On Intelligence and Talent

Probably the dumbest person I've ever met in my life was a housemate in grad school. I didn't do my lab work on campus, so I wasn't living in a neighborhood where cheap housing was rented to students, but in a place where folks were either genuinely poor, or in the market for very temporary lodgings while they looked for something better. There were low-income housing units across the street, and also an apartment building full of families who didn't quite qualify for welfare.

This particular guy rented one of the other rooms in the house, and worked a series of unskilled jobs-- assistant on a furniture delivery truck, assistant carpenter, pizza delivery. He was the sort of person who didn't have a checking account because "I don't want to deal with all that math," and on one memorable occasion when I told him I was going to visit family on Long Island for the weekend, guessed that Long Island must be located in "either Missouri or England."

And yet, there were things he could do that I found kind of amazing. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of roads and businesses in the central part of Montgomery County, Maryland-- Rockville, Bethesda, etc. And on one occasion when he was working furniture delivery, he bought a giant dresser that I was sure would never make it into his upstairs bedroom. And yet he effortlessly identified a set of rotations that got it up the narrow stairs and around a tight corner without a scratch. Had I attempted that, the dresser probably would've ended up forever wedged in the stairway, like the sofa in that one Douglas Adams book.

I think of him now and again when the subject of innate intelligence comes up, as it does more or less every time I talk to people about Eureka. One of the biggest sources of push-back I get on the general argument is of the form "Surely you're not saying that everyone can be a scientist? Because I know a lot of stupid people..." And, no, I'm not saying that everybody has what it takes to make a living as a scientist-- being a professional scientist is hard, and involves a lot of specialized technical knowledge that not everybody will have the skill or inclination to acquire. (Also, stop calling me Shirley...)

But then, pretty much any task more complicated than digging holes and filling them back in will involve its own sort of specialized knowledge. And pretty much all of those tasks involve using the same core reasoning process that makes science work. Even my extremely dumb former housemate was capable of scientific reasoning in the process of moving furniture-- he looked at that dresser, thought of a set of rotations that would get it up the stairs and into his room without dinging up the walls, and to my amazement, executed it perfectly. Then he gloated about it, because I had said "There's no way that's getting into your room."

As a result, I kind of dance around the issue of innate intelligence in Eureka, because it's not all that relevant to the argument I am making. I think it's a mistake to put too much emphasis on raw brain power, because inclination has a big role to play, and because setting scientists off as "really smart" has a kind of distancing effect that I think is ultimately pretty corrosive. If you like, you can read more or less that whole part of the book in this excerpt at the Science of Us. (Though you should buy the book. Buy my book. Buuuyyyy myyyyy boooooook. OK, I'm done now.)

Of course, there's a second reason to dance around that topic, which is that it's highly politically charged. In sort of an odd way, as pointed out early in this very long Slate Star Codex post by Scott Alexander (which is the proximate cause of this post; a bit of lede-burying on my part, maybe)-- there's a sense in which the arguments about the role of innate ability reverse the usual political polarity. (Though it's also entirely possible to recast the argument in a way that makes both sides seem more consistent than it suits Alexander's purposes to do...) It's a really tricky subject, and one I'm generally uneasy about, which is why I rarely wade into those arguments here, and tried to avoid it in Eureka.

I'm conflicted about this subject because on the one hand, it's one of the areas where I think there genuinely is something approaching the oppressive sort of "political correctness" that people often try to invoke in much sillier contexts. There's a strong push in some quarters to declare the whole subject totally illegitimate, and say that it's inappropriate to ever bring up arguments relating to innate abilities. Particularly when applied to particular sub-groups of the population. And I'm generally not wild about declaring whole areas of inquiry off-limits in this manner.

At the same time, though, even responsible well-intentioned research in this area is frequently used as political cover for a kind of creepy racism and classism. If you can assign a dominant role to genetics when it comes to intelligence, well, then, the observed correlation between family income and things like standardized test scores (which are proxy measurements for intelligence) isn't a problem any more. And then we don't need to worry about doing anything to correct gross iniquities in our educational system that place low-income and minority students at a huge disadvantage. And we don't need to worry about issues like income inequality, which is really just innate ability reaping its just reward. And a whole bunch of other positions that kind of make my skin crawl. So I totally understand the desire to keep the whole mess at a distance, which again, is part of why I try to stay out of these arguments.

Alexander's epic post (which also has a follow-up) is largely an attempt to wrestle with this issue by casting things in terms of talent-- having high IQ is a talent, like musical ability, and different people have different talents, and we should just embrace that. And there's certainly a sense in which his argument rings true-- many of my colleagues are amazed at my tendency to bang out thousands of words of bloggage daily, but it's never seemed like a chore to me. I enjoy this, and in fact get a little twitchy when I'm deprived of the opportunity to sit down and type a bunch of words. It's not too different, on some level, than my argument in Eureka about the role of personal inclinations in determining who becomes a scientist.

At the same time, though, these arguments don't exist in a social and political vacuum, and it's hard not to notice that certain kinds of talents are regarded as more worthy of celebration than others. And also that the ones deemed most worthy just happen to correlate very strongly with the talents of groups of people who already have a great deal of social and economic power. There's also an effort to play up the role of innate intelligence in activities that lead to making shitloads of money, while downplaying the role of the "soft skills" that are often just as important to amassing wealth-- Alexander holds up Ramanujan as an examplar of mathematical talent, but it's worth noting that all his massive brainpower didn't make him wealthy.

So, you know, I remain conflicted about the whole business. There is a sense in which you could take this basic argument about innate intelligence and talent and turn it into the basis of a robust leftist politics in which celebrating everybody's various inborn talents justifies economic equality for all-- a comfortable basic income for everyone from mathematical prodigies to assistant furniture movers, to let everyone explore and develop their particular talents. Instead, it's most frequently coupled to a kind of asshole libertarianism-- I hasten to add that Alexander does not explicitly do that in this post, though several people I saw linking it on social media do; I haven't read enough of his blog to say anything sensible about his general politics.

So while there are aspects of the whole intelligence-as-talent notion that I find attractive-- unsurprisingly, as it tends to flatter my vanity-- I remain pretty suspicious of the whole business. It's an area where the political payoff to biasing results is so large and blatant that extreme caution is required-- as Thoreau wrote a little while back, a lot of articles about this feel less like objective examinations of data than working through pre-existing narratives. And having written this, I will probably resume my general policy of assiduously ducking the issue as much as possible.


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One does have to be careful about these sorts of things, because sometimes the relative standing of an ethnic group will change over time. For instance, nineteenth century pseudo-science on the topic "proved" that Chinese were an inferior race compared to whites. As a result, Chinese became the only ethnic group to be specifically barred by law (the Chinese Exclusion Act) from immigrating to the US. (The plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that established birthright citizenship in the US was challenging his exclusion under the Chinese Exclusion Act.) Today, people of East Asian ethnicity are frequently overrepresented in settings such as prestigious university admissions. I suspect a selection bias in both cases: nineteenth century Chinese immigrants to the US were frequently laborers (so there was classism along with the racism), whereas more recent Chinese immigrants have tended to be people who came to the US for grad school, who would typically be more intelligent than the average (either Chinese or American). Lately I have been seeing large numbers of Chinese undergraduates at my local university. I haven't had occasion to interact with them much, so I don't know anything about their innate abilities, but I do know they are from well-off families: their parents pay out-of-state tuition, and apart from certain forms of work-study, they cannot qualify for financial aid.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Feb 2015 #permalink

There are empirical reasons for being highly skeptical of "innate-ist" or "entity-theoretic" explanations of success in a field, or at the very least, treading very cautiously when putting such explanations forward. Such attitudes, if widely prevalent tend to exacerbate gender and racial imbalances (take a look at http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21639439-women-are…)

Work on stereotype threat also indicates that attaching more importance to innate talent rather than hard work serves to make success harder for certain groups. Basically, activating a more "entity theoretic" model in the minds of students tends to put negative selective pressure that feeds into determining who succeeds and who doesn't.

So the distancing effect of such views of intelligence---the effect that you have described as corrosive---acts unequally on different groups of people, leading to even more distancing and creating a rather pernicious feedback loop.

By David Kagan (not verified) on 04 Feb 2015 #permalink

I'm always surprised that some people discern the relationship between Archie Manning and Peyton Manning, but refuse to see a relationship between Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie.
On the other hand I once read a study of the undergraduate colleges attended by US Nobel Laureates in science/medicine. About half were university names easily recognizable, but the other half were small colleges that were hardly known outside their local areas. Similarly, the IQ info available indicated that anyone with 115 (about the average for college graduates) had a shot at an award. Looking at our business and political leaders, 115 is a generous assumption.
But really, what we need to teach our kids is that having a successful and rewarding life does not mean getting a Nobel prize or being on the Forbes 400 list. Instead you can be happy with a three-bedroom ranch in the suburbs and a loving spouse.

By JohnGalt47 (not verified) on 04 Feb 2015 #permalink

Chad, I'm curious. Do you seriously believe that Ashkenazi Jews have no genetic advantage over most of the rest of humanity?

JohnGalt47 - The defendants at Nurenberg were given IQ tests. The scores ranged as I recall from Kaltenbrunner somewhere between 110 and 115, I think, to Seyss-Inquart who I think scored a bit above 140. The greatest number of scores were in the 120's. Based on this as well as the IQ data of Linda Gottfredson I would guess that the US business and political elite probably averages somewhere around 125.

125 is roughly the 95th percentile of the US population IQ distribution.

I just checked on Wikipedia and it says that Seyss-Inquart's tested IQ at Nuremberg was 141 but it also says that Schacht had the highest score although it doesn't give his score. Schacht was acquitted. Seyss-Inquart was hanged.

Let me just note that a lengthy discussion of the IQ scores of leading Nazis is doing nothing to dispel my uneasiness about the association between discussions of innate intelligence and creepy racism.

Evolution is a complex natuaral process and there is essentially no chance that it would produce results corresponding to some simple moral pattern such as equality. Measured IQ levels of different racial/ethnic groups range over 4 standard deviations. Measured heights of different racial/ethnic groups range over about six standard deviations.

Asheekenazi Jewish accomplishments in intellectually demanding fields as measured by Nobel Prizes, Field Medals, number of Grandmasters etc in relation to their population numbers are simply extraordinary. If you can beiieve that this has nothing to do with genetics you can believe anything.

To JohnGalt47 - 115 would be abou the 85th percentile of the US IQ distribution. You can't be serious.

To JohnGalt47 - In Linda Gottfredson's study of the relation between IQ and occupation the lawyer with the lowest IQ was 115 and the engineer with the lowest IQ was 114. If you seriously believe that the average IQ of the US business/political elite is 115 you're bat-shit crazy.

I see much slinging of IQ scores, but no mention of their Standard Deviation constant. Which are different in the UK and the US. In the UK, spcifically the Cattel Scale III and siblings, use 25 as the marker, thus 148 is used by Mensa to select from the 98th percentile. In the US, exemplified by the WAIS IV and siblings, the constant is 15, so here Mensa use IIRC 125 for the 98th percentile. Both reflect taking the tail above slightly under 2 standard deviations from the IQ 100 point (which is the same in both scales).

So you are probably all correct, were you to apply the correct deviation constants. Although I agree, whichever one uses, 115 does seem a bit low for highly educated professions, but were those measurements also correlated with proficiency?

By David Warman (not verified) on 05 Feb 2015 #permalink

Chad, I don't know if you're familiar with any of the work of Professor John Mighton.

He is a mathematician who, while he doesn't claim that everyone has equal inclination, or even exactly equal ability, to do math, also firmly knows that there aren't people who "can't do math" (other than, perhaps, those few with extremely rare brain disorders).

He has developed a program called JUMP that uses that fact as a starting principle, and it seems to be having quite an effect in places where it's used.

As for Jim:
When you can show me a population of children of Ashkenazi Jews who were not raised in the culture, who do as well as those who are, then I'll consider that there might be some merit to your genetic claims. However, since forcibly doing this experiment would be very wrong, that's never going to happen.

Love your writing, but wonder what your story would be like if you just left out the info about how poor the neighborhood was at the outset. I'd like it better since wealth and opportunity are not guarantors of intellectual curiosity. Ask any humanities prof who teaches business students.

By Pat Thoms (not verified) on 06 Feb 2015 #permalink

Nice essay. Regarding distribution of wealth related to socially approved talents, the Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg - whom, to feed your troll, I would guess from his name might be of Ashkenazi heritage - once said something to the effect of: "I have never understood why the untalented were less deserving of the finer things in life than other people." That is to say, if the only reason we aren't all employed as PhD physicists is that we are lazy and have inferior cultural backgrounds, we might deserve material deprivation, but if it is because we lack the genetic gifts to hack it, how is it fair we should be made to suffer for accidents of birth?