Wednesday, December 19, 2007

People Are Getting Smarter and Dumber, Says New Yorker Magazine

In last week's New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell reviewed James Flynn's new book, What Is Intelligence, in which Flynn provides strong evidence that average I.Q. is increasing over time worldwide. (Review here, while the link lasts.) Both Flynn and Gladwell use Flynn's data to debunk claims about inherent racial differences in IQ and, more broadly, to question what exactly it is that IQ tests measure. What IQ tests measure, they both say, is the capacity for abstract as opposed to concrete reasoning, a capacity that is progressively developed and rewarded as societies move from pre-industrial to industrial to post-industrial. Thus differences between populations within societies can be accounted for by socio-economic conditions without any need to posit inherent and inheritable differences.

Meanwhile, in this week's New Yorker, Caleb Crain writes an essay about the global decline of reading, attributable largely to the increase of tv viewing. (The data show some reversals due to internet use, but Crain speculates that with the growth of YouTube and like sites, the internet may come to resemble tv.) People who read, Crain says, become more adept at thinking abstractly.

Gladwell and Crain describe strikingly similar experiments that suggest they are talking about the same phenomenon, but with exactly opposite conclusions. Here's Gladwell on IQ:
The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of [a key component of the IQ] test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?
Now here's Crain on literacy:
[I]n 1974 . . . Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.” Literates saw optical illusions; illiterates sometimes didn’t. Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.”
So, at exactly the same time that people in developed countries are becoming less literate, and therefore should be losing their ability to reason abstractly, their performance on IQ tests improves. I don't know what explains these apparently contradictory results but it would have been helpful if someone at the editorial staff of the New Yorker had at least noticed the oddity.

Posted by Mike Dorf


egarber said...

When it comes to internet reading, I can't help but think the habits are more "blurby" than when reading a newspaper or a book.

Therefore, I wonder if internet reading is really the kind of deep engagement people tend to associate with traditional reading behavior.

Of course, I have no evidence here -- but I do know that there's no way I could read say, a full court case, on-line. I gotta have the physical copy.

egarber said...

BTW, speaking of reading, I need to recommend Walter Isaacson's Einstein biography. It came out this year -- I'm about half-way through. Well done, I think.

Prof Dorf (thinking): "what the hell is this guy doing -- turning DOL into a book club?"

Unknown said...

So, at exactly the same time that people in developed countries are becoming less literate, and therefore should be losing their ability to reason abstractly, their performance on IQ tests improves.

The example you cite from the Crain article shows at most that people who can read are better at the kind of abstract reasoning demanded by IQ tests than people who cannot read. It doesn't follow from this that people who read more than others will become correspondingly better at the kind of abstract thinking these tests demand. If they do, I suspect this has more to do with what they are reading (e.g. texts which demand or exhibit abstract reasoning) than how much they are reading (compulsively reading trashy romance novels may make a person a faster/better reader, but I doubt it would have any significant impact on the reader's ability to master an IQ test). But if this is true, then perhaps the reason we are seeing IQ scores go up in (post-) industrial societies even as the amount of time literate people spend reading declines is that they are being engaged in abstract thought in other ways and through other media.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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