19.4.09

LOOK FOR THE SIMPLEST EXPLANATION. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof refers to work with policy implications for educational achievement and income inequality.

If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong. Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has just demolished this view in a superb new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It,” which also offers terrific advice for addressing poverty and inequality in America.

Professor Nisbett provides suggestions for transforming your own urchins into geniuses — praise effort more than achievement, teach delayed gratification, limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity — but focuses on how to raise America’s collective I.Q. That’s important, because while I.Q. doesn’t measure pure intellect — we’re not certain exactly what it does measure — differences do matter, and a higher I.Q. correlates to greater success in life.

Intelligence does seem to be highly inherited in middle-class households, and that’s the reason for the findings of the twins studies: very few impoverished kids were included in those studies. But Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia has conducted further research demonstrating that in poor and chaotic households, I.Q. is minimally the result of genetics — because everybody is held back.

“Bad environments suppress children’s I.Q.’s,” Professor Turkheimer said.

I came across the column by way of a Balloon Juice post taking issue with Andrew Sullivan, and indirectly, with Charles Murray.

So I haven’t actually read that Bell Curve book, largely because I think it’s very unlikely that a single “intelligence quotient” measure exists in any meaningful way and because I think that human beings like to do things like invent bogus measures of superiority, pretend that what is being measured is hereditary, and then use these findings to justify the status quo. I did glance through this summary of the book and was stunned that the last item was ominously titled “A Place for Everyone“.

So, let me ask: do people like Sully and Murray actually believe that they and their friends are members of a genetic “cognitive elite” and that some portion of the rest of the population belongs in a “more lavish version of the Indian reservation”? Or am I simplifying things.

I got just past halfway through Bell Curve and got bored. I've reacted less than favorably to Mr Murray's more recent work, particularly when he's unable to grasp the implications of a power law (almost all the children will be below average ...) Back to Mr Kristof.

Another proven intervention is to tell junior-high-school students that I.Q. is expandable, and that their intelligence is something they can help shape. Students exposed to that idea work harder and get better grades. That’s particularly true of girls and math, apparently because some girls assume that they are genetically disadvantaged at numbers; deprived of an excuse for failure, they excel.

“Some of the things that work are very cheap,” Professor Nisbett noted. “Convincing junior-high kids that intelligence is under their control — you could argue that that should be in the junior-high curriculum right now.”

"Intelligence is something they can help shape." Perhaps that's an invocation of James Heckman's work on the effect of noncognitive skills. Perhaps that's my Habits of Effective People obsession in a different form. I'll give a Harvard man the last word.
For the long term, government policy should focus on turning less-skilled people into more-skilled people, because, regardless of what you’ve read in the newspaper, education remains the best antidote against unemployment.

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