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:
- Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ, an article by Cosma Shalizi
- The Mismeasure of Man, a book by Stephen Jay Gould
- The Genius in All of Us, a book by David Shenk
- Shenk’s book is very well documented; half of it is devoted to citations.
“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 mythology, Víðarr, 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.”
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.
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. 🙂