Wednesday, July 13, 2011

That Thing We Don't Talk About (Part II)

So, what exactly are we talking about, when we talk about that thing that we don't talk about?

(That last sentence may be a useful IQ test of it's own!)

What is Intelligence anyway? What do we mean by the term? And if this thing we label Intelligence really exists, does it have any practical relevance in our lives? Does it matter?

After more than 100 years of vigorous--and at times controversial--research, the vast majority of experts agree:

Yes, Virginia, there is a thing called Intelligence. It is not just a concept...and idea (An artifact, as scientists say). It is real. And it matters greatly.

There are a variety of cognitive skills--verbal, numerical, spatial, memory, and so forth. But at the top of the pyramid sits a pervasive, measurable global ability, that all human being possess, to varying degrees.

General intelligence--or, as it's known:  g

g has been defined in many ways. Even though we all "sort of" know what we mean when we say "She's smart," it's hard to pin down with a comprehensive, accurate definition.

It includes a capacity to learn, to analyze that information, and to use it in creative ways to solve problems.

But at its core, this quality we call Intelligence is about complexity.

Linda Gottfredson is a leading scholar and a keen observer of the research into Intelligence. Here's how she explains it, in a 1998 Scientific American article:

"More complex tasks require more mental manipulation, and this manipulation of information--discerning similarities and inconsistencies, drawing inferences, grasping new concepts and so on--constitutes intelligence in action. Indeed, intelligence can best be described as the ability to deal with cognitive complexity."

Gottfredson points out that this mental aptitude of g is consistent with what the average person thinks of as intelligence: reasoning, problem solving, abstract thinking, quick learning.

And, as I mentioned in Part One of this series, the fact that intelligence exists at all rankles some people. Gottfredson again:

"The reality is that Mother Nature is no egalitarian. People are in fact unequal in intellectual potential--and they are born that way, just as they are born with different potentials for height, physical attractiveness, artistic flair, athletic prowess, and other traits. Although subsequent experience shapes this potential, no amount of social engineering can make individuals with widely divergent mental aptitudes into intellectual equals."

As one man of high measured IQ remarked, it is more socially acceptable to talk of hemorrhoids than it is to talk of intelligence.

Yet this aptitude for dealing with complexity has implications that start very early, and follow us throughout our lives.

Reading Proficiency Scales given to school children measure a number of text elements, in order to rank a given piece of writing. Average Words Per Sentence, Average word length, vocabulary level, and so on.

All of these elements are measured on a sliding scale, from low to high complexity. You have to master "See Spot Run" before you can move on to John Grisham...or James Joyce.

Reading is an exercise in cognitive complexity.  The more "difficult" the work, the more cognitive capacity is required to comprehend the text.

I'm not suggesting that all persons of above average IQ will automatically have the same preferences. There are other factors that influence those decisions. Nor is it true to say that persons of high IQ will only enjoy complicated literature.

But various kinds of fiction make different demands on readers. And research shows that persons of higher IQ tend to have a higher appreciation for the increased complexity of "literary" fiction. There is a cutoff point, below which people find the challenges of "difficult" fiction too frustrating...too much work.

And this is one element that helps shape our reading choices as adults.

Before you can decide whether you "like" a have to "get" it first. People gifted with the ability to comprehend more complex information simply have a wider pool of potential "likes."