The impossibility of thinking about Intelligence. Explored, not solved.

Intelligence.  Highly valued, and, my god, how it seems to induce crappy thinking in myriad people who probably are quite on the high end of it.  Murray talks about bubbles, and, forgive me, this is terribly second hand because I have not read his latest book, but the bubble thing isn’t unique to him. There is a fairly standard finding in Social Psychology that show that you assume that other people are like you, not taking into account that you have a tendency to surround yourself with people who are like you, and not run into those that are not.  Homophily at work.

Geoffrey Miller (to take someone in the other American political tribe, even though he is an evolutionary psychologist) also sees fairly clearly through the bubble thing.  Intelligence, whatever it is, and which shadow is flickeringly reflected in an IQ test, is a trait that varies, and part of that trait is inherited, even though we have not been able to pinpoint the genes yet – quite possibly a network on them.  Steven Hsu is working on it.  And, not everybody can learn particle physics, or to play Sibelius Violin concert, or even become a decent mathematical or evolutionary psychologist simply by sitting down and working hard.  Some people seem to never have met anybody who comes about their mediocre or even low IQ scores honestly, without any mitigating circumstances like chromosomal abnormalities, or problematic births.  Perfectly normal, pleasant people who neither want to nor are interested in getting a masters in semiotics or chaos piloting, or behavioral genetics. 

There was a lovely blog post on Scientific American that showed such a blindness.  Featuring Walter Mischel and Carol Dweck, who both do interesting work on personality, intelligence, success, etc.  Because, of course, whatever the IQ measures, when it does it well, is not the only determinant of what we consider success.  Although, as a psychological measure, it is pretty damned good – compared to a lot of other measures we have floating around. 

Clearly, both Mischel and Dweck are highly intelligent.  You will not become successful academics without that.  What the initial anecdotes showed – Mischel failing an IQ test (because, well, he didn’t really speak the language yet) and Dweck being assigned the front of the class based on her high IQ score – is that people who don’t understand the IQ measure have sorely abused it.  A performance measure – which IQ is – is not like a ruler or a scale or a clock.  You get a score out of it:  a composite of some underlying ability, your upbringing, your state right now etc.  You administer it wrong, you are going to get an uninterpretable result.  You do it in the wrong language, you will have a meaningless score.  Also, doing seating based on the score is… kinda weird.  You put too much faith in the score.

Mischel is, these days, famous for marshmallows.  I find that work interesting seeing as there are multiple factors involved in how well one does in life.  I sit in my own psych bubble, and see it as an interesting feature.  Some of my buddies saw it as another attempt by media to discount the variation in IQ and to subtly say that if we could just train everybody to wait to eat their marshmallow we would lower the various achievement gaps around us.  Beware of simplistic polyanna wishful solutions.  And, beware of believing that just because we have this cool finding, some other robust finding will magically disappear.  There is still variation in that thing measured by IQ, and part of that variation is heritable. 

Dweck looks more at how one construes intelligence as an individual, and how that affects scores.  Is it a capacity that you just have which is not malleable, or is it something you can achieve with more work?  And, yes, it seems to matter how you construe it, at least for the students where she tests this.  WEIRD students?  Do you get this all through the measured IQ spectrum?  We do know that performance can be impaired in many ways (like, stereotype threat), but a lot of this is done in people on the far right end of the Bell Curve. 

And, sure this is interesting.  You read intelligence literature, you do see that there are multiple components – not just the heritability which would be attributed to genes (you kind of inherit culture too – but that gets mashed in with the environment stuff, if I recall this correctly).  And, measurement situations can be fraught.  And, yes, how you construe things (fatalistically, or as something that can be altered) can have an effect on your performance. 

I tend towards trait-thinking for myself.  Actually, I had this notion that it was cheating to practice.  If I had practiced, I would not get an honest measure of some underlying trait.  That may be very Swedish, because Sweden tends to be so concerned with the pure and unadulterated and not-manipulated.  I think.  Some claim that it is male – self handicapping, showing your clever capacity without practice.  As I’m female, I don’t think so.  But it is a negative, as you get to a point where you have to do some work, especially work that you don’t quite like, to move ahead. 

But, at the same time, I do get tired of this ethos of just working working working and you can become ANYTHING.  Can’t you just be endowed?  And, what if it doesn’t work?  You work and work and work, and still don’t understand special relativity, or Maxwells wave function – wich afterall is old physics.  The ‘just work at it’ attitude has its own dark underbelly, in its attempt to make everybody just equal.

The research is much more interesting if you take the point of view that how you construe something – what you believe – can have profound impact on how you behave and perform.  That is kind of the original point of the blogpost, but it somehow also gets lost.  The placebo/nocebo effect extended outside medicine.  I doubt it could be used to narrow any performance gaps.  Do we even know what causes these?  Another contingent wants to just take the IQ on face value and call it a day, but I also think that is…not quite the only thing. Too much politics in it all.

David Sloan Wilson falls for this too, alas, as much as I adore him.  In his neighborhood project he talks about the student who had failed school, and then went on to do really cool and interesting research.  But, failing school is not necessarily correlated with Intelligence or lack of it (although I’m sure there is a positive correlation, at, say a .3 or .4 level, which is quite respectable for psychology, but leaves a lot of variation to still be explained – and mind you, I am just guessing at those numbers).  The person he is talking about is clearly quirky and very non-conformist, and this is probably the main reason he could care less about the stupid school work and failed out of it.  But, I would be that he is high on intelligence (whether or not he would care enough to take an IQ test seriously enough to have that one reflect the trait). 

But, what bothers me a great deal is that there is this huge blind-spot about the range of abilities. I come from small town Sweden.  I know I’m somewhere in the right tail of the intelligence curve having always done well in school, holding my own at UCLA, and getting in to (and graduating from) a decent doctoral program.  Where I’m now, I’m a dime a dozen.  We have assorted ourselves in a high IQ clique, surrounded by other high IQ students, where things like work or not work, resistance to marshmallows etc is what matters.  The range is truncated.  But, where I grew up I was not. You saw the full range of abilities, and went to school with the full range of abilities. Intelligence has face value.  Intelligence has ecological value.  As kids we could easily sort our class mates along this dimension.  Being in the right tail was not necessarily a bonus either.

There is this odd procrustean thought – where everybody can be stretched, as if being…well, what is the idea here?  Everybody having a college degree?  Everybody being an academic?  What on earth for! But what is never talked about openly, or brought out openly, is that there is a degree of cruelty in not seeing that people can be limited, and perhaps to adjust education to those limitations, so that everybody, Army like, can be everything they can be.  That may not be Professors in Psychology, but why on earth would you need more of those than we already have. 

But, I do see issues: Our tendency to essentialist thinking (as per Paul Bloom) – which we may not get away from;  Our tendency to sort others, to measure ourselves against others, to signal, and compet;.aAnd, our tendency to dichotomize, and think simplistically. Razib Khan brought that up recently, but this is not a new idea at all.  (Steven Jay Gould brought it up.  I can feel it in myself how hard it is to not do it, I have participated in numerous discussions on the net, where highly articulate and intelligent people go for the dichotomies.  More of them, perhaps, in vast decision trees, but still dichotomies with no fuzzy borders).  So it is very easy to fall into the nature thing, and then the essential thing, and then the group thing, and then, all of a sudden, you simply believe that each exemplar from that group with lower overall IQ must be stupider than you, of course, which is crappy thinking about a trait distributed across populations.

Intelligence has a bit of a spotty history involving killings and denials of immigration and sterilization (by people not understanding the measures).  But, some of the spots also involve allowing smart lower-class individuals – like some scots – to get into universities, and Jews be allowed into the Ivies.  Some of this discussed in this article, which I originally found in the New Republic.

Intelligence matter, if you look over the entire population.  And, humans know this, as well as know that beauty and riches matter.  It isn’t everything, but it is sought after and desired, and good things can come from it.  And, humans devalue those who lack it. All the words for low intelligence seem to become invectives that are thrown at others who perhaps are not lacking in intelligence at all, but who for some reason are displeasing us by disagreeing, or failing to do something that seems obvious, or simply failing, or incapable of conforming.  Aren’t they called Idiots, and Morons and Retards?  It is a powerful, important dimension, and perhaps why it is so impossible to think clearly about it. But, if we ignore this variation, there are prices to be paid across the entire spectrum.


About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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