Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will     Archive   Favorite posts   Twitter: @steve_hsu

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Physics still pulls them in...

There is much concern among physicists that our field is no longer getting the same share of the brightest students as in the glory days (e.g., during the cold war). I was pleased to find here that average GRE-general scores in physics PhD programs were still the highest as of 2002, with math and CS close behind. According to these tables, the average IQ of a physics PhD student is about 130. For comparison, english/literature PhD students average about 120 and sociology PhD students only 115. (115 is the average for college students in general, so the typical sociology TA is no smarter than the students in his or her class ;-) Amazingly, the average grad student in education (109) is below the average for college students!

You may find it odd that I converted the results from GRE score to IQ, widely regarded by the politically correct as a discredited measure of intelligence. For a rebuttal of this often repeated, but scientifically unsupported, point of view, see, e.g., Steve Pinker's book The Blank Slate, or any academic research of the type excerpted below.

g on the Job


Although the evidence of genetic and physiological correlates of g argues powerfully for the existence of global intelligence, it has not quelled the critics of intelligence testing. These skeptics argue that even if such a global entity exists, it has no intrinsic functional value and becomes important only to the extent that people treat it as such: for example, by using IQ scores to sort, label and assign students and employees. Such concerns over the proper use of mental tests have prompted a great deal of research in recent decades. This research shows that although IQ tests can indeed be misused, they measure a capability that does in fact affect many kinds of performance and many life outcomes, independent of the tests' interpretations or applications. Moreover, the research shows that intelligence tests measure the capability equally well for all native-born English-speaking groups in the U.S.

If we consider that intelligence manifests itself in everyday life as the ability to deal with complexity, then it is easy to see why it has great functional or practical importance. Children, for example, are regularly exposed to complex tasks once they begin school. Schooling requires above all that students learn, solve problems and think abstractly. That IQ is quite a good predictor of differences in educational achievement is therefore not surprising. When scores on both IQ and standardized achievement tests in different subjects are averaged over several years, the two averages correlate as highly as different IQ tests from the same individual do. High-ability students also master material at many times the rate of their low-ability peers. Many investigations have helped quantify this discrepancy. For example, a 1969 study done for the U.S. Army by the Human Resources Research Office found that enlistees in the bottom fifth of the ability distribution required two to six times as many teaching trials and prompts as did their higher-ability peers to attain minimal proficiency in rifle assembly, monitoring signals, combat plotting and other basic military tasks. Similarly, in school settings the ratio of learning rates between "fast" and "slow" students is typically five to one.

...The existence of biological correlates of intelligence does not necessarily mean that intelligence is dictated by genes. Decades of genetics research have shown, however, that people are born with different hereditary potentials for intelligence and that these genetic endowments are responsible for much of the variation in mental ability among individuals. Last spring an international team of scientists headed by Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry in London announced the discovery of the first gene linked to intelligence. Of course, genes have their effects only in interaction with environments, partly by enhancing an individual's exposure or sensitivity to formative experiences. Differences in general intelligence, whether measured as IQ or, more accurately, as g are both genetic and environmental in origin--just as are all other psychological traits and attitudes studied so far, including personality, vocational interests and societal attitudes. This is old news among the experts. The experts have, however, been startled by more recent discoveries.

One is that the heritability of IQ rises with age--that is to say, the extent to which genetics accounts for differences in IQ among individuals increases as people get older. Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins, published in the past decade by a group led by Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., of the University of Minnesota and other scholars, show that about 40 percent of IQ differences among preschoolers stems from genetic differences but that heritability rises to 60 percent by adolescence and to 80 percent by late adulthood. With age, differences among individuals in their developed intelligence come to mirror more closely their genetic differences. It appears that the effects of environment on intelligence fade rather than grow with time. In hindsight, perhaps this should have come as no surprise. Young children have the circumstances of their lives imposed on them by parents, schools and other agents of society, but as people get older they become more independent and tend to seek out the life niches that are most congenial to their genetic proclivities.

A second big surprise for intelligence experts was the discovery that environments shared by siblings have little to do with IQ. Many people still mistakenly believe that social, psychological and economic differences among families create lasting and marked differences in IQ. Behavioral geneticists refer to such environmental effects as "shared" because they are common to siblings who grow up together. Research has shown that although shared environments do have a modest influence on IQ in childhood, their effects dissipate by adolescence. The IQs of adopted children, for example, lose all resemblance to those of their adoptive family members and become more like the IQs of the biological parents they have never known. Such findings suggest that siblings either do not share influential aspects of the rearing environment or do not experience them in the same way. Much behavioral genetics research currently focuses on the still mysterious processes by which environments make members of a household less alike.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Blog Archive

Labels

Web Statistics