My name is Gene Callahan, and I am…

reading Malcolm Gladwell.

There, now you all know: I hope by going public, I can finally put the shame behind me.

In any case, the book is Outliers, and it is about what I expected: a very readable but probably overhasty and overgeneralized survey of a bunch of serious research.

But this passage definitely caught my attention:

"[Practical intelligence] is procedural: it is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it. It's practical in nature: that is, it's not knowledge for its own sake... And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. To use the technical term, general intelligence and practical intelligence are 'orthogonal': The presence of one doesn't imply the presence of the other." (That last bit is a little sloppy: what he really means to say is that the presence of high analytical intelligence does not imply the presence of high practical intelligence: of course, anyone not brain-dead has at least some of each.)

There are two things of note here I think:

1) Scoring highly on an IQ test does not mean that one is intelligent about dealing with life; and
2) The two types of intelligence, having been named by people with high IQs (who are good at the analytical bits), are named backwards: Clearly, practical intelligence is the far more general capability, while what is called "general intelligence" is a very specialized skill, namely, the ability to engage in abstract, symbolic reasoning.

In the developed world, we have created an environment teeming with abstract symbolisms, the mastery of one or more of which can yield tremendous financial gain: Think of computer programming, law, accounting, the creation of financial derivatives, architecture, advertising, etc. When researchers measure the IQ of people in, say, a tropical rain forest, living as hunter gatherers, and come up with some absurdly low score, all they have really demonstrated is that, in that world, abstract, symbolic reasoning is far less useful than in ours, and so has been developed far less. If the dwellers of the rain forest designed IQ tests, those tests would no doubt involve things like tracking animals through the forest, and the hunter-gatherers would score very highly, and we would do very badly indeed.

(And to forestall the objection that, "Well, we developed these abstract symbolisms because we are more intelligent": No. It is almost entirely the proximity to and frequent contact with an early civilizational center that has determined which groups of people have developed these skills the most: the people of northern Siberia are not that genetically distant from the Chinese, but they were culturally isolated from them. Meanwhile, northern Europeans did not develop any aspects of high civilization -- agriculture, animal husbandry, writing, monumental architecture, institutional government -- on their own, but happened to be near societies that did, along an easy path of transmission, and so got in on this game fairly early.)

19 comments:

  1. Are you sure that Gladwell is using the term “general intelligence” correctly? It doesn’t quite match what I thought it meant. Per Wikipedia “[g] is a variable that summarizes positive correlations among different cognitive tasks, reflecting the fact that an individual's performance at one type of cognitive task tends to be comparable to that person's performance at other kinds of cognitive tasks.” I think that means that “general intelligence” is not the same thing as abstract-symbolic intelligence; the latter would be one of the “cognitive tasks” that is affected by g.

    g may or may not be a valid description of the real world, but the g hypothesis is that traits such as abstract-symbolic intelligence and practical intelligence are not orthogonal. They correlate positively, and that (if I have the right idea of it) is the entire point of g. It is certainly true that abstract-symbolic reasoning and practical functioning are different skills. If they were not essentially the same skill, then it wouldn’t mean anything to say that they correlate.

    This means that there is the potential for a lot of confusion if we think of IQ tests as a test for g. That is true in the absence of confounding factors, but there are many potential confounds. Giving an IQ test to a person in a hunter-gatherer band probably is an accurate reflection of that person’s ability to function in a modern industrial society: they would not function well. If they gave me a test of intelligence, as you suggest, they would probably determine accurately that I would not function well in their society. I might assume that their IQ test scores mean they have low g and they might assume the same about me, but in both cases we would be wrong. The confounding factor here is obvious.

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    1. Well, as I said, I think he is using it wrongly! But is he using it in the same sense as others? Well, his usage is certainly not unprecedented:
      https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&es_th=1&ie=UTF-8#q=IQ+test+general+intelligence&es_th=1
      But I am no expert in this terminology.

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    2. When I look on Wikipedia, I find:

      "The existence of the g factor was originally proposed by the English psychologist Charles Spearman in the early years of the 20th century. He observed that children's performance ratings across seemingly unrelated school subjects were positively correlated, and reasoned that these correlations reflected the influence of an underlying general mental ability that entered into performance on all kinds of mental tests."

      This looks to me like it is measuring abstract, symbolic reasoning, just across several abstract subjects.

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    3. I read a fair bit about g 20 years ago.
      Basically g is a correlation. The statisticians made a pretty strong case that g is "real", because they can measure the correlation in different data sets from different times and places.

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    4. You use Chrome as your web browser.

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  2. >The two types of intelligence, having been named by people with high IQs (who are good at the analytical bits), are named backwards: Clearly, practical intelligence is the far more general capability, while what is called "general intelligence" is a very specialized skill, namely, the ability to engage in abstract, symbolic reasoning.

    Well ... even then, I think it would be more accurate to separate *general* practical intelligence from narrow practical intelligence. You can likewise say that "someone 'intelligent' at basketball isn't necessarily intelligent at managing finances". (Hence the category "savant".) What you've said about practical intelligence being more general would only apply to this kind of general practical intelligence.

    I also think that it counts as higher generality to be able to *communicate* the skills one has to others; that is, one has more general intelligence to the extent that these capabilities aren't simply bottled up in their head forever. In that sense, it's fair to rank the (typical) abstract-symbol expert as higher on generality because they can communicate it.

    (The above is why I think it's important to distguish "produces the right answers" from "produces the right answers and can introspect on why they are correct" -- answers being more than just verbal, of course.)

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  3. "Scoring highly on an IQ test does not mean that one is intelligent about dealing with life."

    This is true. However, IQ score is a fairly good predictor of being intelligent about dealing with life.

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    1. No, as Gladwell notes, the things are orthogonal.

      But high IQ people sure love to think they are correlated!

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    2. Gladwell is your only source for this? And you think he’s reliable?

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    3. A lot of the stuff Gladwell says in Outliers is wrong (the 10,000 Hour Rule, for example, is not real).

      What would be an example of being "intelligent about dealing with life"?

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    4. "Gladwell is your only source for this?"

      No, I said "As Gladwell notes."

      I knew this way before I read it in Gladwell. It is easy to observe in everyday life, and it is commonsense: "He's got a lot of book smarts, but no street smarts."

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    5. "the 10,000 Hour Rule, for example, is not real"

      No, it is over-stated and over-simplified in Gladwell's book, but it is roughly true in many fields:
      http://www.businessinsider.com/malcolm-gladwell-explains-the-10000-hour-rule-2014-6

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    6. Gene,

      Here is a follow up article in the same publication by the same author as the one you cite, one month later:

      http://www.businessinsider.com/new-study-destroys-malcolm-gladwells-10000-rule-2014-7

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    7. So, the principle is "Don't believe Malcolm Gladwell's grossly exaggerated claims FOR the 10,000 hour rule: instead, believe Drake Baer's grossly exaggerated claims that it has been 'destroyed'"?

      I mean, what we have are two pop writers each trying to say something sensational with some vague connection to the truth that will draw lots of attention. Is it just because Baer has a better haircut that you favor his story?

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    8. Gene,

      Baer was just reporting on the meta-analysis. I could've cited a bunch of other articles reporting the same. For example:

      http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/10000-hour-rule-not-real-180952410/?no-ist

      The reason I cited Baer's article is that he's the exact same guy you cited to show that Gladwell hadn't been debunked. If you thought he was a crappy source, why did you cite him?

      Even the author of the study Gladwell was supposedly basing the 10,000 Hour Rule off of says that Gladwell was wrong.

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    9. I meant, your only non-anecdotal source. Noticing cases where "He's got a lot of book smarts, but no street smarts" certainly establishes that book smarts and street smarts are not identical, but it doesn’t exclude some correlation.

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    10. " If you thought he was a crappy source, why did you cite him? "
      For trained researchers, sources are not "crappy" or "non-crappy": they are evidence to be interrogated. I had actually ALREADY read the later Baer before posting the earlier one, and once you get past the sensationalism of the headline they say the same thing: Gladwell exaggerated this 10,000 hour business, but he was exaggerating a real something, not making things up. And what the author of the 10,000 hour study said when I found a quote by him is that Gladwell's version was exaggerated and simplistic. Which is, by the way, what I warned about right at the start of the post: "a very readable but probably overhasty and overgeneralized survey of a bunch of serious research."

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  4. Gene,

    They don't say the same thing. In the first article Gladwell says that the 10,000 Hour Rule 1) doesn't apply to sports, and 2) isn't a sufficient condition for getting good at something.

    The meta-analysis cited in the second article says that practice accounts for 12% of the difference in performance in the domains they looked at.

    It's true that Ericsson's criticism of Gladwell is different from the one made by the meta-analysis (and also different from Gladwell's self-criticism). It turns out there's a lot to criticize in Gladwell's treatment of the matter!

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    1. Oy vey! By "saying the same thing" I meant they don't contradict but do heavily qualify the 10,000 hour rule.

      For instance, "The meta-analysis cited in the second article says that practice accounts for 12% of the difference in performance in the domains they looked at."

      And that finding is totally consistent with the idea that you need about 10,000 hours of practice to "top out" that 12%.

      And the meta-study just fails to differentiate "skills" (which are supposed to take 10,000 hours) from "innate abilities."

      Josiah, I've spent over 10,000 hours sifting through research findings. When you reach that total... :-)

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