Monday, May 04, 2009

IQ matters

Spotted on Steve Sailer's blog:

The irony about general intelligence is that ordinary folks of average intelligence recognize its variance across people, its generality across domains, and its importance in life. Yet educated elites meanwhile often remain implacably opposed to the very concept of general intelligence, and deny its variance, generality, and importance. Professors and students at elite universities are especially prone to this pseudohumility. They socialize only with other people of extraordinarily high intelligence, so the width of the whole bell curve lies outside their frame of reference. I have met theoretical physicists who claimed that any human could understand superstring theory and quantum mechanics if only he or she was given the right educational opportunities. Of course, such scientists talk only with other physicists with IQs above 140, and seem to forget that their janitors, barbers, and car mechanics are in fact real humans too, so they can rest comfortably in the envy-deflecting delusion that there are no significant differences in general intelligence.

Even within my own field, evolutionary psychologists tend to misunderstand general intelligence as a psychological adaptation in its own right, often misconstruing it as a specific mental organ, module, brain area, or faculty. However, it is not viewed that way by most intelligence researchers who, instead, regard general intelligence as an individual-differences construct—like the constructs "health," "beauty," or "status." Health is not a bodily organ; it is an abstract construct or "latent variable" that emerges when one statistically analyzes the functional efficiencies of many different organs. Because good genes, diet, and exercise tend to produce good hearts, lungs, and antibodies, the vital efficiencies of circulatory, pulmonary, and immune systems tend to positively correlate, yielding a general "health" factor. Likewise, beauty is not a single sexual ornament like a peacock's tail; it is a latent variable that emerges when one analyzes the attractiveness of many different sexual ornaments throughout the face and body (such as eyes, lips, skin, hair, chest, buttocks, and legs, plus general skin quality, hair condition, muscle tone, and optimal amount and distribution of fat). Similarly, general intelligence is not a mental organ, but a latent variable that emerges when one analyzes the functional efficiencies of many different mental organs (such as memory, language ability, social perceptiveness, speed at learning practical skills, and musical aptitude). ...

In the 1970s, critics of intelligence research such as Leon Kamin and Stephen Jay Gould wrote many diatribes insisting that general intelligence had none of these correlations with other biological traits such as height, physical health, mental health, brain size, or nerve conduction speed. Mountains of research since then have shown that they were wrong, and today general intelligence dwells comfortably at the center of a whole web of empirical associations stretching from genetics through neuroscience to creativity research. Still, the anti-intelligence dogma continues unabated, and a conspicuous contempt for IQ remains, among the liberal elite, a fashionable indicator of one's agreeableness and openness.

Yet this overt contempt for the concept of intelligence has never undermined our universal worship of the intelligence-based meritocracy that drives capitalist educational and occupational aspirations. All parents glow with pride when their children score well on standardized tests, get into elite universities that require high test scores, and pursue careers that require elite university degrees. The anti-intelligence dogma has not deterred liberal elites from sulking and ranting about the embarrassing stupidity of certain politicians, the inhumanity of inflicting capital punishment on murderers with subnormal IQs, or the IQ-harming effects of lead paint or prenatal alcoholism. Whenever policy issues are important enough, we turn to the concept of general intelligence as a crucial explanatory variable or measure of cognitive health, despite our Gould-tutored discomfort with the idea.

You've probably heard that IQ tests are now widely considered outdated, biased, and useless, and that there's more to cognitive ability than general intelligence—there are also traits like social intelligence, practical intelligence, emotional intelligence, creativity, and wisdom. Strikingly, these claims originate mostly from psychology professors at Harvard and Yale. Harvard is home to Howard Gardner, advocate of eight "multiple intelligences" (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist). Yale is home to Peter Salovey, advocate of emotional intelligence, and was, until recently, home to Robert Sternberg, advocate of three intelligences (academic, social, and practical). (To be fair, I think the notions of interpersonal, social, and emotional intelligence do have some merit, but they seem more like socially desired combinations of general intelligence, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, than distinctive dimensions that extend beyond the Central Six.)

Is it an accident that researchers at the most expensive, elite, IQ-screening universities tend to be most skeptical of IQ tests? I think not. Universities offer a costly, slow, unreliable intelligence-indicating product that competes directly with cheap, fast, more-reliable IQ tests. They are now in the business of educational credentialism. Harvard and Yale sell nicely printed sheets of paper called degrees that cost about $160,000 ($40,000 for tuition, room, board, and books per year for four years). To obtain the degree, one must demonstrate a decent level of conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness in one's coursework, but above all, one must have the intelligence to get admitted, based on SAT scores and high school grades. Thus, the Harvard degree is basically an IQ guarantee.

Elite universities do not want to be undercut by competitors...

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