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