Intelligence Redux

I was disappointed recently after reading Life’s Extremes: Smart vs. Dumb on LiveScience. Based upon the comments of American psychologist Richard Haier, the article presented a one-sided view of human intelligence research: a view largely consistent with Herrnstein & Murray‘s The Bell Curve. In this brief blog post, I’m going to don my contrarian hat and advance the flip side of the intelligence coin.

Quite a gulf exists between the extremes in innate human intelligence.

“Everybody would like to think there are environmental interventions to overcome biology. We know in medicine it’s true – you can overcome certain genetic predispositions by exercise or changing diet,” Haier told LiveScience. “But we haven’t found such things on cognition.”

Not all intelligence research subscribes to such biological determinism. To the interested reader, I suggest perusing:

“A generation ago, people were arguing over the definition of intelligence, and that argument is now done,” said Richard Haier, professor emeritus in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine. “Intelligence is something that’s real and exists, and it can be measured.”

Regarding intelligence, I explored the twin problems of its definition and its measurement in a previous blog post, Questioning Everything Includes Questioning Yourself. In that piece, I examined the question of whether or not Mark Zuckerberg is a genius.

The best-known index of smarts is an intelligence quotient (IQ) test, which probes spatial ability, memory, speed of processing information and more. “In the last hundred years of studying intelligence, there have been pretty constant results that several different intelligence factors, like these, relate to how smart people are,” said Haier.

IQ tests are indicative of IQ-test-taking ability. They also tend to be predictive of academic performance. Beyond that, however, their use in conclusively assessing the breadth of mental capacity is questionable. As Mary-Elaine Jacobsen so eloquently asserted in her book, The Gifted Adult: A Revolutionary Guide for Liberating Everyday Genius: “As we have seen, we have been indoctrinated with the notion that a single IQ number, such as 109, 123, or 145, is a true indicator of ability from which we can determine the limits of our potential, including giftedness. However, we now know that a single IQ rating (1) does not validly describe the intelligence of many individuals, (2) is a finite measure of performance that can change over time, (3) cannot claim to measure the multifaceted factors of ability proposed by current research on intelligence, (4) all but ignores creativity and other specialized aspects of human potential.”

When discussing intelligence, researchers tend to cite a general factor of intelligence, or g, the common factor across a battery of intelligence tests. “Think of the really smart kids you knew in school — they were kind of generally smart, not just in one subject,” said Haier. “It’s that general ability that’s reflected in the g score.”

In Norse mythologyVíðarr, son of Odin, avenged his father by smiting the monstrous wolf, Fenrir, at Ragnarök. Likewise, Cosma Shalizi divinely judged and utterly decimated the abstraction of g in his article, g, a Statistical Myth.

“The question of why are people smarter than others is a question we now have the scientific means to investigate,” Haier said.

Intelligence research still seems to exude the trappings of pseudoscience. Perhaps one day—once neuroscience has progressed to the point where the brain’s neurocircuitry can be mapped in detail—it will graduate to the level of a hard science, such as physics. I’ll impart the last word of this post to The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, Volume 2, edited by Michael Shermer: “Volumes have been written on problems with intelligence tests, and I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that one problem with such tests is what they purport to measure. Rather than measuring some qualitatively distinct structure or process as defenders of such tests would have us believe, intelligence tests literally measure only the correctness of a variety of learned behaviors—answers to questions on the test—in a contrived context—the test taking situation (Schlinger, 1992). Alfred Binet knew this when he developed the first modern intelligence test (although he eschewed the use of the term ‘intelligence’ in favor of the more descriptive and neutral ‘intellectual level’). The challenge for serious scientists is to ask about the variables that affect the broad range of behaviors we describe as intelligent; and only an experimental analysis can answer such questions.”

Inconspicuous Mixed Messages from the Media

From left to right: Alex Trebek, Ken Jennings, Watson's avatar, and Brad Rutter.

As I watched Morning Express with Robin Meade shortly after I rolled out of bed this morning, they presented a story about the performance of Watson (IBM’s supercomputer for natural-language processing) on Jeopardy! last night, after which the newscasters—the show’s host and namesake, Robin, and meteorologist, Bob Van Dillen—offered commentary on how boring the news item was. This was followed by an interview with NBA player, Jerry Stackhouse, who elucidated the importance of education. Does anyone see what’s wrong with this picture? An apathetic attitude by the media towards a superlative achievement in science and technology—and, by extension, the necessary advanced education of people to make that achievement possible—juxtaposed against a sports hero attempting to inspire others to persevere with school. My spidey sense (for mixed messages) is tingling! In the mainstream of North American society, there exists a continuum of cultural aversion to the “hard” subjects (i.e., the various sciences, math, and computers) and to those who enthusiastically advocate them, with Robin’s and Bob’s dismissals of Watson (as being a snooze-worthy topic) on one end, and the subjugation of “nerds” to the bottom of the social totem-pole on the other. Those same media mavens wouldn’t have dared to refer to the Super Bowl as mundane. Maybe if Americans revered their scientists and mathematicians to the same degree that they venerate their sports gods, their kids would be more ebullient about science and math, and the United States wouldn’t be ceding the edge in scholastic achievement to Asian countries, such as South Korea and Singapore.

“The Pursuit of Vikings”

The mighty Vikings themselves, Amon Amarth.

In April of this year, I made a discovery, one comparable to the Viking discovery of North America—nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus—in its magnitude: I found the wickedly awesome metal of Amon Amarth, a Norse-inspired, Swedish melodic death metal band from Tumba, Sweden. How did I find them, you ask? Well, I receive constant emails listing bands coming through my little burg. One such email advertised these guys, and displayed the image you see to the right of this text. I thought, “They look mean and cool simultaneously. I wonder what they sound like.” So, I checked out a couple of songs. Wow! I couldn’t believe the powerful music to which I was listening. It was as if Thor repackaged his lightning bolts as songs and sent them to my waiting eardrums.

On top of their masterful metal, they also appealed to my geek sensibilities: Amon Amarth is an alternative name for Mount Doom, Mordor’s mountain of fire from Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Amon Amarth is, without a doubt, one of the best bands I’ve come across since Iron Maiden. I love so many of their heavy melodies—to the point where I listened exclusively to them every day for several consecutive months—but if I had to pick a fave, it’d unquestionably be The Pursuit of Vikings. And without further ado…

Questioning Everything Includes Questioning Yourself

Is Mark Zuckerberg a genius? And can the traits of such geniuses be enumerated in a nice, tidy list?

Well, Jen Kim, through the Poor Little Rich Genius post on her Psychology Today blog, Valley Girl With a Brain, seems to have answered both of the aforementioned questions in the affirmative. But things aren’t as they seem.

I’m starting a new series of blog posts, entitled Stop and Think, the purpose of which being to uncover ignorance, bias, and faulty reasoning wherever they may be found. Welcome to the first post of much more to come. I’m a voracious reader. And after several years of consuming various forms of prose—such as books, essays, and articles—both online and off, I’ve developed the discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff in written discourse. Unfortunately, Jen’s piece, on Zuckerberg in particular and geniuses in general, doesn’t meet the criteria for wheat.

I believe in questioning everything and so, ostensibly, does Jen: her blog slogan is “Question, like, everything.” However, she never bothers to perform the mental exercise of questioning the very premises of her article…

Smart acquaintances and a movie

Let’s examine the sources from which she extrapolates the characteristics of genius.

I have been fortunate to meet a few of these gifted souls in recent years and have marveled in their mental and verbal jabberwocky…

Still, I have gleaned from my few experiences that geniuses live more than just lives of privilege and prestige.

In my brief encounters with the uber-brilliant…

They are looking for something more intangible, and until I watched “The Social Network” last night, I had no idea what that thing was…

This is how I saw Mark Zuckerberg portrayed in the film.

So, she thinks she knows what constitutes genius, based on anecdotal experiences with intelligent acquaintances and the fictional portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in a Hollywood film. Not exactly a stellar argument. No supported statistics. No cited results of empirical testing. The biblical parable of a house built on sand comes to mind. She does go on to quote journalistic entities when delving into Zuckerberg’s profile, but this doesn’t rescue her from the colossal blunder of using The Social Network as a primary source for her exposition.

What is genius, anyway?

As someone who has read much literature on intelligence, giftedness, genius, and IQ, I can tell you that the debate is far from settled on what exactly intelligence is.

Charles Spearman‘s general intelligence factor proposes the existence of g, or general intelligence, an abstraction of the principal factor common across a set of positively correlated cognitive tests. Howard Gardner‘s theory of multiple intelligences contends the opposite, that there are types of intelligence: spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. And Robert Sternberg‘s triarchic theory of intelligence asserts that intelligence can be conceptualized through three subtheories: componential/analytical (i.e., book smarts), experiential/creative (i.e., creativity), and practical/contextual (i.e., street smarts).

If a particular something cannot be clearly defined, how, then, is it possible to accurately measure that particular something? Such is the case with intelligence. At best, IQ tests quantify a single aspect of intelligence—academic intelligence (i.e., logical-mathematical, spatial, and perhaps linguistic in Gardner’s theory and componential/analytical in Sternberg’s model), the kind of intelligence that’s highly valued in Western societies—and at worst, they’re used, and have been used, to support scientific racism, especially eugenics.

Thus, if intelligence cannot be clearly defined or accurately measured, how can we begin to know what constitutes genius? The simple answer is we can’t. If you still think IQ tests can be used to determine genius, as Mensa would have you believe, ponder this: Richard Feynman—the physicist who, through the Manhattan Project, participated in the development of the atomic bomb, who was a co-recipient of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the advancement of quantum electrodynamics, who pioneered the field of quantum computing, and who is widely and unquestionably considered to be a true genius—purportedly had an IQ of only 125, a score commensurate with above average to superior intelligence, but falls below the top 2% cutoff for Mensa.

Zuckerberg, a genius?

Perhaps the recognition of genius requires the passage of time. In that case, if Zuckerberg is indeed a genius, several decades will need to elapse before his intellectual prowess will be appreciated. However, it is a dubious assertion to say that Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. To say that is to put him on the same plane as Einstein, Feynman, and Mozart. Does he really belong there? Is Facebook—in my opinion, a medium for people to document the insipid trivialities of their daily lives through status updates—in the same league as Einstein’s theory of relativity, Feynman’s quantum electrodynamics, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Pascal’s IQ and Jen’s credentials

I have a couple of remaining morsels for you to mentally chew. Jen mentioned Blaise Pascal’s IQ of 195. Interesting. IQ tests were invented at the turn of the 20th century by Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon, to aid in identifying students with special needs. Yet, the mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer, Blaise Pascal, who lived from 1623 to 1662, managed to score an IQ of 195, nearly 250 years before the advent of IQ tests. Of course, he never actually wrote an IQ test. The score of 195 is someone’s guess as to what his IQ was, nothing more.

The said literature on intelligence, giftedness, genius, and IQ that I’ve read has typically been put forth by authorities on those subjects, such as psychologists and neuroscientists. Jen, on the other hand, “is a writer, sometimes commercial actor, budding sociologist, former Psychology Today intern, and graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.” She’s nowhere near the radius of being an authority on those highly controversial subjects.

Critical thinking

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this exercise in critical thinking. And I look forward to the next piece of poorly thought out gibberish that I can logically tear apart and share with you. :-)

Sistine Chapel to “The Number of the Beast”

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

A week ago, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon the Sistine Chapel Virtual Tour. (Go ahead and check out the link; then come back. It may take several minutes to load.) What’s the Sistine Chapel, you ask? Well, it’s a chapel in Vatican City that happens to house some of the greatest art in Western Civilization. To speak of the Sistine Chapel is to evoke the names of the eminent artists of the Renaissance, such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Botticelli. As a lover of art and history, it was a treat to step foot inside the virtual chapel, look directly above my head to the ceiling, and gaze hypnotically at Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam.

In addition to his masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel—the ceiling decoration, of which The Creation Of Adam is an element, and The Last Judgment fresco, spanning the wall behind the altar—Michelangelo is best known for two sculptures he created before he turned thirty: David and Pietà. The former depicts one of the central figures of the Old Testament in a contemplative pose, while the latter shows Mary cradling the body of Jesus in her lap after the Crucifixion. Michelangelo was preeminent in several fields—painting, sculpting, poetry, engineering, and architecture—making him an archetypal polymath.

The word polymath, derived from the Ancient Greek polumathēs (“having learned much”), is loosely defined as a person who is very knowledgeable, while its more strict definition describes a person who excels or is highly educated in a wide spectrum of fields or subject areas (a “Renaissance Man”). I aspire to be a polymath of the first kind; Leonardo da Vinci is, unquestionably, the foremost example of the second. Intelligent Life magazine ran an article, The Last Days of the Polymath, in their autumn 2009 issue. In it, they discuss the difficulty of being a polymath, or generalist, in this age of the specialist. As an addendum to the article, they attempted to identify several living examples of polymaths. Their list just The Number Of The Beasthappened to include a personal hero of mine: Bruce Dickinson, the singer of Iron Maiden.

That Bruce is considered a polymath should come as no surprise. On top of being Maiden’s frontman, he writes, fences, and pilots Boeing 757 jets. One of those jets, Ed Force One, the band uses on tour to transport themselves, their crew, and their equipment to cities all over the world. They flew in Ed Force One extensively for the 2008-09 Somewhere Back In Time World Tour. As part of that tour, which featured an Ancient Egypt-inspired stage set similar to the one from the 1984-85 World Slavery Tour, they came to my burg on June 9, 2008 and performed a swath of their greatest hits from the 80s. Included in that night’s set list was The Number Of The Beast, one of the adrenaline-charging tracks from its namesake album—the album that cemented Maiden’s rightful place at the apex of the metal genre.

“Overkill”

Lemmy.

I don’t often use profanity in written discourse. Conversational discourse is another matter. :-) But sometimes, something astounds you so much that a conventional adjective simply won’t do; only a vulgar one will suffice. Having said that, I stumbled upon the following video the other day and four words describe it perfectly: it is fucking awesome! It’s Motörhead‘s live performance of their early hit, Overkill, in Düsseldorf, Germany on December 7, 2004. It was filmed for their 2005 DVD, Stage Fright, which was released to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The video makes me want to pick up the DVD and watch the rest of the show.

Overkill is from Motörhead’s second album of the same name and is a favorite at their concerts. It was covered by Metallica—along with Damage Case, Stone Dead Forever, and Too Late Too Late—as a birthday gift to Lemmy (also known as Ian Fraser Kilmister), Motörhead’s singer and founding member. Metallica’s version was featured in their album, Garage Inc.. Alan Burridge, Motörhead’s official biographer and organizer of the Motorheadbangers fan club, had this to say about the song:

Phil Taylor instigated that double bass drum killer steamroller intro upon which the title track is so firmly built. Lemmy thought, “That’s a bit of an overkill!” and there it was, the song and album title for one of rock’s mightiest classics was born. Coupled with Lemmy’s machine gun bass and Fast Eddie’s landslide chords this track tears the roof off your home – and the vocals haven’t even started yet!

Enjoy the video and be prepared to have your inner headbanger unleashed!

“All Nightmare Long”

I can’t rave enough about this song and this video, All Nightmare Long by Metallica. Nightmare is from their wicked new album, Death Magnetic, which I finally picked up a few months ago, about a year after its debut. To say the least, I am nothing short of awestruck by the song and the album. Despite Metallica’s plethora of hits—which include the likes of Battery, One, Enter Sandman, and For Whom The Bell Tolls—I’d venture to say All Nightmare Long is perhaps the best song they’ve ever produced. It’s that good!

I absolutely love the video. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so watch it below first and then read on.


Click Here To Watch The Video

I love the fictitious documentary of how the USSR decimated the USA by using a “special” kind of biological weapon—a spore of of extraterrestrial origin—to trigger an American zombie apocalypse. The video is creative and original, two traits that are sorely lacking in the videos of today’s mainstream music.

Trees were knocked down and burned over hundreds of square kilometres by the Tunguska meteoroid impact. Photograph from Leonid Kulik's 1927 expidition.

Trees were knocked down and burned over hundreds of square kilometres by the Tunguska meteoroid impact. Photograph from Leonid Kulik's 1927 expidition.

Though the video is a fantastic piece of fiction, it’s based upon an actual, historical occurrence, the Tunguska Event. In the morning of June 30, 1908 (not July 30, which is displayed in one of the video’s captions), a sizable chunk of meteoroid or comet exploded in the sky above the Podkamennaya Tunguska river, in what is now the Krasnoyarsk Krai of Russia, obliterating 80 million trees over 2,150 square kilometres. The blast occurred 5-10 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, with its force estimated to be approximately 10-15 megatons of TNT; that would make it 1,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II by the American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay. That’s quite a wallop!

Update (February 5, 2010). Last week, during a hunt for a live performance of this song—which I have now officially declared to be Metallica’s best song ever—I happened upon the following video. It’s a superb performance of All Nightmare Long that was recorded in Nîmes, France on July 7, 2009 for the DVD, Français Pour Une Nuit. For me, as a lover of antiquities, what’s most notable about the performance is the venue, the Arena of Nîmes. It’s a Roman amphitheater that was constructed circa 70 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Augustus, and is still used to this very day for public events, such as bullfights and concerts.

“Phantom of the Opera”

Phantom Of The OperaI thought, what better way to celebrate the commencement of my blog than with the ultimate song by the greatest band to have ever walked the earth: Phantom of the Opera by Iron Maiden. It would never be my desire to pick a favorite from Maiden’s vast collection of magnificent melodies, but if I had to pick one, it would undoubtedly be Phantom.

Based on the 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera by French author Gaston Leroux, the song was written by Maiden bassist Steve Harris and was featured in Maiden’s self-titled, debut album, Iron Maiden. I could try to describe the song, but Steve did a pretty good job of that himself:

This is a very long song that was done in sections. The middle part was totally separate but it fit in very well. It felt right to go from the slow part into the middle section. Phantom is one of the best pieces I’ve ever written, and certainly one of the most enjoyable to play. It’s got all these intricate guitar lines which keep it interesting. Then there’s the slow middle part which creates quite a good mood. It’s also got fast heavy parts which are really rockin’. And it’s also got areas for crowd participation. It pretty much covers all the bases for the band. It was also a good example of what I wanted to get across.

For your enjoyment, following this paragraph is a video of Maiden’s December 1980 performance of the song at The Rainbow in north London. The video features Iron Maiden’s original frontman, Paul Di’Anno.