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Monday, February 29, 2016

Review: The Intelligent Brain

I'm of two minds about Great Courses' The Intelligent Brain.On the one hand, the first 10 lectures of this 18 part series is great, giving me a view and insight into intelligence research which I'd not had exposure to before. For instance, I'd always thought of IQ testing as being like the SATs: it's effectively a test of how good you are at taking IQ tests. What Professor Haier provided is insight into how an IQ test is composed, and what it actually means.

Effectively, an IQ test is a battery of tests that seeks to define the boundary of various mental abilities. Each subsection of tests seeks to test one facet, but all subsets have a positive correlation to what researchers call g, which is general intelligence. This highlights several things:

  • Since it's impossible to test for g directly, we can only glimpse at it via factor analysis.
  • IQ score aren't an absolute, but are only relative to the rest of the population. An IQ score doesn't quantify anything.
  • IQ scores are fairly stable in adult life.
  • When it comes to IQ, you really find out that life isn't fair. People with higher IQ are healthier, have better jobs, make more money, are happier, and live longer.
  • The Multiple Intelligences stuff has no empirical evidence to support it. And that doesn't bother Howard Gardner!
  • IQ has a highly heritable component. In fact, the research studies in existence indicate that identical twins have IQs that converge over time, rather than diverging as you might expect!
  • Different brains work differently, and what gives one person high IQ could be a completely different subset of abilities that work differently from another individual who has similarly high IQ. Men and women, for instance, demonstrate different brain areas that are correlated with high IQ, so a man and a woman with the same IQ score still could have brains that work differently.
This is all great stuff, and the lectures on Race and Gender differences are full of data and are potentially very controversial, but Professor Haier does a great job of just stating the facts, and then separating that from his personal opinion. The problem is, the amount of research is very very small, since nobody wants to risk doing research on such controversial topics, and there's a severe lack of funding on intelligence research. (Though apparently China has a huge team dedicated to doing intelligence research at the genetics level, so that might change once there's an arms race)

The lack of funding shows in particular with some of the studies cited: in many cases, the sample size is pathetically small (33-66 people is very very subject to poor sample bias). In one case, he cites a study he did on video games that apparently didn't even have a control group! Fortunately, the results I listed above a drawn from wide-ranging IQ test and studies that have huge samples and population (in one case the entire country of Ireland!), which means that those results are pretty reliable.

As such, I can recommend the series, especially the first 12 lectures or so. And it's hardly Professor Haier's fault that the state of the field is abysmal. Perhaps we can hope for an IQ arms race that will lead to more funding and progress in this field.  Though unfortunately watching the presidential primaries this year makes me fear that we're descending into Idiocracy instead.

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