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livredor
Clever
Wednesday, 15 July 2015 at 06:41 pm
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woodpijn is having a discussion about IQ. She says she doesn't want to debate the sociological criticisms of IQ, so I'm following up the discussion here. Personally I am pretty much anti IQ, I am doubtful whether the thing it measures is meaningful and I am very conscious that more often than not it gets used to add quasi-scientific respectability to oppression.

It's reasonably clear that well-designed IQ tests measure something; they're not just random noise like what colour is your aura quizzes or astrology. I think the thing they measure is mostly just ability to do IQ tests, but they measure that reasonably reliably. And 'being good at IQ tests' is not completely uncorrelated with other things. I'm going to refer to the thing that IQ tests and related formal psychometric tests are purporting to measure as abstract reasoning ability, though I'm not sure that's quite the right term. But the point is that I want to discuss the relationship between abstract reasoning ability and, well, intelligence, so if I just call it intelligence the discussion will be impossibly confusing!

It seems plausible that there is some natural variation in abstract reasoning ability. I suppose it's a bit like speed; some people can run faster than others, and training clearly makes a difference but it doesn't account for all the variation. Most people are never going to enter, let alone win, an international racing competition, no matter how hard they train. And some people don't have normally functioning legs (or legs at all), or normally functioning hearts and lungs, or generally you can pinpoint a specific physiological cause for why they will never be fast runners.

People who design tests of abstract reasoning attempt to minimize the confounding effects of things like culture, specific domain knowledge, and certainly if you do that successfully it narrows, but doesn't eliminate, the differences in performance between people who have lots of practice at doing that kind of puzzle and people who are new to the idea. But you know, the instructions have to be delivered in a language and there are variations in how well people process verbal instructions, whether that's written or spoken. And some people are better than others at sitting still and concentrating and repeatedly solving puzzles, which isn't purely a factor of their abstract reasoning ability.

And it's really often the case that attempts to make things culturally non-specific end up favouring the default majority culture, because that's unmarked, people assume it's just neutral or normal, not a culture. Particularly the culture of people who design reasoning tests, who tend to be more educated than average and more part of the mainstream, normative system. A lot of the time test designers aren't even making a serious effort to remove biases, because at some level they're kind of setting out to "prove" what they already believe, namely that white middle-class people who are native speakers of the dominant language or English and don't have disabilities and aren't neurodivergent are in fact more "intelligent" than everybody else. It's incredibly easy, even assuming you've got as far as making a well designed, rigorous test that sticks to the abstract and doesn't rely too much on culturally specific domain knowledge, to expose your test-takers to massive stereotype threat.

In general the thing of using an IQ or similar abstract reasoning scores to rank people and decide who's the most intelligent is not really justified, though it was an inevitable consequence of the numerical score being developed. I'm cautiously ok with using tests of abstract reasoning as Binet's IQ test was originally devised to compare children with the level of attainment expected at their age, or to look at an individual's profile of strengths and deficits. But I'm not really comfortable with using IQ to compare and rank people, and anyway I'm not convinced IQ is meaningful for intellectually nondisabled adults.

On top of that there's a really horrendous history of abuse and eugenics based on scoring intellectually disabled adults by comparing them to the population normal ability in abstract reasoning for children, and then calling the outcome "mental age" and proceeding to treat an adult who has the abstract reasoning ability of a typical five-year-old as if they were actually five, and denying them autonomy. Besides which the tests are designed for mentally and physically abled people, so tend to underestimate the IQ of anyone who can't take the test in the standard way. I mean, it's not inherently evil to notice that a person has difficulties with abstract reasoning, and take that into account when eg presenting information for them to allow them to make medical or financial decisions, but all too often that's not how IQ is actually used.

The top end of the scale, the bit that people get really fixated on, is pretty unuseful for identifying "geniuses". It's just a property of the numbers, really. You lose meaningful sensitivity when you try to measure the difference between someone who's better at abstract reasoning than 99% of the population and someone who's better at it than 99.9% of the population, especially since by definition those people are extremely rare so it's hard to get enough of a sample size to design usefully discriminating tests! I suspect at the high end there's even more bias than in the middle towards people who just happen to be good at taking tests.

I'm one. I over-perform in tests something shocking, always have. I'm good at abstract reasoning anyway, but I'm also good at lots of other things that involve doing a defined task with a known right answer quickly and accurately. I've never actually measured my IQ as such because I had decided it was mostly meaningless long before I got the opportunity to take the official test. But I've done a whole bunch of psychometric tests based on solving puzzles and the more rigorous they are the more I'm likely to get ludicrously high or off the scale scores. A lot of people who I know are better than I am at doing real-world intellectual tasks rather than taking tests get lower scores than me, which is one of the main reasons I'm an IQ skeptic.

I also have a lot of other characteristics and abilities that people associate with being "intelligent". There is a correlation between such intelligence and raw abstract reasoning ability, I'm not denying that. But I think a lot of that is explained by the fact that intelligence is mostly a cultural construct and a lot of the same factors that cause people to be perceived as intelligent are also correlated with doing well in tests of abstract reasoning. Which is not to say that intelligence is completely imaginary, far from it, social constructs absolutely do have real world effects. Having compared high IQ to running fast, I'm going to abuse analogies further and state that describing someone as "intelligent" is like saying that someone is "beautiful". You're referring to a set of real and measurable qualities (symmetry, body type, colouring, grooming skills etc), and most people will roughly agree on a ranking of who's beautiful and who is less so, and people ranked higher will have very different life experiences from people ranked lower. But just as feminists often prefer to say conventionally attractive rather than unqualified beautiful, I think it would be useful to say perceived as intelligent.

As with beauty, a lot of it is confidence, and a lot of it is being the kind of person that people subconsciously expect to be admirable. I'm perceived as intelligent not primarily because I'm good at abstract reasoning, though as it happens I am, I'm perceived as intelligent because I'm white-appearing, because I speak a prestige dialect of English, because the kind of education I've had means that I know all the cultural references and shibboleths that people associate with intelligence. Also because I have always had the belief reinforced that my opinion is worth hearing and my analysis is likely to be sound, and I'm outgoing and socially confident, so I'm happy to enter into debate and state my views forcefully but politely, based on lifelong experience that I will be taken seriously.

I'm also very very verbal; sometimes tests of abstract reasoning explicitly include verbal skills and sometimes they don't because it's harder to make something like a vocabulary test relatively culturally non-specific, but even then the ability to read fast and obtain information from words helps boost your score. But I do in fact have a ridiculously huge vocabulary (which I have tested using instruments designed for serious research into these things and which include progressive testing). And I'm very likely hyperlexic, I fit the profile though again I've never actually been tested formally, but anyway, I was reading meaningfully for information before I was two and I was beyond the scope of the "reading age" system by the time I was eight, I was reading long novels and technical documents intended for adults in junior school. As well as being a really fast reader (in terms of how many words pass before my eyes, yes, but it's in terms of how fast I can extract information that I'm a real outlier), I have an unusually good memory, especially for verbal information, so I have a huge amount of knowledge about all kinds of random topics and however much tests try to eliminate the role of knowledge it's always going to influence reasoning scores. And it certainly influences people's perception of me, the more so since formal grammar (and spelling) come completely naturally to me.

It's very much a self-reinforcing cycle; from childhood I've been perceived as intelligent so I was given lots of educational opportunities. I'm extremely well suited to formal education, and over-perform in timed, delineated tests, so I excelled, which led to more educational opportunities. And now I have twenty years of full-time education and my CV includes things like a First class degree from Oxford and a PhD, both in natural sciences. But I didn't get those things just because of my abilities, I got them because I was well-positioned to benefit from them. The usual advantages, like parents who cared about education and growing up in a house full of books, and financial support to obtain lots of high quality education, and the sort of background where people who have the kinds of abilities I have are expected to attend prestigious universities and go into intellectual careers. I mean, I was at a gathering recently when a teenager described my PhD as a certificate showing I'm smart, and his parents rightly corrected him. You have to have some amount of ability to assimilate and manipulate complex information and ideas to get a PhD, yes, but it's very wrong to assume that people with higher degrees are somehow more intelligent than people without.

[personal profile] oursin has a lovely post in response to the latest iteration of the badly designed privilege-checking meme, which literally attempts to make "privilege" into a numerical score. She points out that some elements of so-called privilege are not about family background but about collective societal factors like the welfare state, grant-funded university education, availability of employment on graduation. I'm the tail-end of that generation (literally the last cohort who got fully tax-funded university education in the UK!) and although I do come from somewhat more financial comfort than [personal profile] oursin a lot of the reason I have all the markers that make me look intelligent is growing up in a relatively functional society, pre-financial crisis and austerity. I took it for granted that I would have enough to eat and a decent standard of accommodation and access to healthcare, even if I took the risk of spending a lot of time learning stuff rather than earning money, and doing that I had a good chance of getting a satisfying intellectual job out of it and not much chance of ending up in debt. That's not the case at all for people growing up in the US now, and it's becoming much less the case for people younger than me even in Europe, unless they come from quite a lot of inherited wealth.

Current psych research says it's a bad idea to encourage children to identify with their intelligence, but I don't think that was well known when I was a kid. Certainly I've spent most of my life being told I'm intelligent or smart or clever. When I was in trouble as a little kid it was "You're supposed to be so clever!", though in fact my ability to deal with complex information was mostly unconnected to my (merely average) ability to consider the consequences of my actions or to stay focused enough to make appropriate decisions. I was often explicitly compared to Roger Hargreaves' Mr Clever who is often so busy thinking of higher intellectual things that he is distracted from mundane practical stuff. My teachers and peers at school often called me clever, and I accepted it, because I kept getting all the answers right and later on when things were more formal, consistently high marks in everything, and that was pretty much my understanding of what "clever" means.

As I mentioned in [profile] woodpijn's discussion, fairly soon after I started full-time school I was statemented as gifted by an educational psych person from the LEA. I don't know if she explicitly tested my IQ but people wisely didn't tell me the result if she did; anyway I had to do a bunch of puzzles. I have a very clear memory of "cheating" when the psych asked me if there were more or fewer blocks present when she knocked over the stack; I could read her instruction manual which she had open on her desk but upside-down from my point of view. So although I hadn't started out with a developmentally advanced grasp of conservation, I learned about it by being implausibly good at reading and as soon as I'd seen the comment that the advanced child will understand that the number of blocks doesn't change when they are moved around it became clear to me. Being gifted mostly meant being given a typewriter and a stash of old magazines which I used to make up stories while other kids were doing tasks I found trivial. I was also partly accelerated and did some lessons with kids from the academic year above; both of these kind of cemented my status as "the clever one".

When I was eight I moved to an academically competitive school, where basically everybody was "clever" and being gifted wasn't an issue any more. I understood the rules of the game and I was very good at competing. I got lots of high marks (I can enumerate every single occasion from the age of 8 to 18 when I got less than an A equivalent) and won lots of prizes for being the best at pretty much everything academic. Ten years of that was enough to make it very obvious that being clever like that didn't mean anything very much, it was nice to get lots of praise for it but it seemed mostly a set of completely arbitrary skills that happened to be rewarded, fast reading, good memory, good at exams. So as an adult when I hear "you must be really clever!" when people find out that I went to Oxford or that I have a PhD or that I work in scientific research, my reaction is, yes, but who cares? I'm lucky that I have both the superficial skills that people regard as signs of intelligence, and the opportunities to obtain prestige through having those skills.

I could really easily have fallen into the trap of thinking that people perceived as intelligent are morally superior, more deserving, suited to being in charge. But it's been obvious to me from the start that appearing intelligent is mostly irrelevant to real abilities, ie those that are practically useful in the real world. I have read of people labelled as gifted or over-identifying with their intelligence as children often have problems as adults, but honestly the benefits I have gained from that perception far outweigh any downsides. I have a tiny bit of the typical gifted or smart-identified kid difficulty with perfectionism / procrastination, fear of failure, and loss of self-worth because of not living up to my supposed potential, but only to a very minor extent. I suppose I was never considered a child prodigy or a genius, and I have spent most of my life surrounded by other people who are at least as intelligent as I am, from my birth family to my academic colleagues.

Rather, being seen as intelligent, and being supremely intellectually confident, have massively compensated for any disadvantages I might otherwise have faced due to being female. I'm lucky that intelligence is valued more than appearance, but I don't really think this should be the case, it's just a mix of good luck and being the sort of person society values anyway. So one of the things I'm consciously trying to do is to avoid bias in favour of people who are perceived as intelligent, because that reinforces oppressive hierarchies anyway. For example, I'm trying to cure myself of the habit of using "stupid" to mean "generically bad". I rarely call people stupid, but I'm still working on saying that an idea or situation is stupid when I really mean that it's incorrect or annoying.

That's partly because of ableism; people with low IQs and other intellectual / learning disabilities are very much discriminated against, and to some extent basically all synonyms for stupid are slurs used against such people. And maybe some people are going to be annoyed that I'm being politically correct for caring about that. Just because I've got into trouble over this kind of thing before, let me state explicitly that I am not judging anybody else's language, I'm just talking about the choices that I personally make. Anyway, it's not only that, it's because the sloppy thinking that equates intelligent with meritorious and stupid with bad will lead to me making errors of judgement, and thinking that people with high social status are superior human beings. I mean, there are some actually useful skills that are partially correlated with what's measured or perceived as intelligence, but that's not the point.

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