Everyone is Special
Talking about intelligence can rile people up the same way talking about money or beauty can. It gets uncomfortable because sooner or later you have to address the fact that some people have more than others. To combat this discomfort, educational movements have often tried to avoid the problem by deciding there is either no such thing as intelligence or that everybody has it.
It began in 1969 when the Canadian psychologist Nathaniel Branden published his landmark paper The Psychology of Self Esteem. Branden argued that self-esteem was a need like food or water, and that if it wasn’t met the person suffered. It was seized upon by witless educational theorists and the result was “The Self Esteem Movement”.
The idea was that telling children they were all highly intelligent would lead to more productive lives and greater happiness. It’s a well-meaning sentiment but it backfired for a pretty obvious reason. Praise is valuable, but if it’s given constantly and free-of-charge then it inflates egos, causes laziness, and eventually loses meaning.
The sociologist Kay Hymowitz conducted a meta-analysis of 15,000 studies on the effectiveness of The Self Esteem Movement and concluded that “Many children who are convinced they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work.” Funny that.
It’s a shame, because Nathanial Branden’s ideas were important and self esteem is necessary, but cheapening it to “tell every kid they’re brilliant” is not how you generate happiness. It's how you generate narcissists.
Intelligent in your own way
Another popular idea, proposed in 1983 by the American psychologist Howard Gardner, is that of multiple intelligences. Gardner decided (pretty much off the top of his head) that there was no such thing as intelligence. Rather, there were several different types, with little correlation between them.
Consider the footballing skills of former England captain David Beckham. During his peak, Beckham could be in the corner of a large field with 21 players running in different directions, and calculate exactly where the ball should go in order to give his team a tactical advantage. Not only that, he’d figure out how to move his muscles to apply the correct force at the correct angle to achieve his desired trajectory and could do it in a matter of seconds...in his head.
Gardner would argue, quite reasonably, that Beckham was using his brain to achieve specific outcomes the same way Einstein did - just different types of outcome. Beckham’s intelligence resided in the physical realm while Einstein’s was in the mathematical.
On the basis of this argument Gardner proposed several different types of intelligence which people could possess: musical, visual, linguistic, logical, physical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and many more.
It was a popular idea in schools – I remember being given the multiple intelligence test myself - but it's multiply confused. The most obvious problem is that it repurposes the word "intelligence". If we’re going to do define intelligence in such a broad way then everything a human does is intelligent, because everything involves using your brain to exemplify an outcome.
If you know how to walk we could say you have “perambulatory intelligence”, if you know how to cook we could say you have “culinary intelligence”. If you are a fan of the movie Transformers 5, we could say you have “no intelligence” and so on.
What Gardner’s model does is redefine intelligence to mean ability. But when you redefine a word, the thing you originally needed it for still exists. If we decided to repurpose the word carrot to mean “any kind of vegetable”, those orange things would still be there, so we’d have to invent a new word for them and the whole thing would repeat.
We use the word intelligent because it describes something we all seem to agree is real and distinct from other abilities. You wouldn't describe a good sandwich as intelligent because it's not an appropriate compliment. Likewise, if someone has significant sporting prowess we can describe them as "athletic", "fit", "sporty" etc. but intelligence is refering to a different thing. That's not saying intelligence and sport-skills are mutually exclusive, it's just saying they aren't concomitant.
David Beckham could be a very intelligent man but his footballing skills aren't a sign of intelligence, they're a sign of atheltic ability. They are separate features and its unwise to pretend they're the same. Ultimately, the problem with Gardner's approach is that the word intelligent is describing a very specific quality, not a generic one.
So what IS Intelligence?
Words change meaning depending on context and pinning them down to a single definition can sometimes be detrimental. Often it’s the vague boundaries around a word which give it utility. As a Scientist I want to subject everything to clear and rigorous definitions but I recognise this isn’t the way we use language. This makes defining a nuanced word like intelligence tricky.
I was once observing a lesson where a teacher said to a student “you’re very artistically intelligent.” The student looked puzzled and said “yeah, but being artistically intelligent isn’t real intelligence.”
I spoke to her afterwards and asked what she meant. It took her a while to articulate but eventually she hit on a profound insight: “intelligence is when you’re good at things which go on inside your head.” I think she might be onto something.
The ability to play an instrument is a function of the brain but it is expressed through fingers. Being a talented singer is a function of the brain but it is expressed as movement of vocal chords. The same is true with painters, sportsmen, dancers etc. Their abilities are based on brain activity but the outcome is manifested physically. When we refer to intelligence we seem to mean abilities which do not translate so obviously into a physical mode.
A person can use their vocal chords with skill and intonation to deliver a speech. We might describe them as a skilled raconteur or actor, but the person who wrote the speech, who actually thought of the words to use, is the person we consider intelligent.
Let’s take an even more obvious example: Professor Stephen Hawking.
Nobody’s going to object if I call Stephen Hawking an intelligent man. Some of his media fame may be due to his struggle with physical disability, but let’s be clear: his reputation as one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists is well deserved. Even without his inspiring life story, Hawking would still be regarded as one of the greatest Scientific minds alive today. And yet there is no physical manifestation. That’s probably why Hawking’s story is so moving in the first place. He cannot express his brilliance physically, it is entirely within his head.
I would argue that intelligence is whatever we agree Professor Stephen Hawking has. He can’t sing, play the tuba or tap-dance, but the inner workings of his brain, which cannot be demonstrated physically, is what we mean by “intelligence”.
Knowledge is Power, but it’s not Intelligence
What’s so special about Hawking’s brain then? Well, the guy definitely knows a ton about physics. But there’s more to it. I know a lot about physics too, but I’m not going to claim I’m as clever as Hawking.
Intelligence isn’t the same as knowing things because anyone can memorise facts. I could tell a room of people “fermions are defined by their adherence to the Pauli exclusion principle, a function of their half-integer spin”...but does everyone in the room suddenly become smarter if they don’t understand what that fact means?
Probably the most workable definition of intelligence I can think of is as follows: answering questions you know the answer to is knowledge, figuring out answers to a question you don’t know the answer to is intelligence.
I think this definition, although loose, is probably as good as we can get. Intelligence is how well we process unfamiliar information; how well we use things we do know to grasp things we don’t.
The IQ Test
The most famous assessments of intelligence are IQ tests. And I’m not talking about those 15 minute online things which always give a mysteriously high score as if they’re wanting to flatter you into returning to their website...Hmmmm. I mean the real things.
I was made to take a proper IQ test once, and it’s an exhaustive procedure. It took about five hours and was carried out by an examiner with a stopwatch. There were bits of paper, little puzzles to complete, picture cards; the whole works. And I’m afraid I’m not going to tell you what my IQ is. Sorry.
The reason is not because I have an embarrassingly low score, it’s because I don’t put much faith in the tests and don’t want people getting hung up on it. IQ tests tell us something, but it’s not intelligence. I know there's an old joke which goes "the only people who object to IQ tests are people who do badly on them". But that's not true. For the record I actually scored highly. I just don't think the number tells you much.
A Brief History of IQ
IQ tests were invented in 1904 by the French psychologist Alfred Binet. The ministry of education in France was trying to identify students who were likely to struggle in school and Binet provided a diagnostic. Every student was given a series of common-sense questions and if they answered poorly, they were given extra support in class.
The questions included things like identifying the names of certain foods, lifting objects and deciding which was heavier, and even looking at faces of women and deciding which was the prettiest. Your score was then calculated as a fraction compared to other people (a quotient) and that was the end of it. Binet was very clear that his test was not calculating a single measure of “general intelligence”. It was giving a sense of how you performed at basic tasks.
About ten years after Binet introduced his test, the American military were looking to find a method of assessing which soldiers should be given officer training in preparation for the first world war. They asked the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman to design a test and he turned to Binet’s, adapting it for adults.
Over 1.5 million soldiers took Terman’s test and were given a ranking of A – E, with only the A-grade soldiers getting officer training. Terman later introduced the familiar numbering we still use, where 100 is considered average and 140 is termed “genius”. More unsettling still, many US states with the death penalty require an IQ score of 70 to be worthy of execution. About 20% of Death-Row inmates are only just over that line. Apparently a score of 70 is enough to make you culpable for your actions but a score of 69 is not.
Terman later argued that only smart people should be allowed to breed in order to better the human race and he made one or two teeth-clenching comments about the link between intelligence and race, so that gives you some idea what he wanted his test to be used for. Here's a quick example of a straightforward IQ test. How many Indiana Jones movies are shown below?
The Feynman Problem
The example I always use when illustrating the fallibility of IQ tests is what I call "The Feynman Problem". Richard Feynman had an IQ of 123-125. That’s not bad, but it would only indicate him to be “reasonably smart”. Yet Feynman was inarguably one of the most intelligent people to walk the Earth in the last hundred years.
He won a Nobel prize for working out the mathematics of quantum electrodynamics, the two main biographies written about him are called Genius and No Ordinary Genius, he taught at Princeton, MIT, Cornell and CalTech Universities, and was described by Robert Oppehnheimer on the Los Alamos project (the greatest Scientific minds living in one town) as “the most brilliant physicist here”.
He was a freak of intelligence but based on his IQ score you wouldn't think he was anything special. Hell, James Franco has a higher IQ than Feynman. James Franco!!! Even I have a higher IQ than Richard Feynman and I am NOT smarter than he.
While IQ tests might be telling us something, I don’t think we should put too much stock in the numbers. It would be like measuring a person’s fingers to see whether they would be good at playing piano. There may be a moderate correlation but it’s far from the whole story.
If you’ve got a high IQ then you’re probably bright, but being any more specific is going beyond what we can know. A person with an IQ of 120 may not be any more intelligent than someone with a score of 110 – they might just better at doing the IQ test.
Because intelligence is a loosely defined word, we need a loosely defined way of measuring it. Trying to measure it with a number is like trying to nail a cloud to a piece of wood.
The Barmaid Test
There’s a famous Einstein quotation which goes: “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. It’s a good phrase but it’s not real. It’s actually a mixture of his genuine quotation “the truth should be stated as simply as possible, but no simpler” and a quotation from Feynman “if you can’t explain it to a freshman, that means you don’t understand it.”
Ernest Rutherford, another Nobel prize-winner, once said something with a similar sentiment: “an alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”
I feel this is a little unfair on barmaids but his point is valid i.e. if an idea is worth knowing, you should be able to explain it to someone who isn’t an expert in the field. The idea of the barmaid test is, at its core, that to understand an idea you should be able to state it simply. This, claim the great minds, is the best way of seeing if someone really understands something...get them to explain it in straightforward terms.
So I think Rutherford's Barmaid Test is probably a better measure of intelligence than IQ scores. If you really want to see how clever someone is, ask them to explain the clever-sounding thing they just said. If they can't, they're probably not as smart as they think they are.
Am I therefore saying teachers are the smartest people on the planet? Yes. Yes I am.
Good luck in the new term everyone!
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