IQ: More Than Just a Number, Part 2

Part 1: IQ: More than Just a Number

From Scott’s Blog:

3. Some people seem to have gotten genuinely upset about some of the recent discussion of IQ, on grounds something like that if high IQ is a necessary ingredient of some forms of academic success and they’re lower-IQ than other people, then they are bad and worthless. I strongly disagree with this and think it gets the reasoning exactly wrong, and I hope to explain why. But work has been pretty crazy lately (no pun intended) and I might not get the chance to write it up for a little while. Until then, please do me a favor and just take it on faith that you are a valuable human being who is worthy of existence.

As covered in the post Our High-IQ Aristocracy, you see this apprehension about biological determinism as it applies to the skills that are most pertinent in the 21st century – intellectual skills such as math, critical thinking and verbal, as opposed to physical skills like running and jumping. This consternation about how intelligence affects one’s perceived worth or ‘value’ to society is not unfounded, and there are no good answers to placate these fears without sugarcoating or outright lying, that yes, some people are biologically ‘better’ than others and that these ‘better’ people tend to rise to the top of society while those of lesser intelligence find themselves wedged between the cracks, invisible like coins under the cushion of a couch.

Maybe he’s right: Boris Johnson: some people are too stupid to get on in life

Natural differences between human beings will always mean that some will succeed and others will fail, the Mayor of London says in a speech. Despite calling for more to be done to help talented people from poor backgrounds to advance — including state-funded places at private schools — Mr Johnson said some people would always find it easier to get ahead than others. “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130,” he said.

A commenter in Scott’s article proposes,

Following out that line of thought, it might be a good thing if poor people believed that their poverty was mostly their fault, giving them a strong incentive to do something about it, while not-poor people believed that the poverty of the poor was mostly not their fault, hence that they deserved help and sympathy.

To quote Bertrand Russell:

If you think that your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather then by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education”. This last is particularly dastardly, since it takes advantage of the defencelessness of immature minds. Unfortunately it is practiced in greater or less degree in the schools of every civilised country.

We need an honest debate about these issues and practical, evidence-based solutions, not false hope and wishful thinking.

IQ has become a touchy subject (or at least more so than in the past) because of the greater role biological determinism plays in our super-competitive, winner-take-all post-2008 economy. When you look at all the people who have gotten rich since 2008 (stock market speculators, tech gurus, real estate speculators & investors, coders, web 2.0, VC firms, fund managers) or the people with the most influence on the national debate (Ivy League profs, MIT/ Caltech scientists, string theory physicists, political and economic wonks), it seems like high-IQ has become a requirement to be an important, successful person in society. The “Rise of the Meritocracy” is real, and it isn’t going away.

Look at all the middle class jobs that were once filled by people of average or slightly below average IQ that are either being automated, outsourced, or eliminated altogether. Or how real wages for the middle and lower classes have been stagnant.

Then you have the 2006 housing construction bust that has never recovered, mostly hurting construction workers and other individuals of modest intellectual means, followed buy the recent collapse of the energy and commodity sectors, hurting more blue collar workers. Meanwhile, web 2.0 companies keep getting higher valuations, along with those Bay Area homes prices which keep going up with no end in sight. STEM people are running circles around everyone else:

…those with only average ability have, in large, seen their real wages stagnate and job prospects shrivel up, while the wages for smarty professions such as programming, physics, and quantitative finance have surged since 2008.

In what appears to be an era of permanently stagnant inflation-adjusted middle class wages – speculation, attaining a high position of power, stocks, web 2.0, and high-end real estate is how people are getting rich in the smartist era. But to succeed and or participate at those endeavors, you typically have to be a member of the cognitive elite.

Another commenter, Amanda, addresses a valid point:

That’s interesting. Do you think talent is primarily inborn? Because if it is, then saying a fair society should reward people primarily for talent seems… and not-fitting with most people’s moral intuitions, which laud hard work, self restraint, and other self-chosen actions as the highest moral good.

It seems to me that “talent is genetic” suggests that equal outcomes are more fair, and “talent is based on hard work” suggests that equal opportunity is more fair. Even taking morality out and looking at it more pragmatically, it’s more effective for society to incentivize qualities that people can actually change.

The meritocracy can be reconciled with biological determinism by creating optimal economic environments where the best and the brightest can thrive, such as the implementation of a high-IQ basic income, more money for gifted education, supply-side economics, etc. Nature does have a good sorting mechanism for those who are preordained for success – it’s called IQ. America wastes a lot of money educating dull to average students who will quickly forget what they learn and have no use for what little they retain. The solution is to throw more money at high-IQ students since they are more likely to accomplish more (better ROI). In the 20th century, as Charles Murray attests, the SAT played an invaluable role helping the gifted low and middle classes enter the ranks of the cognitive elite, but the left wants to do away with the SAT because the ‘wrong people’ score high due to the test being ‘racist’. The left cares more about equal outcomes than equality of opportunity.

The best evidence I’ve seen that IQ does not measure intelligence is cited in Walter Ong’s excellent Orality and Literacy. Here, Ong cites the field work of A.R. Luria in rural Uzbekistan. The people Luria studied were from an oral (i.e., illiterate) culture. In literate culture, we would expect illiteracy to be correlated with low intelligence. However, in an oral culture where everyone is illiterate, we would expect to find that intelligence spans the normal human range.

What Luria found is that oral people are just awful at things syllogism, categorization, and generalization. Put another way, an oral person would do very poorly on an IQ test, not because of any innate lack of intelligence, but they don’t think in such a way that would allow them to make sense of the questions….

Some IQ denialists get tied up on the idea that some some races possibly score much lower others, thus invalidating IQ, but this is a red herring to distract from their opposition to the idea that some people are simply cognitively better than others. IQ denialism seems to be broken into one of two camps:

1. Those who believe IQ, if it does exist, is a meaningless number that doesn’t signify anything important, or in invoking Reductive or Argument from Ignorance Fallacy that IQ measures ‘how well one does on an IQ test’. Apparently, America’s military disagrees, and as many as 33% of applicants are not smart enough to even make it to boot camp.

2. Second, those who think IQ doesn’t exist and or that intelligence cannot be reliably measured, assuming a definition of intelligence exists. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence is an example of such claptrap. A person who scores low is just as ‘intelligent’ as someone who scores high, it’s just that the IQ test is measuring the wrong ‘intelligence’ for the low-scorer.

There are culture-fair IQ tests, and IQ tests are most useful when evaluating and identifying talented and disabled individuals from roughly the same socioeconomic backgrounds. You take 1000 white suburbanites and test their IQ; the higher scoring kids will, by conventional measures of intelligence, be smarter. They will also have a greater likelihood of completing higher education and earning more money (when matched with the lower IQ students). There are caveats, but an IQ test is a very good predictor of future life performance.

Another commenter,Stezinech, writes:

If you phrase it as “the difference between IQ 70 and IQ 100 is largely genetic”, you will get liberals nodding their heads vigorously, but if you talk about the difference between IQ 120 and IQ 150 and how it is also mainly genetic, and how it makes a big difference in the world, they will most likely balk and have to fight back the urge to argue about the importance of hard work, and how anyone can do anything if they try hard enough.

It’s not surprising why individual congenital cognitive excpetionalism is antithetical to the welfare left. Aided by macro factors (fed policy such as QE and perpetually low interest rates, govt. spending on defense/crony capitalism, TARP, globalization, free markets, booming BRIC middle class), technological factors (smart phones, apps) and social factors (increased propensity of people to consume, falling personal savings rate) and biological factors (Flynn Effect), nerds (the cognitive elite) have become immensely rich in the post-2008 era through merit, individualism, and raw intellect – all of which goes against the liberal ethos of egalitarianism, collectivism, and redistributionism. The left wants to believe that all humans are blank slates that can only programmed and perfected by a nanny state, and here you have people that, by virture of high IQ, throw cold water on this leftist presupposition that environment (universal pre-K, better schools, etc), not nature, engenders individual exceptionalism. They, the nerds, are the square pegs in a world of round holes, and they were born square. IQ scores tend to remain remain stable throughout life, lending credence to a congenital, innate factor.

Is it bad that I think intelligence is a big part of moral worth? I don’t think we should kill dumb people or anything but if I had choice between saving 5 people with IQs of 80 and one guy with an IQ of 140, I would easily pick the smart guy. The truth of the matter is that not everyone is equally important. Yes, we need ditch diggers but any idiot can do that. Only a small percentage can be theoretical physicists.

That’s the disconcerting reality. The socioeconomic ramifications of individual cognitive differences are amplified in the competitive post-2008 economy, compared to, say, 100 years ago when differences in outcomes of a person with a 110 IQ vs an 90 IQ wasn’t as significant. By virtue of the normal distribution of IQs, with a sufficiently large variance, we have a ‘cognitive elite’, without which we wouldn’t have what constitutes modern technology and rising standards of living. The utilitarian approach would be to save the high-IQ person because he has the potential to create more economic value, indirectly, than a low-IQ person. For better or worse, IQ has become our new caste system, and understandably a lot of people don’t like this, as biological determinism infringes on our ideal of free will, an erogenous concept that was ingrained by public schools and the ‘self-esteem’ movement of the 80’s and 90’s. And I’m sure everyone has their stories of high-IQ flame-outs “i know so-and-so who is smart, but did nothing in life blah blah..” – but by in large – smarter people do accomplish more in life. I kinda wish were different, but to invoke Bertrand Russell, reality beats delusion.

Furthermore, the IQ requirements to earn a living wage will continue to rise due to automation, outsourcing and credentialism, and policy makers have no viable solutions that are grounded in empirical reality as opposed to wishful thinking, assuming they choose to address the problem in the first place. Given that IQs are normally distributed, initiatives to somehow magically educate/retrain the workforce to performing increasingly cognitive demanding labor will run against the barriers imposed by this distribution of IQs.

Without fail, in any public discussion of IQ there are skeptics who give anecdotal evidence of what they perceive as under-achievement of high-IQ people, as way of arguing that smart people waste their potential and thus aren’t any better than anyone else. IQ is analogous to the number of transistors in a processor, in that more transistors means more processing power. The statistical significance between SAT scores (a good proxy for IQ) and income is strong. While differences in socioeconomic backgrounds could be a confounding factor, another possibility is that higher scoring people have the skills that lead to better paying jobs, and hence earn more money. IQ tests measure memorization, ability to draw connections between disparate pieces of information, information processing – skills that would seem invaluable for success in any cognitively demanding endeavor. According to this well-received tedx talk Do standardized tests matter?, people with high SAT scores (a good proxy for IQ) do better in life as measured by academic achievement, creative output, job performance, and income. Although the odds of finding the next Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg in the high-IQ subset of the population are low, it’s pretty much zero in the modest IQ subset. Billionaires, in general, are much smarter than everyone else, and while not every high-IQ person will become rich, having a high-IQ certainly helps.

High-IQ people seem to be be faring better in the post-2008 economy than those of modest intellectual means. Biological determinism is real, the question is how to deal with it on a personal level, how to reconcile one’s mediocrity in a society that increasingly values cognitive excpetionalism? I dunno. People who are smart, who understand engineering and the physics of the universe are valued more highly than those who don’t. Is that fair? Maybe not, but maybe that’s the way it should be because, yet again, due to the indirect value created by high-IQ people. Egalitariansm is incompatible with our competitive post-2008 economy, and this is a rude awakening to many on the left who wish it weren’t so, who bury their heads in the sand, yearning for a return to simpler, more equal times.