Friday, January 06, 2006


Both of my kids are in their school district's "gifted" program, a fact about which i'm somewhat reluctantly proud. I say reluctantly because, while i think my kids are both very bright, i'm not sure if there's evidence to support a concept of "giftedness". Like most gifted programs, a large part of the qualifying standard is a traditional IQ test. Although i tend to think that intelligence is a more-or-less quantitative property; i'm not sure that IQ tests measure much beyond the ability to take IQ tests. Some of this i derive from the book "The Making of Intelligence" by Ken Richardson, an interesting if slightly dry treatment of many of the currently popular notions of intelligence. It's also a good counterpoint to Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate, which i found to be a very good book even if i don't agree with some of it.

I lack the motivation to go deeply into either Richardson's or Pinker's views on intelligence. The overriding message i've gleaned from reading these and other books is this: nobody really understands how the brain works. Science probably understands the brain better today than it did a century ago, but the level of understanding is similar to when early physicians came to the realization that emotions do not originate in the heart. The brain is a uniquely difficult thing to study, since to study it you must work within its own limitations. The current methods of studying the brain involve some interesting stuff, from various psychological tests to medical imaging to computer modeling; but there's really no way to know what's happening in the brain while it's happening without relying on feedback from the brain of the person to whom it's happening. It's an almost Heisenbergian dilemma.

Intelligence in particular is a tricky concept. There's endless debate over how "culturally biased" IQ tests are, although i think it's a one-sided debate. The fundamental desire to measure intelligence in the first place is a cultural bias; based on the (in my opinion) mistaken notion that intelligence (in the analytical, puzzling-solving sense of IQ tests) is a measure of a person's value to society. I've always admired "smart" people, like scientists and engineers who seem to string together one brilliant insight after another (e.g., Linus Pauling or John Bardeen). I'm not quite sure what these people have that others don't; i don't know if their apparent brilliance is really a function of better neurons, or better genes, or if they simply lived in environments that motivated them to work harder and suffer more frustration than their peers. But can their contributions to society be rated more significant than those of a great humanitarian or diplomat or soldier? Or even a good parent or an someone who's especially kind or caring? I'm not sure how much stock i place in the currently trendy concept of "emotional intelligence", but i've lived long enough to see how one person with average intelligence but exceptional charisma can get more accomplished than a roomful of brainiacs. If that's not a "gift", then i'm not sure what is.

Often when i read critiques of intelligence measures and IQ, my skeptic sensors go off and i wonder if the writer isn't just somebody who tested badly and now wants to rationalize why it doesn't matter (except for Stephen Jay Gould whose "Mismeasure of Man" was an excellent book and who was obviously "intelligent", whatever that means). My disclaimer on this would go something like this: i've consistently scored around what i call the "Salieri" score, that is, just smart enough to identify the people who are a lot smarter. Maybe this explains why i view IQ measures with a jaundiced eye, maybe it doesn't.

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