Our friend David Shenk has a new blog which will feed into the book he’s writing on genius. The blog is good; I think David has found a subject that engages his own genius with more immediacy than the subjects of his previous books, on chess, and Alzheimer’s Disease, and information overload. Those were good, but they were workmanlike good; I think this one is likely to turn out a little quirkier and more personal.
David’s current post is on IQ; he does a cogent and well-deserved smackdown of Charles Murray’s skanky recent WSJ op-ed, in which Murray basically suggests that we might as well write off stupid kids.
IQ is weird. There’s a lot of data, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that it may not have been collected on the right populations, and that the Intelligence Quotient, despite its obvious success at correlating whatever it is that its instruments measure with various metrics of success in life, may not, in fact, measure anything particularly significant or maybe even real.
My IQ was measured when I was a kid in grammar school; my parents were probably interested in figuring out what to do about my underachievement in school (or perhaps, as Joan points out, determining whether I was, in fact, an underachiever or just a stupid kid.) I don’t know what it was, except that it was high enough to place me solidly in the underachiever category. Joan doesn’t think her IQ was ever measured. If Alex and Kate had their IQs measured somewhere along the way, nobody told us, or we didn’t think it important enough to note or remember.
I have two problems with IQ. First, I think that most people are a lot smarter than their IQ scores would indicate; my experience with people at the Brew House, for example, convinces me that most of them are smarter than they would appear to be on an IQ test, and that they’re smarter than their teachers and parents told them they are, and they’re smarter than they think they are. I’m not sure what I mean by smart, but it has a lot to do with being articulate, imaginative, original, and more than a little clever.
My second problem with IQ is that I believe that the data on how IQ can change with time is probably a lot more suspect than other data describing the IQ story. I know that I’m a lot smarter now than I was back when I was determined to be something other than a stupid kid, and if my IQ score failed to measure that increase in smartness, then it couldn’t be measuring anything very important. And it’s not just increases in smarts. A lot of the kids I went to high school with had IQs as high or higher than mine; that’s the kind of school it was. But a striking number of them, on the evidence of our 50th reunion, have become pretty stupid in the years since then. Again, that’s based on their lack of imagination, curiosity, original thinking, and ability to penetrate the kind of vapid rhetoric they get from their political leaders.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that IQ, whatever it is, is different from smart, whatever that is. And smart is more important.