Archive for September, 2015

Intelligence

2015/09/23

“I assume most of the people reading this book are more intelligent than a sea slug. The interesting question is why.” – Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters, opening lines of Chapter 4.

I seem to be coming to a new era in my life, where instead of reading books that are recommended by my friends and family, I read books that are written by my friends and family. In the last couple of weeks, I have put three on my reading list. Here, I will review the first one.

The author is Stuart Ritchie. Doctor Stuart Ritchie*. Here he is:

Stuart Ritchie

He is a psychologist who studied at Edinburgh while I was there. I like to think that he was a student of mine, but the full truth is that I first met him when I was a PhD student, running a tutorial session for introductory linguistics. Stuart was one of the students in my tutorial section. So in a sense, he was kinda-sorta-maybe my student. I remember that several times he managed to almost set off explosive and controversial discussions in the group. As someone who enjoys debate, I found it entertaining. As someone trying to help teach linguistics and get through the set material, I found it frustrating.

A year or two later, another friend and I founded the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, and guess who showed up? Stuart quickly became a prominent member of our little group, holding office and being vocally involved in most discussions. He also wrote one of several blogs that were started by members of that group (including the one you’re reading right now). His most recent post is four years ago, so I guess he has moved on. As an increasingly active academic whose own personal blog is languishing, I completely understand.

All of this is to say that I know Stuart as a nice guy to have a chat with in the pub, and someone with a sharp and unapologetic wit. And as a friend.

He was studying for a psychology degree back when I first knew him. I remember him selecting term projects designed to test controversial and unlikely claims made about learning and other psychological phenomena. Now he has a PhD, and his research is primarily in intelligence research – including the much-maligned area of IQ tests. This is what his book is about. (He also gives popular talks on the topic and maintains an active Twitter account – an excellent practice for a modern scientist.)

The book is called Intelligence: All That Matters. (The “All That Matters” bit is a series name imposed by the publisher – after reading the book, it’s clear that Stuart doesn’t think intelligence is all that matters. Perhaps it’s best to read the title as “All That Matters About Intelligence”.)

Intelligence-allthatmatters

I’d love to walk you through all of the interesting points, but the whole thing is interesting and I am not inclined to regurgitate the whole thing. I got an electronic version from Google for $11**, so it’s easy enough to get it yourself. And the point of this post is to promote my friend’s work (and, ideally, encourage some royalties his way). So I’ll just hit the high points, by way of a brief summary of the chapters:

  1. Introducing intelligence, in which he identifies why we might be interested in intelligence, gives a quick history of intelligence testing, and even throws in a bit of light statistics that will help the reader’s follow the talk of correlations throughout much of the rest of the book.
  2. Testing intelligence, where we learn about what types of questions and exercises really show up on intelligence tests, how the “IQ” number is determined, and what this general intelligence thing (the “g factor”) is. We also learn a little about how people’s intelligence changes and doesn’t change over their life.
  3. Why intelligence matters, a thorough and careful chapter that goes into detail about all of the things that correlate (and seem to have causal relationships) with intelligence. This is mainly positive, but there is one negative correlation – something that intelligent people have more of and may wish they didn’t. Read the book to find out what it is.
  4. The biology of intelligence, a topic that can be wildly controversial. A more timid or less articulate author might pussyfoot around it. Not Stuart. In a fearless and sensitive manner, he discusses the obviously genetically-determined intelligence differences between species before getting into the subtle matter of variability in human intelligence and genetics. He doesn’t come across sexist or racist – not because he’s dancing around the matter, but because the evidence doesn’t point that way. Having read this, I feel that I have a solid grounding to discuss these issues with folks I know.
  5. The easy way to raise your IQ. In this chapter, we are led through various popular ideas, from the “Mozart effect” to “breastfeeding”, which people think can raise IQ, and what the evidence says about it. Stuart describes two ways that definitely work, from long and established evidence, to raise average population intelligence. What are they? You guessed it: read the book to find out!
  6. Why is intelligence so controversial? This book is not an evasion. Stuart has been in the field long enough to have confronted many forms of opposition, from quarters both within and outside of academia. This chapter confronts several of the dark episodes in the history of intelligence testing. He doesn’t make excuses for them; he acknowledges the racism, sexism, and even the eugenics. And he returns to the untarnished core of empirical evidence and the legitimate motivations for wanting to study intelligence – not just for the pure love of knowledge (though that is, of course, important), but for the social and economic benefits that we have reaped and may continue to reap through responsible research into the biological, sociological, medical, and other things related to intelligence.

Along the way, he answers many burning questions, such as:

  • Does intelligence testing reveal anything important? Yes.
  • Don’t they just test your ability to take a test? No.
  • Do we really want to reduce people to a single number? No, and no responsible psychologist would ever want to do that anyway.

(For deeper answers, go buy the book.)

I really enjoyed reading this book. It has been several years since I’ve seen my friend in person, and this book is so clearly in his style that I could almost hear his delightful Borders Scottish accent coming off the page. I hope Stuart will not mind if I say that his active wit seems to have been tempered and seasoned a bit. He still has a sharp and delightful style, but some of the wild reactionism of youth has been replaced with the thoughtfulness of … slightly less youth.

This is a great read. It’s fun, and it will help you understand your own brain – your own mind – a bit better.

Footnotes:

* Stuart, I’m sorry, mate. It’s awesome that you got your PhD, but it’s just too hard to consistently refer to you as “Dr Ritchie”. In my heart, you’ll always be “Stuart”. (If it helps, I still find it hard to believe that have a PhD too, and it’s weird that people call me “Dr Mills”.)

** Well, $10.99 Canadian. That works out to what? $5 US, probably two quid in Britain? I don’t know – go figure it out yourself.

Too much power

2015/09/02

Canada is currently in the middle of the longest election campaign in memory. It was officially called on August 2nd, and the vote will take place October 19. (Normal election campaigns run 5 or 6 weeks; one recent one ran about 8 weeks. But the current campaign’s ten weeks is apparently the longest since 1872.) And campaigning really began (unofficially) well before that – possibly as early as the tail of the Alberta election in May.

If the Conservatives win, Prime Minister Steven Harper will be the first in over a century to win four consecutive elections.

And that would be bad news.

It’s not that I don’t like Harper and his party.

Well, okay, it sort of is.

They have been systematically poisoning Canada in two unconscionable ways. First, they are destroying our capacity to know what is happening by muzzling scientists (ask the CBC, the Huffington Post, Democracy Watch, and the New York Times, for example) and turning a valuable census into an anemic survey. Second, they have been stripping Canadians of their rights by passing the abominable Bill C-51, which brushes aside civil liberties in the interest of a questionable strategy for combatting terrorism, and by treating dual citizens as second-class citizens with its bill C-24. These last are purportedly in the name of being tough on crime and on terrorism. But it betrays a lack of imagination that they think the way to protect us from the few bad people in our country is by breaking the core freedoms and rights of law-abiding Canadians.

So yah, I don’t like the Conservatives. I don’t like Harper.

Now, we recently managed to vote out a Conservative party in Alberta which had become so complacent after 40 years in power that even with advance survey results predicting the change, some of us didn’t believe it would really happen. But it did.

And, while I happen to be quite happy with our new government in Alberta, I am even more happy that we, a socially and fiscally conservative province, showed politicians that nobody is invincible. The NDP government is going to heroic lengths to ensure that their budgets and other actions reflect the needs and desires of Albertans. And if, in a future election, we bring back a Conservative government, I predict that it will be a much humbler, chastened party, and will try very hard to govern in line with what people want and need.

With Steven Harper aiming to win an alarming fourth consecutive term as prime minister, I think it’s time we taught our federal parties the same lesson. For most of Canadian history, the roles of government and official opposition have passed between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Now, polls are (tentatively) suggesting that the NDP – the federal counterpart of the same party that overturned Alberta’s political landscape – may form the next Canadian government.

Now, I’m not sure the NDP would be my first choice. I think the Liberals have some things going for them, though I share an antipathy that many Western Canadians have toward that party. (Harper gained power on the heels of scandals among the previous Liberal government.) Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, has (in my opinion) proven to be a much better leader than any of the other leaders in debates and appearances so far. But the Greens are a long shot, and as much as I hate the idea of strategic voting, I don’t want my support for them to split a vote and let Harper stay in power.

One thing that may get the NDP my vote over their opponents is a promise of electoral reform. I believe that proportional representation – the currently most-popular alternative – would make it harder for a single party to hold power for as long and to act as unilaterally as Harper’s Conservatives have done. I think that would invigorate and strengthen our democracy.

But, like many Canadians, my first priority this election is to get Harper out. Get the Conservatives out. I like the idea of a “third party” forming government, just to make it clear to the Conservatives and the Liberals that they don’t own this country, and tactics of fear and smear cannot buy them power.

I encourage other Canadians to do the same – especially Albertans. Don’t let Harper’s rhetoric of fear scare you into following him. Don’t let the uncertainty of an untested party push you toward the certainty of a party that strips away Canadians’ rights and muzzles the people who can give us an unbiased answer to important questions.

Change can be scary. But voting for Harper is choosing to stay in an abusive relationship.

I think I’ll leave the last word to someone who is experiencing first-hand the sort of muzzling that Harper’s party is happy to keep doling out: Tony Turner, writer and performer of the viral “Harperman” video: