Friday, August 16, 2013

I am Smart, S-M-R-T #hashtag

In last month's issue, I read WIRED: Why Are Some People So Smart? It turns out that we don't really know why people are so smart. The article focuses on the research of Zhao Bowen, a high-school drop-out who is doing research on intelligence. Now, it should be noted that Zhao is not the typical high school drop-out. At age 17, he got permission to leave the highly selective magnet school that he had attended. He left to do research on intelligence. If you are picturing his life story, just imagine Zhao turning down a position at the Vulcan Academy so that he can join Starfleet. In this case, he postponed getting a diploma in order to get an education.

The cover graphic to the article (GENE/GENIUS) should clue the reader into the focus of Zhao's research. He is attempting to find the relationship between genetics and intelligence. The article focuses on IQ scores as the only measure of intelligence. The author suggests that the "IQ remains by far the most powerful predictor of the life outcomes that people care most about in the modern world. Tell me your IQ and I can make a decently accurate prediction of your occupational attainment, how many kids you’ll have, your chances of being arrested for a crime, even how long you’ll live." I was initially curious about finding peer-reviewed articles to support or refute the author's claim. However, that line of inquiry was quickly eclipsed by another question: Why have I never taken an IQ test? If I could take a test that was going to tell me how happy I was going to be in life, why haven't I already done so?

It is at that point that I fell into the trap. I confused measurable outcomes with happiness. People with high IQ's might live longer, but it is possible that ignorance is bliss. Taking the IQ test might give me the probabilities that I end up in upper-management or in a federal penitentiary, but it is unlikely to give me the odds that I end up happy. It cannot tell me whether I wake up tomorrow with a smile on my face or a feeling of emptiness. The IQ might predict how long I live, but it cannot predict how long my loved ones will live or how long my friendships will last. To say that IQ tests measures the "outcomes that people care most about" is hardly true.

Returning to the article, the author described the various complications in finding the a genetic explanation for intelligence. There is a clear link between the IQ of parents and offspring, but finding the specific genes connected with intelligence has been challenging. It appears that there are many genes, each of which has a small effect on intelligence and each combination has a small side effect. The researcher himself worried about some of the complications that might arise from missing the mark. Researchers suppose that there might be a connection between Asperger’s syndrome and intelligence, such that the difference in a few genes might lead to divergent outcomes.

Aside from the ethical dilemmas that always arise from questions about genetics (there is an insert about designer babies), one of the takeaways was on the nature of intelligence. The article suggests that 50%-80% of a person's IQ can be predicted by genetics. The uncited research suggests that it is probably closer to 80% than 50%. That still leaves room for teachers. Intelligence might be less malleable than we would like, but we can still make a difference. Maybe it is a "20%" difference or maybe it is a "49%" difference, but it still makes a difference in the lives of students.

Jim Gaffigan joke about what rocket scientists think is difficult.
IQ scores can accurately predict the number of children you will have.
The author never says whether the correlation is positive or negative.
...always nice to end on a lighter note.

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