Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Somebody’s Gotta Say It Part 2: Further Remarks On Intelligence

     After reading yesterday’s tirade, longtime reader Eskyman commented, in part, as follows:

     That mean old bell curve tells no lies- though I remember (in a previous life) hearing of some psychologists back in the 1920s who gave IQ tests to Australian Aborigines; they interpreted their results as, "them guys is dumber than rocks!"

     What the psychologists didn't know was that the Aborigines had no concept of passing time. There's "now" and "then" and "dreamtime." Most Aborigines were (and are) pretty unreliable on the concept of number too, and anything over 3 is uncertain.

     On the other hand, if those psychologists were dropped in the middle of the Great Sandy Desert, I wonder how long they would last; no matter where they placed on the Bell Curve, it wouldn't help keep them alive.

     All quite correct, and a perfect launching pad for a disquisition on the nature of measurable, abstract, generalized intelligence and its significance in a post-subsistence society.


     I’m absolute death on the phrase “emotional intelligence” and similar attempts to bastardize the concept. “Emotional intelligence” is a perfect parallel to “social justice:” the first word destroys the meaning of the second one, leaving an empty phrase into which some activist can pour whatever sentiments his/her/their/its agenda requires.

     Etymology makes plain why intelligence means what it does and nothing else. It comes from the Latin verb intelligere, “to understand.” But understanding is about the causes of things – and one doesn’t truly understand unless one can abstract from specific cases to a general rule, and then use that rule to analyze other specific cases and predict what will come of them.

     Eskyman’s observations about the superior survivability of Aborigines in the Great Sandy Desert highlight the essential difference between the Abo context and that of a typical contemporary society. The former is a subsistence context, in which survival imperatives are immediate and paramount at all times. The latter is a far different sort of place; as a friend of mine once said of American life, “Unless you’re down – unless you haven’t a quarter with which to buy your beans – life is a game.” That statement applies to nearly every human society extant in our time. (For those with qualms about the price of beans, the context of that statement was Rockland County, New York in the fabled year of 1968.)

     Consider life as a game for just a moment:

  • Every game has a set of rules.
  • Some rules, when followed, lead to success on the part of the follower.
  • Some rules, when violated, impose a penalty on the violator.
  • Though a player can “lose,” he will survive to play again (notable exception for Russian Roulette).

     Now consider the nature of a rule:

  • It applies to a particular class of contexts.
  • It defines a particular class of player actions.
  • It specifies the consequences such an action will evoke in such a context.

     A rule is an abstract statement about the operation of cause and effect within the relevant context. A player must have at least sufficient capacity to understand such a rule – sufficient intelligence -- to play the game without courting embarrassment.

     A humorous counterexample: the old prank-game “Grapes.” This is typically pulled by two “players” on an unenlightened third party. For the sake of sheer blind variety, let’s call the pranksters Smith and Jones, and the third party Davis. The gag goes thus:

Smith: Say, Jones, how about a quick game of Grapes?
Jones: Sure, why not? You go first.
Smith: Okay: avocado.
Jones: Elephant.
Smith: Daiquiri.
Jones: Confession.
Smith: Hah! Grapes! I win!

(Davis, of course, is looking on in total confusion. Perhaps Smith and Jones play another round or two, with equally incomprehensible “plays” and “winner.” Then comes the payoff.)

Smith: Say, Davis, ever played Grapes?
Davis: Uh, no, but—
Smith: It’s a lot of fun. Want to give it a try?
Davis: Well, I don’t really understand—
Smith: C’mon, you’re smart, you’ll pick it right up. You go first.
Davis: Uh...okay: avocado.
Smith: Hah! Grapes! I win!

(At this point Davis is feeling completely lost. Smith urges him to try again, but this time Smith goes first.)

Smith: Avocado.
Davis: Wait a minute, didn’t I just—
Smith: C’mon, it’s your move, play!
Davis: (flustered) Grapes. I win.
Smith: (frowns) No, no, that’s illegal.

     Got the idea? There are no rules. It would take a significant number of rounds for a person of average intelligence (one who’s unaware that he’s being pranked, of course) to work that out. A person of high intelligence might deduce the nature of the thing more quickly, but not necessarily, for a rule-free contest is insoluble by the methods of intelligence.

     Only rule-based societies value intelligence in their common participants, for it has value nowhere else.


     There are higher and lower levels of abstraction, but all center on rules: their formation (inductive reasoning), their use (deductive reasoning), and the testing of the former by experiments designed with the use of the latter.

     (A slight digression. Nonhuman creatures have exhibited no provable capacity for abstraction. The sole possible exception I know of is the dolphin. The late Gregory Bateson related a tale of one particularly bright dolphin that appeared able to grasp the abstract concept new after an extended series of both conditioned-in responses and subsequent contradictions thereof. Though the story is suggestive, the effect proved irreproducible in other dolphins, and thus must be classified as an interesting occurrence, no more.)

     Though one can be “under the gun” and required to solve a problematic situation swiftly in hope of great gain or at the peril of great loss, in the most important situations relevant to ordinary life in a post-subsistence society, intellectual height is more a matter of accuracy than speed. In other words, we normally have time enough for persons of ordinary intelligence – call it IQ 100 – to solve ordinary problems susceptible to cause-and-effect reasoning; what matters is the accuracy of the answer rather than how swiftly it’s found.

     The scientist must possess facility with both inductive and deductive reasoning. He gathers data about some interesting observable phenomenon, notes patterns in its occurrence and absence, and formulates a hypothesis about the causal relation – the rule – that governs it. That hypothesized rule must abstract the required features of the initial conditions – the context required by the phenomenon – and the cause – the stimulus required – to produce the effect predicted by the hypothesis. The hypothesis then implies the consequences that would follow from reproducing the relevant features of the contexts in which the phenomena were observed, adding the required cause, and waiting an adequate time for the effect predicted by the rule. Should such an experiment produce the predicted results, it would constitute a confirmation of the hypothesis, but should it fail to do so, the hypothesis would be deemed to have been disproved. The procedure, first proposed by Francis Bacon, is called scientific method, and constitutes the one and only method by which one can demonstrate one’s knowledge.

     The engineer, by contrast, usually works with well-confirmed rules about the physical world arrived at by generation after generation of scientists. He applies those rules to produce desired effects, for whereas the product of the scientist is knowledge, the product of the engineer is particular effects reproducible on demand. (When an engineer generates new knowledge, he implicitly crosses the boundary between the disciplines and functions, for a time, as a scientist. The categories are about orientations and applicable procedures, not about particular persons, degrees, or some other sort of “guild membership.”)


     The above surveys why students of human cognition believe that intelligence is abstract. Two other characteristics integral to it remain to be surveyed.

     We believe that intelligence is measurable because the results of intelligence tests – IQ tests – are highly reproducible and correlate well with the testee’s subsequent success in abstraction-oriented labors. Quibbles about “language limitations” and “cultural bindings” are easily addressed with test variants that de-emphasize linguistic skills and frame their puzzles in terms for the testee’s cultural matrix. The tests’ shared characteristic is their rule-based nature: they probe the testee’s ability to induce the rules of the puzzles presented, and to apply them deductively in comparable situations.

     We believe that intelligence is generalized -- i.e., that intellectual facility can be applied to a wide variety of problems dissimilar on their faces – because the tests probe for such generality, because the possessors of high intelligence (as indicated by the tests) demonstrate such facility in their courses through life (albeit perhaps limited by perceptual or learning disabilities of particular kinds), and because abstraction itself is a generalizing process. Thus, there are both theoretical and practical reasons for believing it.


     The detractors and denigrators of intelligence as conventionally understood are unsatisfied by the above, of course. There’s no way of mollifying them, for they are uninterested in evidence. Their agenda is to erect a pseudo-standard of the sort implied by phrases such as “emotional intelligence:” one that negates all possibility of measurement and destroys any distinction enjoyed by athletes of the mind. It’s a form of radical egalitarianism premised on the notion that denying a thing is equivalent to disproving it. It deserves no respect whatsoever.

     The subject is large and can’t be exhausted in a single essay. Nor am I a high expert in the cognitive sciences, able to give you a glimpse of the frontiers of investigation and the horizons of knowledge therein. But the above should suffice to establish a foundation from which laymen can talk comprehensibly about intelligence and its effects on the world. It should further enable us to dismiss the shrieks of those unwilling to accept that something real, substantial, and inherently valuable undergirds the higher achievements of societies where intelligence is recognized and rewarded, such as the United States of America.

1 comment:

  1. I question whether or not intelligence is still valued and rewarded in the US. Certainly there are many of us who do value it, but I don't believe it is valued by our educational system, where _every_ student gets a gold star, our military, where every soldier gets a black beret (not green, only because they knew the uproar would have been unsupportable), and our political system, where the selection is for low IQ and low morals, as long as they are a member of the two permitted political parties. What little passes for intelligence in Congress might more accurately be described as "cunning".

    Considering the difference in performance between our caucasian (let alone black) students and asian students - a cultural difference, I know - I think we have slipped away from a culture which rewards intelligence.Even back in the late '50s and early '60s, I recall getting threatened by some kids for being "too smart", for making them "look bad".

    Hell, I remember a class in oriental philosophy I took in '70 where I was asked by one of my classmates to use smaller words when I asked the professor a question or responded to something he said.

    When I returned to school in 1999 to become an RN (after several other occupations), in almost every class I took, the (younger) students all whined to the instructor, "I don't wanna know anything except what will be on the tests!" Very few exhibited any enjoyment of learning for its own sake, or curiosity about the subject they were (supposed to be) studying.

    A final note: I think you might consider adding African Gray parrots with the dolphins. Dr. Irene Pepperberg, at the Univ. of Arizona, studied African Grays. She had a Gray named Alex, who was able to distinguish colors and differentiate between fruits and vegetables. After feeding him his very first banana, Alex asked her the next day for "more yellow fruit".

    I owned a couple of Grays about ten years ago, and the female could verbally distinguish between grapes and cereal (granola). My wife asked her if she wanted a grape, but when she noticed she (my wife) had eaten all the grapes in her bowl, she gave the Gray (Gracie) a chunk of granola, instead. Gracie dropped it and said (I shit thee not), "That not grape!"

    When they mimicked, they did it appropriately, indicating (to me, at least) they knew what they were doing. The first time our cat went into the bird room, I yelled at him, "Get out of there cat!" Any time he tried to sneak in there afterwards (just curious, not predatory), the male Gray repeated, "Get out, cat!"

    IIRC, Dr. Pepperberg claimed adult Grays had a mentality similar to a three year old human.

    ReplyDelete

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