Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Does this tell us something about the Israeli psyche?

Upon learning that the US* won this year's International Olympiad in Informatics—the premier algorithmic programming contest for high school students—I came across an article on the Israeli website ynetnews discussing the Israeli team's performance. The spin? "Iran beats Israel in Informatics Olympiad". The article opens:
The Iranian team won four medals in this year's International Olympiad in Informatics, hosted last week in Canada. Israel's team had to make do with just three.
And so it goes, as the article closes by mentioning this "disappointment" and a sidebar displays a picture of the Israeli team—carefully cropped to display the three team members who smiled the least—with the heading "Slightly disappointed?" No other context for the performance is provided.

I shouldn't overgeneralize from a single article—especially one associated with an extremely popular but tabloid-y newpaper—but I have to say I found this hilarious. Iran has ten times the population of Israel. If you think that Iran is filled with poorly educated fundamentalists, maybe you'll be surprised by their performance in the contest. If you have a realistic view of the country, however, you'll realize that it is a complicated nation with a well-educated and cosmopolitan elite. In fact, Iran has ranked higher than Israel in the International Math Olympiad—the top high school mathematics contest in the world—in every year since 2001, when it ranked immediately below them.

Needless to say, Israel is a country with a lot of smart people, and it has contributed a disproportionate share of top academics in my own field of economics. But it's not so disproportionately brilliant that it can hope to outperform a far larger nation with an apparent interest in high-level high school academic contests. The fact that "Iran beats Israel" is considered the newsworthy spin for these events is just sad.

* By the way, go USA! And since two of the four team members have Chinese surnames, we should also probably be cheering the H-1B visa.

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