Thursday, May 05, 2005

Using skill to denote intelligence

To disclaim, not everyone believes in IQ tests. There's always been difficulty in removing experience and skill from the measurement. But, since we've begun giving them, we've tried to measure IQ using tools that are removed from everyday education, plunging the testee into unfamiliar waters and seeing how quickly he breaks the surface of the problem. Lately, the trend to dissociate testing from reality has become more pronounced with revisions so that we don't discriminate against less worldly or educated folk when we're merely trying to assess their native intellectual horsepower. According to James Flynn's work, described in this Wired article by Steven Johnson, IQ scores have been steadily rising, and it may be attributable to our culture of electronic entertainment.

As new revisions of tests are created and normalized so the average IQ score is 100, Flynn noticed that modern testees (not testes) would have scored higher on the old tests. The phenomenon is most significant with the Ravens test.

When you take the Ravens test, you're confronted with a series of visual grids, each containing a mix of shapes that seem vaguely related to one another. Each grid contains a missing shape; to answer the implicit question posed by the test, you need to pick the correct missing shape from a selection of eight possibilities. To "solve" these puzzles, in other words, you have to scrutinize a changing set of icons, looking for unusual patterns and correlations among them...

...Over the last 50 years, we've had to cope with an explosion of media, technologies, and interfaces, from the TV clicker to the World Wide Web. And every new form of visual media - interactive visual media in particular - poses an implicit challenge to our brains: We have to work through the logic of the new interface, follow clues, sense relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the very skills that the Ravens tests measure - you survey a field of visual icons and look for unusual patterns.

If our tests more closely imitate what we're culturally exposed to, shouldn't we revise the tests to recapture the base case of unfamiliarity of the challenge? I agree wholeheartedly that GUI (graphical user interface) has its own logic that allows me to understand various modern devices using an unspoken symbolic and functional logic. I also agree that video games, et al, provide training for the kind of unreal, visual pattern recognition that Ravens employs.

By example, for any modern gamer, there will be no delay in understanding the desired outcome since visual arrangement is itself a familiar and worthwhile objective. However, I suggest that brilliant Ben Franklin wouldn't do so well in these timed exams, given the restrictions on forewarning and the delay in communicating to him the point of such an exercise in the first place. Modern game consumers are well-used to graphical challenges that result in neither profit nor health nor change to reality, which is not to say that entertainment doesn't have its own rewards, but that's for another day. However, as the underlying landscape of the IQ test becomes more culturally familiar, the test becomes less likely to reveal intelligence than experience.

Sadly, I think it may become ever more discerning to reintroduce extensive language tasks to the IQ test. Given whatever's foreign and an appropriately limited Rosetta Stone, we can measure how fast and accurately the testee, unused to the challenges of text, can derive the common rules and decode and comprehend the written word , itself having finally become purposeful as a meaningless graphical abstract.

I have muttered against the National Endowment for the Arts, but the current NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, in a Boston Globe op-ed, explains how literacy provides not only personal enhancement, but enhancement of citizenship and the values of civil society. As she reminds us, "Reading is not a timeless, universal capability."

So, are we really getting smarter, or just measuring our lost literacy?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Does the phrase "Duh" come to mind?

> Why are IQ test scores rising around the globe?

Ummm, substantially improved diet and living conditions? I haven't looked at the underlying data or anything, but kwashiurkor (sp?) -- "Red Baby" -- can alone take 20 pts off of adult-final IQ.

In Japan, kids are as much as 2" taller than their parents, due mainly to improved diet throughout their lives.

Even in the USA, diets have been steadily improving. Almost all kids born nowadays with a parent who gives even the slightest care for them probably get a daily multivitamin.

Why in the heck would this not be clearly attributed as the likely cause (i.e., first hypothesis to test).

If the overall physical wellbeing is being improved by diet (kids are obese because they don't get enough exercise, not because they are short on the main caloric components of nutrition, esp. with multvitamins to balance out any possible poor aspect of diet), then why would anyone presume that this does not also improve their mental wellbeing as well?