The accomplishments of our forebears

Since the Enlightenment, it is been a common tendency to regard almost everyone who lived before 1600 as an unobservant ignoramus mired in superstition. But as I have been watching Jupiter and the moon approach each other in the night sky the last few days, I have been thinking about what a great achievement the recognition of the Zodiac was. How many of our contemporaries do you think you can state the significance of the Zodiac, other than as a topic of horoscope columns in the newspaper? How many could point to it in the night sky?

Of course, recognizing that the Zodiac is the plane of the solar system was a great scientific achievement. But that achievement was built on the previous recognition that there is a band in the sky through which all the "wanderers" move.

A related point: If IQ tests were designed by hunter-gatherers, the questions would be about carefully distinguishing an edible plant from its poisonous look-alike, and skillfully noting the signs that a prey animal had passed by, or a dangerous predator was in the area. I suspect most of us educated Westerners would score very poorly on these IQ tests.

6 comments:

  1. Ask Bryan Caplan and anyone born before 1960 was mired in bigoted ignorance.

    One of the things I most liked about The Decameron when I read it was seeing so clearly that temporal prejudice of the type you identify was completely unjustified.

    As for IQ tests. IMHO the Flynn effect shows that what IQ tests measure isn't intelligence. I accept it measures something, some socially conditioned mental capacity, just not all of it. And that what it measures IS affected by environment and upbringing. It is completely ridiculous to think that the average person in 1900 had the intelligence of someone who today would score under 70 on a modern IQ test.

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  2. "I suspect most of us educated Westerners would score very poorly on these IQ tests."
    IQ tests try to measure the underlying intelligence(g factor) but that isn't highly correlated with the stuff hunters do.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvJeasyBJZw
    That is Gregory Cochran in the video and he is kind of a Gene Callahan of genetics if you will. He doesn't suffer fools lightly and is probably of genius level IQ. He has a great blog(and book)
    http://westhunt.wordpress.com

    Ken
    That is not even the position of James Flynn today and nor do scientists in the field think that a smart guy like Einstein would be stupid by IQ standards of today. The issue is more complex than that.

    Here is a good article that summarizes the Flynn Effect according to Flynn:
    "Strikingly, Flynn has changed his mind. He now sees the Flynn Effect not as undermining IQ testing, but as validating it."
    http://www.vdare.com/articles/flynn-flips-iq-tests-do-matter

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    1. "IQ tests try to measure the underlying intelligence(g factor) but that isn't highly correlated with the stuff hunters do."

      In other words, they try, but fail.

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  3. No they do a pretty good job given that IQ, as measured by IQ tests, is the best predictor we have in the social sciences and not just on economic success but also other social outcomes(education,crime,health,institutional quality).

    -http://www2.ku.edu/~kuwpaper/2010Papers/201206.pdf
    -http://iratde.org/issues/1-2009/tde_issue_1-2009_03_rindermann_et_al.pdf
    -http://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/-underclass-revisited_141758407046.pdf

    IQ isn't everything of course but rather the best of a bunch as James Thompsons calls it.* The next frontier is personality traits but we are unlikely to be able to measure that accurately for the foreseeable future.

    *The best blog on the science of IQ http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.dk

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    1. Wow, IQ tests, designed by people who have been successful in Western, industrialized societies, correlates with success in those societies! Can you imagine that!

      And your listing of "other" things IQ correlates with is hilarious: as if education, crime and health don't ALREADY correlate directly with economic success. It is like saying "Not only do people who measure high on factor X get into the NBA more often, it turns out that they ALSO score more points in the NBA, and get more rebounds in the NBA..."

      My theory about people banging on about IQ all the time: they aren't much in the IQ department themselves. But their ethnic group scores high on these tests... so maybe they can be smart by proxy!

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  4. Well sure but the main point, which I didn't make, is that causation runs more from IQ to economic/educational success than the other way around. Of course this is more true in Western societies that have reached the point of diminishing returns on clear environmental improvements. In contrast much of West Africa(around 70) would probably have IQ's much closer to African-Americans(around 85) if they fortified the food with iodine and iron for example.

    "My theory about people banging on about IQ all the time: they aren't much in the IQ department themselves. But their ethnic group scores high on these tests"
    Sure there is a bit of an ethnic pride parade going on in various sites(mostly blog commentsections) dealing with these issues.* These sort of fringe themes do attract a lot of weirdos. But that doesn't deter from the fact that Gregory Cochran, Henry Harpending, Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, Heiner Rindermann are first rate scholars and have made contribution on IQ and in other cases IQ and economics which have been much to ignored by the economic profession(among others to be fair).

    *I'm East African(Eritrea) and simply interested in these issues because they help illuminate some of the questions that are asked in economics and development that conventional economics give inadequate answers to.

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