We live in a world of Political Correctness and in this PC world everyone must be equal. So if Mary is better at physics than Jim, we look for something wonderful Jim can do in order that his fragile self-esteem should not suffer a fatal blow. Perhaps Jim is good at tying his shoe-laces? Aha! Jim has shoe-lace intelligence!
Hence we multiply our definitions of “intelligence” until we’ve reached the happy state of unintelligibility. We have “emotional intelligence” and “musical intelligence” and no doubt someone somewhere has proclaimed “tripping over your own feet intelligence” so that the inordinately clumsy can feel good about themselves. In other words we arrive at Humpty-Dumpty’s claim whereby a word “means just what I choose it to mean” and thus we render the word intelligence meaningless.
Personally I like words. They are the means whereby we communicate information to others and whereby they in turn communicate information to us. The more precise the definition of a word, the more precisely an idea can be communicated. (For more on this topic, the reader is encouraged to consult information theory.) Conversely the less precise the meaning, the less information can be conveyed.
“She was like, you know, like totally, and I was like, awesome!”
The above sentence is not communication in anything other than the most rudimentary sense in which one person is signaling to the other that (a) they are still alive, and (b) they are unable to convey anything of any importance.
So let’s rediscover the word “intelligence” and see if we can define it more precisely. This will be, I know, a very Politically Incorrect Thing To Do. But let’s give it a whirl anyway.
Sitting on top of all the autonomic functions, our brains are basically pattern-recognition machines. Some of the patterns are hardwired, most in our species are learned. We have an inevitably bias towards false positives so we see patterns where in reality there aren’t any. This is why people looked up at the stars and saw all manner of imaginary patterns and it’s why people believe in ghouls and gods and ghosts and goblins. If there is any fundamental meaning to the word “intelligence” then it surely must begin here with pattern recognition.
This would imply that more intelligent people are better at detecting patterns than less intelligent people. And by “better” we mean two distinct things. Firstly, the patterns detected by more intelligent people will be more complex, and secondly these patterns are far less likely to be false positives. In other words, intelligent people will grasp complexity better than less intelligent people and also be less likely to be fooled by false associations.
If you can come up with a better baseline definition then I seriously want you to tell me, because this is the result of a great deal of reading and careful thinking on my part and I’m always eager to benefit from people whose ideas are better-formulated.
Assuming however that you don’t, for the moment, have a better baseline definition let’s move on.
What this implies is that we can in fact measure intelligence rather than throwing up our hands and crying “it’s all too arbitrary and too difficult and besides I hate the idea of people being different!”
Let’s see how we might go about things. Obviously we need to remove social context, because that’s not going to tell us anything useful. Asking knowledge-based questions is just a way to assess what cultural background a person has and tells us little or nothing about their intelligence. So we need context-free ways to assess, at least to some degree of usefulness, an individual’s capacity for pattern recognition and their capacity to reason from it.
Mathematics is about as close to pure reasoning as we are likely to get as a species so perhaps we can start there. We can use images and we can use numbers. Let’s begin with numbers.
Here’s a series: 1,2,4,8,16… what’s the next in the sequence? Almost everyone will immediately know it is the number 32, because the series is a simple doubling of the preceding value.
Here’s another series: 2,4,6,10,12,16,18,22,28,30… what’s next in the sequence? Most people will recognize this as “next prime minus one” and correctly assume the next number will be 36.
How about this series: 1,6,13,22,33,46,61…. what’s next in the sequence? Fewer people will correctly answer with the number 78 because this is a more complex pattern.
Sure, we can object that mathematicians will have a much easier time with this type of thing than non-specialists, and furthermore people who grow up without any foundation in math will struggle because they will lack the basic concepts. Symbolic puzzles, however, nearly overcome this objection entirely, as per the example below:
There are other objections. I know a physicist who smokes. Surely one basic definition of intelligence would be “utilizing knowledge to make more adequate decisions?”
So yes, in this case a clever person is doing something stupid. But that is an easier problem to remedy than taking a stupid person (by whatever means we define the term) and having them make consistent intelligent decisions. If you doubt this proposition, how do you explain the fact that education and obesity are inversely correlated across many nations? Even allowing for the fact that level of education is a very rough-and-ready proxy for intelligence, it’s a striking correlation and means that on average the more educated one becomes the better one’s lifestyle choices are. And even though my physicist acquaintance still smokes, rates of smoking among educated people continue to fall precipitously in most developed nations, so he’s increasingly an outlier in the data set.
Why should we bother to try to measure intelligence? What difference does it make if Fred isn’t quite as intelligent as Jane?
The answer is simple: public policy.
Imagine if for the sake of Political Correctness we arbitrarily decided that everyone has the same degree of “sickness” and that we all get sick in the same way at around the same time, let’s say at age seventy. We then design our social systems around this comforting everyone-is-equal assumption.
Unfortunately your child develops a rare form of childhood leukemia. First of all, everyone denies your child has the illness. Then, regardless of whether they finally accept the fact your child is ill or not, there’s no provision for treating her. So she dies.
Yes, this is an extreme example but its analogs are all around us. The mass media reports events without providing any context because the Politically Correct assumption is that everyone is equally capable of working out for themselves what the real facts are and equally capable of drawing rational conclusions from those facts.
Today we have an infantile moron in the White House because nearly 43 million people voted for him. This means that nearly 43 million people were incapable of understanding that (a) the candidate was telling fatuous lies, and (b) his claims to be “smart” and “really, really rich” were implausible given that he’s hiding his tax returns and is the only person in history to have lost money owning a casino, not once but twice.
Sure, many people voted for Trump because they’ve always voted Republican and frankly they’d vote for anyone who had an R next to their name. But plenty more voted because they were simply insufficiently intelligent to recognize some pretty obvious patterns. And that intellectual deficit had awful real-world consequences.
It’s a truism that before you can solve a problem you have to try to measure it. Otherwise (a) how can you know it’s a problem, and (b) how can you determine if your putative solution is actually making a positive difference? By way of example if we just said, “there’s not enough forest being preserved,” how would we begin to structure public policy and how would we know if our attempts at preservation were succeeding? Only by measurement can we (a) objectively determine the scale of the problem, and (b) measure if our efforts are having a positive outcome.
A lot of people hate the idea of measurement. They think it somehow magically interferes with some undefined human capacity that will in some undefined way make us all less well off. But the reality is that everything we’ve ever achieved has been in consequence of measurement. Why do the seats on trains and busses and airplanes manage to accommodate 95% or more of the people who will use them? Because someone took the trouble to measure a lot of human bodies. Why do we know Usain Bolt was for a time the fastest 100 meter sprinter in the world? Because we measured the time it took him, and others, to cover that distance from a standing start.
If you can’t measure something you can’t adequately talk about it.
“Oh, but you can’t measure art!” some people protest.
Well, in fact, you can. Why is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony so satisfying? It’s because (spoiler alert: he intended it to be his 4th Symphony but he got stuck halfway through and ended up finishing the Eroica Symphony first, thus spoiling the joke) it’s a game of fours. Four notes, four beats… Likewise take a look at Holbein’s The Ambassadors: he very carefully measured the angle of the death’s head so that it would only become evident when you look at the painting from a particular vantage point. Turns out, you can measure art and great artists have used measurements everywhere. We’ve been tricked by the post-Romantic movement that claims vomit and piles of bricks are “art” but real art is all about measurement.
So in the end we do need measurement, and in our complex rapidly-changing world we need to have some way to understand that when it comes to intelligence people are by no means equal. This in turn has massive public policy implications and it is long past time we faced up to them.