Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sorta political: Is intelligence stupid?

Some more on yesterday's theme because late yesterday afternoon I found a credentialed intelligent person writing that intelligence wasn't very smart. Atoshi Kanazawa's latest book is called “The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One”. He made an appearance in an interview at The Economist yesterday and said some juicily counter-intuitive stuff like this:
Actually, less intelligent people are better at doing most things. In the ancestral environment general intelligence was helpful only for solving a handful of evolutionarily novel problems.
That, by the way, is not as creative as you might think. Although humans, particularly in modern western culture, praise intelligence it has proven impossible so far to establish that intelligence is an adaptive trait.

But it opens a fascinating line of inquiry don't you think? It suggests that the bullies who picked on the geeks back in the schoolyard might have  been, how do we put this, smarter than we would think. At the very least, the bully wanted to know what the hell made the geek so important. The teachers kept telling him that this guy was important but he wasn't good at anything that mattered in high school: he wasn't good at sports, he wasn't good with girls and he wasn't good at making friends. Why, the geek wasn't even smart because when he came up against the bully in an insult match, the geek lost that too.

The temptation is to say that the teachers had a better grasp on what would really matter in the long run; to say that mathematics and literature matter more than being really good at playground putdowns and at fighting. The reason we think the geek is right and the bully is wrong is authority. We accept the authority of the teachers.

The further temptation is to say, it's not just "authority" because this authority is based on fact. Well, maybe. But all authority is corruptible and the teachers are not always right. On top of which, the world could change abruptly. If central authority suddenly crumbled and we found ourselves struggling to survive the bully might well be a more useful guy to have around than the geek.

There are also different kinds of geek. These days math geeks are much more valuable than literature or art geeks. This wasn't always the case.

Okay, let's get back to our buddy Kanazawa. He is, or claims to be, an authority. The Economist tells us that he is,
Reader in Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written over 80 articles across the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, economics, anthropology and biology.
Well, let's just concede everything right away shall we? 

Here is another way to approach his stuff. Think of Kanazawa not as infallible authority but rather as an unconscious defender of the current elite.

Here is his explanation of why the modern west considers intelligence important (with added emphasis):
General intelligence is very important in modern life because our environment is almost entirely evolutionarily novel. Most of the problems that we have to solve today—how to excel in school, how to find jobs, how to do virtually everything on a computer—are evolutionarily novel. So intelligent people do well in almost every sphere of modern life, except for the most important things, like how to find a mate, how to raise a child, how to make friends. Intelligence does not confer any advantage for solving all the evolutionarily familiar problems that our ancestors encountered. More intelligent people do not have any advantage in finding mates and often have disadvantages.
In other words, the bully was right. Okay, so how is this a defence of the elite? Well, the big question is who gets to be the final authority? We all have different skills and strengths so we will all occasionally be useless. As long as the ship is running smoothly, good mechanics are less important than good pilots but who gets to decide how many mechanics and pilots we keep on board? And how much are we paying mechanics and pilots and who gets the most social status?

And now we can see a potential conflict of interest. Suppose there was a special class of credentialed managers on our ship who got to decide the salaries and status of the other people. Okay, now suppose they also got to decide who got to be a member of their credentialed management class and how many such managers would be hired. It's not hard to imagine that people in such a class might start to skew things in their favour.

Imagine now that the proles get uppity and start demanding that the elite justify their special privileges. Worse, the elite aren't having many children or producing wealth. Even worse than that, the economy isn't doing so well. Well, what are you going to do?

One possibility is to claim authority, which is what Kanazawa does. His first move is to claim that there is such a thing as "general" intelligence. That is as opposed to specific intelligence. Specific intelligence would mean to actually be good at stuff. Stuff that matters. General intelligence may not actually be good at doing the important stuff but is it good when unusual circumstances arise.

So shut up and stop complaining.

You buy that? Me neither. There is a whole host of problems here.

The first question we might as is how does Kanazawa know that the stuff he cites as general intelligence really is general? How does he know we aren't trading one kind of specific intelligence for another? Let's have another look at his claim above:
General intelligence is very important in modern life because our environment is almost entirely evolutionarily novel. Most of the problems that we have to solve today—how to excel in school, how to find jobs, how to do virtually everything on a computer—are evolutionarily novel.
Okay, but what makes those things "general". Maybe it's just an odd fluke that having the skills necessary to operate primitive computers was temporarily very important until such a time as easier-to-operate computers were developed. And if that sounds crazy, remember that there was a time when a guy who knew enough about internal combustion engines to fix early cars had a lot more status than mechanic does today. In fact, the status of car mechanics has steadily declined over the last century.

We might ask similar questions about school and teachers. The status of people who could do well at school did steadily rise in the twentieth century but there is no reason that trend should continue forever. With computers and the internet, students who can gain the approval of school authorities will probably be replaced by self learners. And we can see that teachers might have an interest in exaggerating the importance of school.

And are these evolutionarily novel problems really "most of the problems we have to solve today"? If you are about to move then it can seem for a little while like most of the problems you have to solve are related to organizing and packing but you eventually move and get all your stuff unpacked and then the ordinary problems become important again. Kanazawa's "general" intelligence could simply be a set of specific skills that became terribly useful for a brief stretch of time.

If that were true, one of the temptations that the temporary elite (and all elites are temporary) would be susceptible to would be to try and play their specific skills up as general. "Even if these skills don't seem useful, they are in ways you could never fully grasp you foolish proles." And we have seen that Kanazawa makes just that argument:
Intelligence does not confer any advantage for solving all the evolutionarily familiar problems that our ancestors encountered. More intelligent people do not have any advantage in finding mates and often have disadvantages.
The problem here is that a negative quality is being used as a qualifier—this argument contains it's own reductio ad absurdum. How do we know that someone has general intelligence? We know because they tend to be useless at the skills that matter the most.  How do I prove I'm more intelligent than you? Because you keep winning.

But here is a question, if someone is so intelligent that they can solve novel problems, then why can't they solve ordinary problems too? There are, after all, theoretical physicists who can do a fine job at cleaning a house, driving a car and also know how to make small talk, kiss, dance and make love. Where does Kanazawa get the notion that being good at solving evolutionarily novel problems excludes the ability to solve familiar problems?

That is where the whole argument doesn't seem just vulnerable but actually begins to stink of rot and corruption. Particularly as Kanazawa goes on to say that people with greater intelligence tend not to believe in God but don't show any moral superiority for all their intelligence. Here is the first step:
General intelligence evolved to solve evolutionarily novel problems, so intelligent people are more likely to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel preferences and values. They are more likely to recognise and develop tastes for things that our ancestors did not have 100,000 years ago. For example, more intelligent people are more likely to be left-wing liberals because our ancestors were “conservative” by the contemporary American definition—they only cared about the well-being of their friends and family. They are more likely to be atheist because the preferred theory in evolutionary psychology is that humans are designed to believe in God.
But notice that all Kanazawa is really saying here is that people who espouse novel preferences and values are more likely to adopt novel preferences and values into their belief systems. And, going around this circle, he cannot claim any superiority or truth as support for these values.

Which is why his very next move is to acknowledge that these people aren't very good at moral behaviour.
No, sometimes they do stupid things. What intelligent people prefer is not good or bad, right or wrong, but it is always evolutionarily novel.
Hmm, beyond good and evil, where have I heard that before?

The cliché says that if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. We might also say that if your continued status as an elite class depends on novelty then you'll be inclined to try to convince others that  the most important task humanity has is to change.

Hey, that sounds familiar. Wasn't there some politician who based his whole campaign on "change"?

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