Thursday, January 18, 2007

Brutal, just brutal

Via Gene Expression, three essays on intelligence and education by Charles Murray. Yes, I know they appeared on the WSJ editorial page, and yes, I know what book Murray co-authored back in the 90's. However, he's willing to raise some important issues that others dare not. Some excerpts below.

Warning, not for the politically correct ability egalitarians who think anyone can play basketball like Michael Jordan or compose music like Mozart if they just try hard enough.

If you don't like his continued use of IQ as a measure of intelligence, just pretend you have your own measure (or even measures) and substitute it each time he writes "IQ", keeping in mind your measure will have an average - let's call it "100" for simplicity - and probably be roughly normally distributed, as most human traits are.

1) What fraction of the population is capable of absorbing a university education or mastering college-level material? It might be smaller than the proportion attending college today.

To have an IQ of 100 means that a tough high-school course pushes you about as far as your academic talents will take you. If you are average in math ability, you may struggle with algebra and probably fail a calculus course. If you are average in verbal skills, you often misinterpret complex text and make errors in logic.

These are not devastating shortcomings. You are smart enough to engage in any of hundreds of occupations. You can acquire more knowledge if it is presented in a format commensurate with your intellectual skills. But a genuine college education in the arts and sciences begins where your skills leave off.

In engineering and most of the natural sciences, the demarcation between high-school material and college-level material is brutally obvious. If you cannot handle the math, you cannot pass the courses. In the humanities and social sciences, the demarcation is fuzzier. It is possible for someone with an IQ of 100 to sit in the lectures of Economics 1, read the textbook, and write answers in an examination book. But students who cannot follow complex arguments accurately are not really learning economics. They are taking away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion that they know something they do not. (A depressing research literature documents one's inability to recognize one's own incompetence.) Traditionally and properly understood, a four-year college education teaches advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people.

There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high-school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college--enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.

2) On the highly intelligent fraction and their contributions to society.

If "intellectually gifted" is defined to mean people who can become theoretical physicists, then we're talking about no more than a few people per thousand and perhaps many fewer. They are cognitive curiosities, too rare to have that much impact on the functioning of society from day to day. But if "intellectually gifted" is defined to mean people who can stand out in almost any profession short of theoretical physics, then research about IQ and job performance indicates that an IQ of at least 120 is usually needed. That number demarcates the top 10% of the IQ distribution, or about 15 million people in today's labor force--a lot of people.

In professions screened for IQ by educational requirements--medicine, engineering, law, the sciences and academia--the great majority of people must, by the nature of the selection process, have IQs over 120. Evidence about who enters occupations where the screening is not directly linked to IQ indicates that people with IQs of 120 or higher also occupy large proportions of positions in the upper reaches of corporate America and the senior ranks of government. People in the top 10% of intelligence produce most of the books and newspaper articles we read and the television programs and movies we watch. They are the people in the laboratories and at workstations who invent our new pharmaceuticals, computer chips, software and every other form of advanced technology.

Combine these groups, and the top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital or stagnant, our culture healthy or sick, our institutions secure or endangered. Of the simple truths about intelligence and its relationship to education, this is the most important and least acknowledged: Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.

How assiduously does our federal government work to see that this precious raw material is properly developed? In 2006, the Department of Education spent about $84 billion. The only program to improve the education of the gifted got $9.6 million, one-hundredth of 1% of expenditures. In the 2007 budget, President Bush zeroed it out.

Just to clarify for Murray: he's not proposing a hard cutoff in IQ for any particular achievement (becoming a chip designer, writing a senior thesis in French Literature), but merely that the fraction of people capable of that achievement with IQ below the value he gives is very small (e.g., very few medical researchers with IQ less than 120). Therefore, we can use the estimated value as a way to guess what percentage of the general population is sufficiently capable. There are of course other factors involved in success at a particular task than raw cognitive ability (motivation, organization, communication skills, ...). See earler post on success vs ability.

For more on theoretical physicists, see here. This will sound terribly arrogant (so shoot me), but Murray's estimate of few per thousand is way too high. That's about the ability level of the average Caltech undergrad, and I would guess only the top 5-10% of students there could be theoretical physicists.


Anonymous said...

You better be carefull. Alot of theoretical physicists' jobs depend on those sub-110 IQ types going to college and being forced to take introductory physics classes.

Steve Hsu said...

Actually, very few students are forced to take physics these days, except science and engineering majors who may mostly be in the >115 group.

For other students, there is typically a "general science" requirement, but that seldom requires physics per se and can be satisfied by intro courses in, e.g., chemistry, geology, biology, "environmental studies" ...

I think Murray's point (1) is quite interesting. What I usually hear from colleagues is that the general level of high school education has declined, and that is why our university students can't read, write and do math at the "college level". But, if Murray is correct, we may just have expanded the college-going fraction so much that the decline in standards is unavoidable.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Murray's point is particularly novel or profound. What I don't get, at least from your excerpt, is why it is such a bad thing for society for people with IQs of 104 to try and stretch for a college education. The American educational system has long been based upon casting the widest net, even if much of the catch is wasted. And according to the Flynn effect, people who score 104 today have the same intelligence of someone scoring 115 30 years ago.

Steve Hsu said...

I think Murray suggested some kind of vocational training for those just below the college-cognitive-cutoff (as in the old days in Germany, for example).

Hasn't the Flynn effect stopped, perhaps as early as the 90's? Granted this doesn't explain the old timers' complaints about students these days, if in fact a 104 today is a 115 from 1970.

If you think about this in terms of winners and losers in globalization, I would imagine it's the >120 crowd who will be able to move to the "high value added" jobs left to us after wage equilibration with developing economies.

Anonymous said...

But, if Murray is correct, we may just have expanded the college-going fraction so much that the decline in standards is unavoidable.

This sounds about right. A good way to rectify this effect could be to just have higher standards for grading and for minimum academic performance. This way the PC-crowd could be kept a bit happier by giving a larger number of people a chance while still get the cutoffs that Murray mentions, only with a different metric.

Carson C. Chow said...

Believe it or not, I (an uptight liberal) actually agree with Murray in this case. I think there is just a small fraction of the population that can ever understand a limit, and even a smaller fraction, sigma algebras. I also agree that the reason people think the quality of college students have gone down is because, a much larger fraction of the population now attends college. In fact, I even believe there is a substatial genetic component along with an environmental component that determines IQ or whatever measure you want to use. However, what I have problems with is when people use genotypes exclusively as predictors for the ability to do integrals. Let's suppose that whatever genes are involved in intelligence are more prevalent in one race over another. Eventually, we will come to the conclusion that some genes are important for atheletics, music, art, or theoretical physics. However, that doesn't mean that lacking those genes (alleles) means you will not be able to do those things nor does it mean that having them automatically makes you good at them. I fear that once we start genotyping children at birth, that could pigeon hole them for the rest of their lives. So, in fact, I actually do think we should not make higher education into a one-size-fits-all solution. We could do that by simply keeping standards high and not being afraid of letting people fail. But we should then steer those that can't make it in whatever they wish to do into other options. However, I think we should let anyone who wants to try something to get the opportunity. Then let the cards fall as they may.

Anonymous said...

Richard Florida puts 38% of the U.S. working population inside the creative class, and we can now tap the creative classes from any place on the planet with this flat world. But if you think this is all that inflated, then I would give the suggestion that higher function employment will need to be augmented by computer enhanced systems. Something that makes change for the U.S. Department of Justice Attorneys, and establishes content for later government appeals. I'm under the 104 but have helped a pro se plaintiff fight off three summary judgments in Federal District Court. The plaintiff lost at trail but for the three U.S. Department of Justice Attorneys that handled the case, it attests to the main point about over filling your abilities in law school.

Anonymous said...

What do ya'all think my I.Q. might be? I've written 82 published paperback books. I have a masters in English/Creative writing and never had any problem in school getting A's and B's all through college and grad school. I graduated college back in the early 1960s. What's my I.Q. I've always wondered but never had the chance to find out. I was a full-time freelance writer--novelist, nonfiction books, and plays all my worklife. I also won a graduate scholarship.

Is my I.Q. 80? 95? 100? 130? 135? 142? Just curious at what you might guess. I love reading Lisa Randall's Warped Passages and other non-mathematical books on physics. I love reading about DNA-driven genealogy and genetics. But I never had the courage to take a math course and couldn't pass my 5th grade math book at all and didn't understand anything about algebra and geometry--never could pass it. But I always got 'A's in English courses, anthropology courses, creative writing, and four years of French...and also was great in history courses. Now, I write historical time-travel novels. What am I I.Q.-wise? Any guesses?

I'm retired, and spent my career as a full-time housewife and mommy, but still wrote a novel a year or more and other non-fiction how-to books on creative writing techniques. I'd guess my I.Q. is around 94, but maybe it could be higher since I find writing books easy and joyful.

My hobby is reading the life stories of physicists and geneticists. My children are physicians in neuroradiology. My grand daughter won a full scholarship to a university based on her advanced physics and calculus tests.

I'm married to a retired blue collar worker who never finished college. I've never been employed outside the home except for brief episodes of teaching online in a temporary capacity, but I love writing stories and books and reading avidly science books that do not have equations in them.

What am I? The last time I took an I.Q. test it was..............guess?

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