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IQ is overrated

September 7, 2020 Leave a comment

This post is a transcript of a video you can watch here.

Today I’m going to tell you why IQ doesn’t matter. Our emphasis on IQ is mostly based on a poor understanding of intelligence and the brain and what an IQ test is. I’ve always thought the claims made about IQ were pretty spurious but I’m surprised to see we’re still talking about it as much as ever.

I’m not going to go too deep into the history of IQ testing because you can read books and watch other videos on it but we should probably start with some basic history. About a hundred years ago, Alfred Binet started the IQ test at the request of the French government. He designed the test to predict which kids would do well in schools so you could give assistance to those who probably wouldn’t do so well. Binet himself argued IQ tests were a poor measure of intelligence, and he was right.

We think of IQ as being synonymous with intelligence, but it isn’t. IQ is merely another score on a test. Do you think all the test scores you’ve ever received were a perfect explanation of your abilities in that subject? What if they asked stuff you hadn’t learned? How could it be about intelligence, as opposed to knowledge? An IQ test measures a couple of types of intelligence, mostly visual-spatial abilities, math and language skill. Are those our only abilities? The only abilities that matter? The only abilities that indicate intelligence? No, no and no.

The idea of intelligence is hotly debated among psychologists but it should be clear that writing a test is not the end of the debate. For example, if you were really tired when you wrote the test, you will get a much lower score. So you’re not as smart as others for the rest of your life because you were tired that day. What if you had been bullied or abused recently? Are you going to get the same mark? No. So why do we put so much emphasis on testing? Do we live in some sci-fi dystopia where everyone is sorted into career tracks based on their performance on paper? No. Testing for IQ is not necessary. It doesn’t indicate the reasons for getting a low or high mark. Parents and teachers can identify those kids who need help and should probably help them with regard to their specific problems, and in fact, that’s what they do anywhere they’re not forced to act according to stringent rules.

Your performance on IQ tests depends on a lot of factors outside your brain, like how much uncertainty you’re living with. Imagine you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or you think your landlord is about to kick you out, or you’re afraid you’ll get beaten up by bullies or your parents or teachers or the police. How are you supposed to perform under those conditions? On the other hand, give an IQ test to a child who is well cared for, well fed, goes to the best schools or can afford the best tutors, you’re likely to get a higher result. It’s not for sure the relatively advantaged kids will always outdo the less advantaged on tests, because we’re individuals. We can only talk very generally about this kind of thing. No one could reasonably expect one of the millions of kids who get no education of any kind, who can’t read because they had to help their parents all day, or work in a factory, or work in a mine to get anything on an IQ test. However, any of these kids could be geniuses by our standards. They should be healthy from the womb. They need happy, safe conditions at home growing up. They should get a variety of opportunities to stimulate their brains, and by the way, that’s not the same as schoolwork. The point is, test results do not reflect intelligence and intelligence is not fixed. It’s conditioned by a million factors, not all of them in your DNA.

Intelligence is partly inherited, but we don’t know how much of an individual’s intelligence comes from parents, teachers, communities, friends, media, etc. so all we know is there is some correlation between the IQ of parents and their children. There’s also a correlation between the parents’ income and their children’s IQ. That shouldn’t be surprising. Elderly people score lower on IQ tests, because of the effects of aging, but so do people with myopia, or short-sightedness, and psychologists don’t really know why. More questions are raised by the Flynn effect. Researcher James Flynn found IQ scores have risen consistently ever since they’ve been measured. Our great-grandparents by today’s standards would have average IQs of about 70. So what would those tests have told us? We know they’re not accurate. There are too many variables in an individual’s life, including major social changes, that affect how smart they are by whatever measure.

Science, especially social science, as I touched on two videos ago, has often been used in the service of the dominant powers and ideas of the time. Even when the powerful don’t find a new idea particularly useful, there’s still the chance it will pick up steam among the rest of us. It’s tough to question everything all the time so we come to accept things as scientific fact when they might be totally baseless. Sometimes we learn a bit about concepts that in science are much more complex than we realize, but they’re handed to us as finished articles. Intelligence is one of those things. We don’t all mean the same thing by intelligent. I usually don’t even use the word because it’s so imprecise. The way we use it is like most of the words we use: defined by the culture, not by some scientifically derived certainties.

Psychology is not the same kind of science as, say, physics. It’s much harder to test and draw firm conclusions. There is no consensus among psychologists on the definition of intelligence, let alone how to measure it. I’ve found with most concepts in social science you can observe them for yourself, maybe with the help of theory. What I talk about in these videos you can observe for yourself and compare what I say to the real world. You can do the same with things in psychology, because it’s about the brain and you have a brain. We just probably shouldn’t assume everything we observe is universal reality, and make allowances for our cognitive biases. You can learn about your cognitive biases, and about how memory works, how observation works, and other interesting stuff from psychology. But that’s not how IQ is used. IQ is used to limit people.

IQ tests do not measure everything psychologists consider intelligence. Where is the test for creativity? Why is that less important? Well, it isn’t less important; we just don’t question the claim that the IQ test measures intelligence. Well, does it measure our ability to plan and strategize? No? So those things aren’t important? Or they’re not considered intelligence? Says who? Actually, psychologists have come up with various types of intelligence. Creativity and strategic thinking could be considered types of intelligence and they’re extremely useful.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is pretty interesting–not the final word on things but it does make some sense. The different types of intelligence he identifies include the things that are measured by the IQ test, like logical-mathematical skills, but it’s much less limited; although in my opinion, any time you measure and classify things you’re limiting them, like taking a frog out of the pond and sticking it in a jar. But along with the logical-mathematical and visual-spatial there’s things like emotional intelligence, self-awareness and even being in touch with nature, which you can believe is a form of intelligence or not but the term refers to a convergence of brain functions working to make sense of some aspects of the world. Is that not what intelligence is?

Language proficiency, another intelligence, isn’t one thing at all. It depends on long- and short-term memory, processing input, responding, following a million grammar rules, accumulating vocabulary, deploying it eloquently, and so on. So there’s language skills, there’s also interpersonal intelligence, which again is lots of different things, and there’s the relationship between the linguistic and the interpersonal intelligences, because we can call them separate intelligences but how separate are they, really? I have to be able to relate to you if I can write a book or give a speech. They’re overlapping categories. See how complicated these things are? It’s hard to talk about intelligence without making assumptions.

Remember our language can be quite simplistic. What we call skills and intelligence and talent and so on are the use of various parts of our brain working in concert. Even during the most basic functions, like listening to this sentence, trillions of things are going on in your brain. You’ve got 86 billion neurons and contrary to popular belief you use them all. You think we can measure that activity accurately? You really think if you take a test on paper, for criteria chosen long before we understood the brain like we do now, that tests for something different from what we say it means, then assign a number to the result, and say that is your overall intelligence relative to other people, you really think that would reflect reality, measure the complexity of our brains without limiting them, revealing some kind of important, useful fact? Can we use the results for something other than to rank and classify people and retroactively justify those classifications?

There are other kinds of intelligence that reflect clusters of functions, like musical ability. If you think those are skills as distinct from intelligence, then you’re probably still falling into the trap of thinking intelligence is a narrow, specific thing measured by IQ tests, and it isn’t. There seems to be a correlation between testing well on IQ or other intelligence tests and what’s known as G, or general intelligence, which implies that if you’re good at one type of intelligence you are more likely to be good at other types. But there is no consensus on G. And even assuming it’s accurate, it still doesn’t really matter. No one is a genius in all the ways you can be, and everyone who isn’t too disabled has talents and skills and the ability to improve them. If you hone your skills, whatever skills, you can be a genius. If you were informed by an authoritative test when you were young that you’re not smart, you might not try to hone your skills or just give up more easily. That said, even if you don’t take an IQ test, school will beat the spirit out of most kids some other way. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please see my whole playlist on education, which I link to in the description. If you really need to test a skill, go ahead. Just don’t test three skills and say that is now how smart you are.

In the age of science, we feel like we have to measure everything by these supposedly scientific measurements. But why do we have to measure intelligence? It’s poorly defined and even more poorly understood. Why do we have to rank children according to their intelligence, or for that matter, according to any of the tests we make them take? To inflate some heads and doom others to failure? People carry the nonsense they learned at school with them their entire lives until they unlearn it. Why do classify kids by vague, unnecessary, misleading labels? It’s like we’re TRYING to limit them. Here’s a better idea: Teach kids the truth about intelligence, which is that it is not fixed. Our brains are very adaptable and change every time we learn something. See? Yours just changed then. It’s called plasticity. You might also want to teach kids how to be wise, since wisdom is astronomically more important than intelligence, and that you need to do lots of learning to get there.

So why is the idea of IQ still alive? Short answer: Racism.

Quite soon after its invention, the IQ test was picked up by racists and used for their purposes. That shouldn’t be too surprising: Racist pseudoscience has existed in some form for hundreds of years. I don’t think you can talk about IQ without discussing its racist history, just like you can’t talk about racism as if it were an individual phenomenon with no history behind it. IQ was used to claim black and Latino people in the US were less intelligent than whites, and IQ results were used to sterilize tens of thousands of people in the US even into the 1950s because they were labeled mentally inferior. As we can see from the popularity of the book the Bell Curve, it is still used to justify racism. It’s easy to make things look scientific: look at all these tests we did. Now we’re going to extrapolate based on those tests and continue to speak confidently without recognizing our assumptions for what they are. Why, when extrapolating, did you choose to compare racial groups? Why was that important? There’s no historical context for explaining IQ differences, so what’s the point of averaging IQ across an arbitrary category like race and comparing results across racial groups? It could be used to provide yet another indicator of how poorly black or other people of color are treated, if you included a lot more analysis in with the statistics, but they didn’t, because the same people who want to know the average IQ of an entire race are only interested in proving that race’s inferiority.

The words we use for races are historical and cultural, NOT biological. They don’t correspond to anything in biology. Yet the assumptions behind the Bell Curve took self-identified racial categories as meaningful. Was that because many of the studies cited in the Bell Curve were financed by the Pioneer Fund, an explicitly white-supremacist, eugenicist organization? Oh, you hadn’t heard about that? Yeah, the author, Charles Murray, doesn’t usually mention that. But he does say his sources come from “some the most respected psychologists of our time”. Intelligence is not fixed and your IQ pretty much changes with your mood. Hardly a solid basis for reaching any conclusions about a person, let alone a group. And yet, Charles Murray got famous for doing just that.

It’s amazing what we’ll latch on to to prove our own superiority. I got a high result on an IQ test, so I’m smarter than you. Or if you’re racist, who cares what I got on my IQ test; I’m still smarter than you because I’m white. But these people simply don’t want to know how genes actually work. They think because someone looks different, they must belong to a group that is fundamentally different. Then, they build a body of science to try to prove it. But that’s not how truth works. That’s how pseudoscience works. Scientific racism is not scientific but just a way of justifying white supremacy. It’s about power. It ignores what we know about biology and psychology. No complex human behavior is caused by one gene. No group differences can be shown to be strictly environmental or genetic. When we start making assumptions about connections that aren’t there, our commitment to rational inquiry goes out the window. So statistics on IQ are almost worthless. They don’t tell us anything interesting about group differences. So why would Sam Harris invite a quack like Charles Murray to be on his podcast? Was it to explore both sides of the controversy? Well, if it was, he failed, since he called a number of Murray’s dubious claims “facts”.

There’s a lot that Harris and Murray got wrong in their interview. Murray says intelligence is largely fixed and genetic and measurable by IQ tests and retroactively proves racial categories valid, and none of those things are very likely. Harris and Murray seem to think nothing could be done to raise intelligence or IQ scores when actually the research shows all kinds of things raise IQ scores: different families, different neighborhoods, different friends, different schools, a teacher who actually takes the time out to help you or challenge you, more money, or even just a decent bed so you can sleep better. So far from being that a person, let alone an entire group that is systematically discriminated against, can’t improve their intelligence, it’s actually quite clear the right circumstances would do just that. Better education, such as the ideal education I map out in my playlist on education, boosts intelligence and outcomes related to intelligence. Higher incomes at home, which after all mean less uncertainty and more ability to cope with crises, lead to higher test scores. These are things we could easily change, by implementing better education or giving people more money. A lot of people assume we’ve been doing those things for 70 years or more, but we haven’t. That’s based on the myths we like to propagate about how since the Civil Rights Era, everyone is equal now, no one is poor and policies reflect that. So people like Harris and Murray do zero historical analysis and just take their assumptions for granted instead of looking at the many policies designed to keep people of color in poverty in the worst neighborhoods and keep them going to jail. If we’re talking about IQ in such conditions, we’re probably asking all the wrong questions. The real question is, how can we change those conditions that are holding us all back?

I have other questions too. Why would you want to talk about IQ differences among racial groups? Why would it matter? What would it reveal? Why would you want to talk so much about race, as distinct from racism? Why are you imputing meaning to something that basically means nothing? Is it because your whiteness is all you’ve got?

To wrap up, it’s not that there’s no such thing as intelligence but it’s really complicated, it’s full of misconceptions, and someone else’s intelligence shouldn’t matter to you. And as I’ll explain in my next video, we are all potential geniuses.

Secrecy

October 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Secrecy makes for thrilling movies but unaccountable government. The unimpeded exercise of power requires that those over whom power is exerted do not know the truth. If they want to be our masters, there is some information they must control first. They want you to believe they are good people who win wars for freedom, that their policies make everything better, that they are uncorruptible supermen, and the more information we have, the more clearly we can see this is a lie. Free flowing information is the only safeguard against tyranny. We only ever find out about these secrets thanks to a few intrepid reporters and brave whistleblowers. The scandals keep coming, from the Pentagon Papers to Watergate to Iran-Contra and now Bradley Manning, who is being held in solitary confinement without charge under order of a president who came into office promising transparency.

Why do you think they do not want you to know what they are doing? Ostensibly, during wartime at least (which has become all the time), it is to prevent the enemy from finding out the secrets that could compromise national security. But who is the government’s enemy? Anyone who disagrees with their policies. That is why governments around the world have conducted a war on journalists. If journalists are being killed and arrested, how will we have any protection against propaganda?

There is no reason governments have to keep what they do secret from you except to maintain power. Not only does power corrupt but it is proportionally more dangerous when we are uninformed. When people’s backs are turned, power becomes a major force of corruption, and the powerful can do whatever they want.

Governments control trillions of dollars of money they stole from taxpayers, and creates trillions more in fiat money, which acts as a tax that lowers the value of the money everyone already has. What do they do with that money? Over the past few years, the New York Fed has quietly bailed out large banks all over the world to the tune of about $16t. We never knew about it until an audit of the Fed took place this year. This type of secret remains secret because its revelation could mean serious anger on the streets. This is not a call for more and better auditing. It is a call for the elimination of one group’s ability to extort money through taxes and give it to the already-privileged.

Here are some more things that we were not allowed to know about. Former senior US National Security Agency official Thomas Andrews Drake blew the whistle on his agency’s violation of the fourth amendment with the billion-dollar Trailblazer intelligence-gathering project. Of course, like Bradley Manning, like Daniel Ellsberg 40 years ago, Drake was prosecuted. American soldiers nearly got away with killing Afghan civilians for fun because their crimes were covered up. The death of football player Pat Tillman in Iraq was also covered up, originally said to have occurred “in the line of devastating enemy fire”, until it was revealed that he was killed by friendly fire. Were people actually surprised that a government covered up an unpopular event? The entire war, like all wars, was a lie. Why believe anything the government ever says?

Then there are the Wikileaks files. When the document dump began, one heard many voices speaking vaguely in support of Wikileaks, but I wondered if they had an understanding of what it all meant. Here is why everyone who is not in the government should support Wikileaks and its spinoffs.

Governments are self-important. They believe that their knowledge is superior to that of us little people, that they are wiser and in a position to decide for the rest of us. As such, they are right to take our money, impose their will on us, regulate every aspect of our lives and send us overseas to kill people who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong country. They need secrecy because if other people had the same knowledge, they would learn how poorly government policies actually function, despite the authorities’ supposedly superior wisdom. Now governments are being exposed, and people are finding out.

Statists from all corners have attacked Wikileaks with such cliched accusations as exposing troops to danger. (Viz. Iran-Contra criminal Oliver North: “This is an act of terrorism.“) However, they would presumably be in less danger if they had remained at Fort Worth. If anyone has put them in danger, it is those who voted for and approved of sending them overseas in the first place, and those who lie to keep them there. Naturally, having enemies requires secrecy; but since the enemies are just contrived, all the secrecy had accomplished was to eliminate accountability for the liars who had claimed otherwise.

Joel Hirst of the Council on Foreign Relations attempted to put things in perspective.

For those who applaud Mr. Assange and his particular version of cyber-terrorism, I would ask them how they feel about the rupture of other codes established to govern our relations in society. How would they like to see reports of treatment for their male-pattern baldness in downloadable format; or the details of their divorce settlements in an online database — displayed in vivid technicolor across the worldwide web. While this information may appear benign, and may be explained by cyber-thieves as an attempt to increase transparency, it will likely be viewed by the victims as damagingly intrusive. This is also true in the world of international diplomacy.

Unfortunately, Mr Hirst has missed the point. The treatment of my male-pattern baldness is purely a private matter. The actions and beliefs of influential public servants and the disastrous results of wars fought with our money by our friends in our names are not. To those who attacked Wikileaks and the act of whistleblowing, let me make clear the position you took. You are in favour of covering up and hiding from the public

-the repeated urging of the despotic (and with relation to the US government, influential) House of Saud and other Middle Eastern governments to start a war between the US and Iran;

-the US’s ally Saudi Arabia’s funding of al Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba;

-the detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay prison for no reason (see here and here);

-the extent of the corruption of the Afghan government, which US, Canadian and other foreign taxpayers are funding;

-the intentional killing of reporters by helicopter in Iraq;

-an accurate picture of the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the extent of civilian casualties, such as the shooting in the head of Iraqi children and other things that should have the people who funded them up in arms;

-and perhaps most disturbing of all, that US government contractor DynCorp threw a party at which children were prostituted (see also here), meaning that US taxpayers paid for sex with minors.

But Wikileaks is just one anti-secrecy activist group. Any whistleblowers who uncover the secrets that keep us from realising how corrupt our masters are deserve praise and protection. Instead, they get called terrorists and get imprisoned. (Governments will do anything to pinch these guys, from trumped-up rape charges on Julian Assange to God knows what Bradley Manning is charged with. Why? Because powerful people want to cover up their sins and protect their interests and will break the constitution to do so. Strong, accountable government? Don’t make me laugh.

Does the leaking of confidential documents erode public trust in government? It is now clear that there was no basis for such trust to begin with. Wikileaks has exposed not only the loose tongues of a few diplomats but the bankruptcy of statist arguments for secrecy. Wikileaks brought us, in stark relief, a more accurate picture of government wheeling and dealing than we were getting from the mass media; or as Slavoj Žižek notes, the Wikileaks document dump revealed that the emperor truly had no clothes.

Another whistleblower I like is BlogDelNarco.com. Mexican media outlets are highly concentrated, and as such they are in bed with the government. They tend not to report the gruesome but highly informative images from the Mexican drug war. But a fearless blogger is feeding the huge market for the truth.

The pundits at the top of the security apparatus of the US government spent countless hours devising contingency plans for every possible step the Soviet Union could have made. An air of paranoia and groupthink has influenced most national security decisions made in Washington since WW2, which is why the central planners of the US military believed first in the “bomber gap”, that the USSR had far more bombers than the US did (when it didn’t), and then the “missile gap”, that the USSR had vast quantities of nuclear missiles that it could deploy preemptively to knock out US capabilities (when it didn’t).

They spent billions on intelligence services and did not predict the detonation of a Soviet atom bomb; the Korean War and China’s entry into it; the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion; the size and determination of the Viet Cong; the fall of the Soviet Union; the breakup of Yugoslavia; of course 9/11, (though admittedly there is a mountain of evidence they knew something was going to happen and did nothing); the Arab world’s reaction to the invasion of Iraq (though that one may have been outsourced to the think tanks); and several intelligence agencies told the world Saddam Hussein had a whole bunch of missiles that did not exist. Sure, it is not fair to expect anyone to predict such black swans. But then, what are intelligence agencies for?

Perhaps they are to make work for spies. An enormous quantity of intelligence has been gathered since 9/11. Because of its sheer volume, only 10% of it has even been analysed. The spies are a bureaucracy and as such, they are an entrenched pressure group. In his excellent book The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich explains the role of national security services (eg. the CIA). “Over the course of their existence, these entities have done far more harm than good…. [I]nstitutions nominally subordinate to executive authority pursue their own agendas, and will privilege their own purposes over whoever happens to occupy the White House.” Presidents frequently disregard what the security agencies tell them. But they tell the public the security apparatus is necessary because it provides legitimacy for “political arrangements that are a source of status, influence and considerable wealth.”

In the end, government secrecy is little more than immunity for the mafia that poses as your superiors. There is no reason why government knowledge is better than yours, or why governments should impose their will on you. Now that ordinary people have the chance, thanks to anonymous whistleblowers and Wikileaks, to spy on their governments, they may have a better idea of how secrecy destroys accountability. If democrats truly want accountable government, they should embrace Wikileaks. The good news is that most governments have mostly lost their monopoly on information. The Wikileaks dumps, the spread of cell phone cameras and attacks by anonymous hackers have seen to that. Embrace openness and deny the government its monopoly on information.