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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Still reading - The Better Angels of Our Nature

I'm just checking in here to say that this is a very rich and rewarding book - it's full of fascinating discussions, and I've gotta marvel at the enormous amount of material that Steven Pinker has pulled together to advance his (complicated) thesis.

I've just been reading his take on the Flynn Effect: the increasingly high IQs of each cohort over the years, since intelligence tests were invented. Or, rather, the increasing difficulty in performing well on IQ tests: IQ testing is continually updated to keep the average IQ at 100. An "average" person today, measured by her score in an intelligence test, would obtain a score markedly above 100 if sent back in a time machine to be tested, say, 70 years ago. An average person from 70 years ago (whisked forward in the same time machine) would achieve a very low score if measured by a modern intelligence test.

Why might that be so? Average people in the World War II era were not incompetent at managing their daily lives. They were not lacking in the ability to express themselves and get along. They did not falter when confronted by simple arithmetic. Someone from that era who might score, say, 80 on a modern intelligence test would probably seem very different from a contemporary person who gets that score on a modern intelligence test - someone who probably struggles in a lot of ways.

Pinker doesn't put it like this, but it may look as if intelligence tests measure the relative "intelligence" of people within a cohort - i.e. they compare something, or a cluster of "somethings", among these people. However, so it may appear, they only work to compare people of more or less the same generation. You can't straightforwardly compare the results of people from different generations on the same test. (This may also apply to people from different geographic localities, and perhaps different cultures, sub-cultures, etc.)

Is that right? Is it the whole story? Or is there some sense in which people really are getting smarter? If so, what are the implications?

I won't go into Pinker's answers today, except to say that his take on it is eye-opening if he's correct and that, to me, a lay person in this area, it seems plausible. Perhaps he's wrong, and this may come out as reviews of the book accumulate (some will be written by people with expertise in the area), but perhaps not.

His discussion of the issue, as he lays out the conundrum, zeroes in on an explanation ... and draws some conclusions with dramatic implications if they are correct ... is not merely adroit, although it certainly is that. It is positively exciting.

Again, this is how a non-fiction book should be written if it aims to entertain and involve - as well as instruct - a broad educated audience. Pinker provides a model for us all, not necessarily one we can match, or one that will suit every topic without modification, but definitely one we can aspire to. I'm loving it.


Tim said...

Agreed, Pinker is a wonderful science communicator, up there with the the Asimovs and Sagans of the past, although different in approach and style. In fact, his Blank Slate set me on the path to my present PhD.

On IQ, the Flynn Effect is fascinating indeed. I haven't read Better Angels, so don't know Pinker's theory, but I have read a few things about the effect in the past.

One seemingly plausible explanation is that IQ tests try for abstract intelligence and problem solving, so people who have grown up in an environment that involves more abstract problem solving might have better 'training' in this mode of thinking, as it were.

Largely, this environment is offered by media, television, computers, the internet, as well as tasks like solving the problem of predicting when the next bus is coming.

If IQ tests focused more on solving practical problems, or knowledge of our proximate environment and nature, then perhaps people several decades ago might have had an advantage.

What is the thrust of Pinker's theory? I can't imagine selection pressures would have had time to affect IQ in only a couple of generations.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, what Pinker says is along those lines, although taken a bit further. And yes, he thinks it's all environmental. In fact, it has to be on this sort of time scale.

Steven Paul Leiva said...

I'm reading it right now as well. I'll be interested to read your future comments, Russell.

Mike said...

This article popped up in today's feed too: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-12-arent-smarter-evolutionary-limits-cognition.html

I always wonder how superior intelligence might work in respect in dealing with sensory data. If you just look at all the ways the brain fools itself dealing with visual data, and ask how we improve without increasing the granularity and range of that data. For instance we get the ability to "see" more of the EM spectrum and thus resolve issues with boundary detection that we can't with visible light.

Also if we accept Dunbar's hypotheses about conscious intelligence and language growing from being able to handle additional levels of intentionality, how does that frame our own internal narrative going forward? Do small leaps in this direction exhibit as "madness"? How does the modern environment put pressure on selecting for such developments?

A few PhDs-worth there.

Jon Jermey said...

I wonder if we are currently seeing an 'arms race' between the people who have a vested interest in fooling others -- politicians, advertisers, spammers, theocrats -- and the public, whose best interest lies in not being fooled? I can see how that would accelerate growth in at least some forms of intelligence. There are many fewer 'rusted-on' left-wing or right-wing voters in the West than there used to be, for instance.