Why we pretend it can’t be meaningfully talked about

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Imagine we lived in a world in which we were supposed to believe (i) everyone is the same height, and (ii) it’s impossible to measure height anyway, and (iii) there are many different kinds of height and each is just as good as all the others.

In this curious world, a racehorse jockey would be assumed to have the same height as a professional basketball player and we would be told it’s impossible to say anything about height anyway because there’s no way to measure it. Furthermore, as there are different sorts of height (jockey height, basketball player height, Empire State Building height) everyone has their own special height that is just as good and therefore just the same as everyone else’s height.

In this imaginary world it might be rather problematic to design car, train, and airplane seats. It might be awkward to determine the appropriate dimensions for beds and duvets.

Just imagine the scandal if we attempted to measure a range of people in order to be able to accommodate more adequately their different height-related needs. Imagine the vitriol directed toward anyone evincing the temerity to suggest that some people are shorter than others.

Clearly a wholesale denial of the evident fact that people come in a range of heights would lead to significant unnecessary difficulties across a wide range of situations.

Yet this is precisely the stance we take with intelligence.

We’re told that it is Very Wrong to observe that people’s cognitive faculties aren’t equivalent. We’re told we can’t measure intelligence. And we’re told, these days, that there are many different sorts of intelligence and they are all just as good as one another and everyone has their own special intelligence.

Yet just as with the imaginary example of height, a persistent refusal to acknowledge disparities in intellectual capacity leads to many unnecessary difficulties across a wide range of situations.

So why do we pretend that intelligence should, uniquely, not be amenable to the same sorts of quantification we employ in every other aspect of our lives?

As best as I can tell, there are two fundamental causes for this rather implausible stance.

The first comes from what Europeans would call the left-wing and which US citizens may term progressives. These folk, heavily influenced by politics, have invested in the disproven concept of tabula rasa: that is, we are born essentially as blank slates and can be conditioned by society to become almost anything that is desired. This is a very convenient belief for folk who think that with a sufficiently Wise and Powerful government in charge, we can all be shaped so that the dreams of Marx and Engels for a utopian workers’ collective in which all are benevolent and all labor for the common good can finally be incarnated.

Obviously this view tends to clash strongly with evolutionary psychology, and also tends also to frame history not as an endless series of incompetent blunders by a simple-minded ape species sleepwalking through existence but instead as a series of outcomes resulting from Dark Forces shaping (malleable) human behavior in the wrong ways.

If intelligence is inherited and to a large degree fixed then the tabula rasa model is far less viable. Thus it becomes important to poke holes in all the many ways in which intelligence can be shown to be variable across individuals and it becomes important to decry the very idea that there is something called intelligence that can be adequately defined and measured. And if all else fails, the problem can be obfuscated by claiming that there are many different kinds of intelligence and they are all equally valid.

Thus we have emotional intelligence, artistic intelligence, social intelligence, cultural intelligence, physical intelligence, and presumably we will soon also have Velcro-fastening intelligence and getting-out-of-bed intelligence.

Meanwhile over on the other side of the political fence we have what today are called conservatives or right-wingers. These folk hate the idea of measuring intelligence because they are uncomfortably aware, albeit subliminally, that they aren’t in possession of much of it, however it is defined (unless perhaps there’s also a Lynching Intelligence to be had).

Populist political parties have always targeted the less intellectually capable because this bloc is easy to capture: all it takes are a few simple slogans and perhaps an item of clothing for the purposes of group identification. The slogans are always centered on two reliable elements: the creation of irrational fear and hatred, and the promise of salvation if only the Great Leader can gain power. All around the world, demagogues are telling intellectually vulnerable people that armies of immigrants are coming to steal their jobs and destroy their way of life.

If a person is not very bright and doesn’t know much about the real world, this reliably creates fear which can then be exploited effortlessly by cynical power-seekers.

Once captured, these less intelligent folk remain forever loyal to the cause because they lack the intellectual capacity to reconsider their beliefs. They will continue to gleefully chant the slogans they’ve been fed even when quite literally things are collapsing all around them.

It’s salutary to remember that even as Russian troops were storming Berlin at the end of WWII, there were many supporters of the Nazi Party who remained utterly convinced that it was all part of Hitler’s stable genius plan for ultimate victory. Belief, once inculcated, remains for a very, very long time.

In the USA the Republican Party set off down the path to capture the less intellectually capable during the Nixon campaign of 1968 by using newly developed techniques of market segmentation to identify and woo the less intelligent with messages that would appeal to them. Reagan doubled down on this strategy and it paid off handsomely. Trump is merely the reductio ad absurdum of what must have seemed decades ago like a clever (albeit cynical) political strategy: become (in Republican politician Bobby Jindal’s own words) the Stupid Party and success will inevitably follow.

Today everyone has jumped on this bandwagon. Brexit explicitly targeted the uneducated and unthoughtful. Salvini in Italy, Le Pen in France, AfD in Germany, PiS in Poland, Babic in the Czech Republic, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and countless others are all following the Republican Party playbook. Each is explicitly crafting messages to appeal to the ignorant and foolish because there are a great many of these people and they are extremely easy to capture.

And the best thing of all is that their opponents can’t bring themselves to recognize this winning strategy because they’re committed to the idea that everyone is just as intelligent as everyone else.

This is like going into a gunfight against an opponent who refuses to believe in the existence of guns. Which is why, around the world, it’s the right-wingers who are winning the battle for votes and imposing catastrophically harmful policies.

Perhaps it’s time, then, that we stopped playing “let’s pretend” and acknowledged that (i) we can define intelligence sufficiently for it to be both valid and measurable, and (ii) disparities in intelligence matter a lot when it comes to a great many aspects of modern life.

If we don’t do this, we’ll continue to make our metaphorical seats the wrong size and our metaphorical beds won’t be adequate for most people. And we’ll continue to let the populists breeze to victory.

And frankly, that’s not very intelligent at all.

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