Monday, August 7, 2017

When credentials are mistaken for intelligence and intelligence is valued over human rights

From The War on Stupid People by David H. Freedman. Part of Freedman's argument is that the arrogance of the cognitive elite blinds them to the humanity of people with differing cognitive abilities. That arrogance has been on display for a good while with disparaging remarks about bitter clingers, the religious, deplorables, etc. Remarks, the very articulation of which calls into question the actual cognitive status of those making them.

Freedman's premise is tempting. He is dealing with some real issues. The world is getting more complex and change is occurring at an accelerating rate. Most share a sense of anxiety about uncertainty of the future.

What is interesting about Freedman's article is how many hidden assumptions there are and how much it derives from an unstated postmodernist, statist, indeed, authoritarian mindset. But there are interesting nuggets throughout. The College Board states that an average student needs an SAT score of 500 in English and Maths in order to anticipate earning at least a B- at an average college.
How many high-school students are capable of meeting the College Board benchmark? This is not easy to answer, because in most states, large numbers of students never take a college-entrance exam (in California, for example, at most 43 percent of high-school students sit for the SAT or the ACT). To get a general sense, though, we can look to Delaware, Idaho, Maine, and the District of Columbia, which provide the SAT for free and have SAT participation rates above 90 percent, according to The Washington Post. In these states in 2015, the percentage of students averaging at least 500 on the reading section ranged from 33 percent (in D.C.) to 40 percent (in Maine), with similar distributions scoring 500 or more on the math and writing sections.
Overall though, the article is a marvelous example of sloppy argumentation which has become the received wisdom.
Many people who have benefited from the current system like to tell themselves that they’re working hard to help the unintelligent become intelligent. This is a marvelous goal, and decades of research have shown that it’s achievable through two approaches: dramatically reducing poverty, and getting young children who are at risk of poor academic performance into intensive early-education programs. The strength of the link between poverty and struggling in school is as close to ironclad as social science gets. Still, there’s little point in discussing alleviating poverty as a solution, because our government and society are not seriously considering any initiatives capable of making a significant dent in the numbers or conditions of the poor.
Makes sense, seems reasonable, and seems to comport with common sense. But is it true?

Not really.

Notice the elision between intelligence and educated. Other than basic nutrition and mental stimulation in the home environment in the early years (0-2 especially but still noticeable 0-6 years of age), there is no known way to make someone more intelligent if by intelligent we mean IQ. IQ is heritability plus adequate nutrition plus early cognitive stimulation. We can help people become more educated but there is little we can do institutionally to make individuals more intelligent.

Ironically, in an article predicated on the stated assumption that we are mistaking intelligence for human worth, the author slips in the unstated assumption undergirding that mistake. If the sole measure of value is intelligence (which the author argues against), then it is perfectly logical to argue that it is a "marvelous goal" to make people more intelligent. But if human worth is inherent, and I agree that it is, then intelligence is only one of many attributes constituting any individual and the status of intelligence is irrelevant. The author cannot have it both ways, that intelligence is a wonderful thing to increase, but that human worth is independent of intelligence.

I agree that human worth is inherent. I also recognize that every person has much to contribute and only sometimes is intelligence a critical component of that contribution. But there are many contributions which are substantially dependent on intelligence.

But the bigger issue is the assumption that there is an authority whose business this is and which has responsibility for achieving it. Some Leviathan. This is the sloppy authoritarianism which is so prevalent. If you accept that all human lives have inherent worth, and if you are a classical liberal, then you also believe that is up to the individual to make of their life that which they might wish. It is not up to the hidden leviathan to make you something different than you are or would want to be.

There is also, in this argument, repeated appeals to authority. The author claims that decades of research have shown that decreasing poverty increases intelligence. That is not the case at all. There are many reasons to reduce poverty, simple humanity being perhaps the main one, but poverty has only a very weak connection to intelligence and that is primarily through nutrition. Once you have enough productivity to generate nutrition above a fairly low minimum, poverty is not much of a determining factor. And despite the claim that there is a lot of research, much of it is ambivalent on effect sizes and even direction of causal flow. There is not an insignificant volume of research, principally based on comparisons between countries, claiming that it is low IQ which causes poverty. I am dubious of the current standards of quality of IQ measurement for cross-country comparison purposes to attach much credibility to this body of work. But I cannot simply dismiss it as if it does not exist.

The only way Freedman's claim makes sense is if you interpret intelligence as education. No known interventions affect intelligence (above and beyond low level nutrition) but does poverty affect education? To some extent, of course, and certainly for particular individual students. But at a macro-level, most countries become more productive before they become better educated. Productivity precedes education. And there are many countries who have reasonably good education systems but are unable to break the shackles of poverty. Freedman's appeal to authority is empty.

Similarly, Freedman's claim that "getting young children who are at risk of poor academic performance into intensive early-education programs" is a well researched and established finding is simple bunk. Major multi-decadal reviews of Head Start and comparable state level initiatives are highly contested. The larger, more rigorous and better designed the review, the smaller is the effect size and in general, virtually all studies find that any such early interventions fade quickly.

So Freedman mixes the distinctly different issues of intelligence and education, offers no actual evidence to support his contention and ignores the large volume of evidence that contradicts his argument.

Freedman goes on for some while in this vein. His opening premise that there is a widening gap of opportunity between the cognitively blessed and others remains unexplored. All he is doing is rehashing age-worn shibboleths which have not worked to date and show no signs of working in the future. Unmentioned is that all these hoary policies are predicated on an omniscient and omnipotent central authority making decisions on behalf of citizens. The very antithesis of where Freedman seemed to be heading with his talk of inherent human worth.
We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity. The government could, for example, provide incentives to companies that resist automation, thereby preserving jobs for the less brainy. It could also discourage hiring practices that arbitrarily and counterproductively weed out the less-well-IQ’ed. This might even redound to employers’ benefit: Whatever advantages high intelligence confers on employees, it doesn’t necessarily make for more effective, better employees. Among other things, the less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.
The essay is a mess. It nods a head towards the precept that human life has inherent worth and then conducts the whole argument 1) from the perspective of a postmodernist statist fixing people's lives for them, and 2) indulges in the very sin that it purportedly seeks to eliminate. It puts its full focus on making people smarter and forcing government interventions to create protections for the less bright as a special protected class.

Too bad, because the issues are real. Life is getting more complex, it is changing faster, there is greater uncertainty, the creation of a system for credentializing the children of elite rather than focusing on actual intelligence and accomplishment, have all combined to create a poisonous environment which most people want to raze and begin again. Back to the principles undermined by postmodernism. Back to freedom, human rights, due process, scientific method, equality before the law, etc. A class-based, arrogant, disdainful class of administrators more focused on their credentials than on ensuring citizen rights is, to coin a term, "problematic."

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