mediocrity, punctuated only by the bitter memories of the once seemingly-endless potential that you so foolishly squandered in your youth. Considering that the average American lives to be 80, you’ll have well over 50 years to do so! (Christopher Ingraham, “Your Brain Is Over the Hill by Age 24,” April 16, 2014)

Happily, Starcraft 2 is far from a representation of the real world. Take science, for example. I went to Wikipedia and obtained the list of all Nobel laureates in physics. It’s a long list, so I sampled it — taking the winners for the first five years (1901-1905), the middle five years (1955-1959) and the most recent five years (2009-2013). Here’s a list of the winners for those 15 years, and the approximate age of each winner at the time he or she did the work for which the prize was awarded:

1901 Wilhelm Röntgen (50)

1902 Hendrik Lorentz; (43) and Pieter Zeeman (31)

1903 Henri Becquerel, (44), Pierre Curie (37), and Marie Curie (29)

1904 Lord Rayleigh (52)

1955 Willis Lamb (34) and Polykarp Kusch (40)

1956 John Bardeen (39), Walter Houser Brattain (45), and William Shockley (37)

1957 Chen Ning Yang (27) and Tsung-Dao Lee (23)

1958 Pavel Cherenkov (30), Ilya Frank (26), and Igor Tamm (39)

1959 Emilio G. Segrè (50) and Owen Chamberlain (35)

2009 Charles K. Kao (33), Willard S. Boyle (45), and George E. Smith (39)

2010 Andre Geim (46) and Konstantin Novoselov (34)

2011 Saul Perlmutter (39), Adam G. Riess (29), and Brian Schmidt (31)

2012 Serge Haroche (40-50) and David J. Wineland (40-50)

2013 François Englert (32) and Peter W. Higgs (35)

There’s exactly one person within a year of age 24 (Tsung-Dao Lee, 23), and a few others who were still in their (late) 20s. Most of the winners were in their 30s and 40s when they accomplished their prize-worthy scientific feats. And there are at least as many winners who were in their 50s as winners who were in their 20s.

Let’s turn to so-called physical pursuits, which often combine brainpower (anticipation, tactical improvisation, hand-eye coordination) and pure physical skill (strength and speed). Baseball exemplifies such a pursuit. Do ballplayers go sharply downhill after the age of 24? Hardly. On average, they’re just entering their best years at age 24, and they perform at peak level for several years.

I’ll use two charts to illustrate the point about ballplayers. The first depicts normalized batting average vs. age for 86 of the leading hitters in the history of the American League*:

Greatest hitters_BA by age_86 hitters

Because of the complexity of the spreadsheet from which the numbers are taken, I was unable to derive a curve depicting mean batting average vs. age. But the density of the plot lines suggests that the peak age for batting average begins at 24 and extends into the early 30s. Further, with relatively few exceptions, batting performance doesn’t decline sharply until the late 30s.

Among a more select group of players, and by a different measure of performance, the peak years occur at ages 24-28, with a slow decline after 28**:

Offensive average by age_25 leading hitters

The two graphs suggest to me that ballplayers readily compensate for physical decline (such as it is) by applying the knowledge they acquire in the course of playing the game. Such knowledge would include “reading” pitchers to make better guesses about the pitch that’s coming, knowing where to hit a ball in a certain ballpark against certain fielders, judging the right moment to attempt a stolen base against a certain pitcher-catcher combination, hitting to the opposite field on occasion instead of trying to pull the ball every time, and so on.

I strongly suspect that what is true in baseball is true in many walks of life: Wisdom — knowledge culled from experience — compensates for pure brainpower, and continues to do so for a long time. The Framers of the Constitution, who weren’t perfect but who were astute observers of the human condition, knew as much. That’s why they set 35 as the minimum age for election to the presidency. (Subsequent history — notably, the presidencies of TR, JFK, Clinton, and Obama — tells us that the Framers should have made it 50.)

I do grow weary of pseudo-scientific crap like the research reported in the Post. But it does give me something to write about. And most of the pseudo-science is harmless, unlike the statistical lies on which global-warming hysteria is based.

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* The numbers are drawn from the analysis described in detail here and here, which is based on statistics derived through the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com. The bright red line represents Ty Cobb’s career, which deserves special mention because of Cobb’s unparalleled dominance as a hitter-for-average over a 24-year career, and especially for ages 22-32. I should add that Cobb’s dominance has been cemented by Ichiro Suzuki’s sub-par performance in the three seasons since I posted this, wherein I proclaimed Cobb the American League’s best all-time hitter for average, taking age into account. (There’s no reason to think that the National League has ever hosted Cobb’s equal.)

** This is an index, where 100 represents parity with the league average. I chose the 25 players represented here from a list of career leaders in OPS+ (on-base percentage plus slugging average, normalized for league averages and park factors). Because of significant changes in rules and equipment in the late 1800s and early years of the 1900s (see here, here, and here), players whose careers began before 1907 were eliminated, excepting Cobb, who didn’t become a regular player until 1906. Also eliminated were Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, whose drug-fueled records don’t merit recognition, and Joey Votto, who has completed only eight seasons. Offensive Average (OA) avoids the double-counting inherent in OPS+, which also (illogically) sums two fractions with different denominators. OA measures a player’s total offensive contribution (TOC) per plate appearance (PA) in a season, normalized by the league average for that season. TOC = singles + doubles x 2 + triples x 3 + home runs x 4 + stolen bases – times caught stealing + walks – times grounded into a double play + sacrifice hits + sacrifice flies. In the graph, Cobb seems to disappear into the (elite) crowd after age 24, but that’s an artifact of Cobb’s preferred approach to the game — slapping hits and getting on base — not his ability to hit the long ball, for which extra credit is given in computing OA. (See this, for example.)