A hopeful note on ability distributions

I read recently (my apologies, I can’t find the link) that in every country where we have reliable testing data, a consistent pattern emerges: girls tend to do slightly better on reading/writing tasks than mathematical tasks, and boys slightly better on mathematical than language-tasks.

This is an interesting dynamic because it creates different “optimal” outcomes depending on what you are trying to optimize for. 

If you optimize for individual achievement–that is, get each student to go into the field where they, personally, can do the best–the vast majority of girls will go into language-related fields and the vast majority of boys will go into math-based fields. This leaves us with a strongly gender-divided workforce.

But if we optimize instead for getting talented people into a particular field, the gender divide would be narrower. Most smart students are good at both math and language, and could excel in either domain. You could easily have a case where the best mathematician in a class is even more talented in language, or where the most verbally talented person is even more talented at mathematical tasks (but not both at once).

If we let people chose the careers that best suit them, some fields may end up sub-optimally filled because talented people go elsewhere. If we push people into particular fields, some people will end up sub-optimally employed, because they could have done a better job elsewhere.

Relatedly, we find that people show more gendered job preferences in developed countries, and less gendered preferences in undeveloped countries. In Norway, women show a pretty strong preference, on average, for careers involving people or language skills, while in the third world, they show a stronger preference for “masculine” jobs involving math, science, or technical skills. This finding is potentially explained by different countries offering different job opportunities. In Norway, there are lots of cushy jobs, and people feel comfortable pursuing whatever makes them happy or they’re good at. In the third world, technical skills are valued and thus these jobs pay well and people strive to get them.

People often ascribe the gender balance in different jobs to nefarious social forces (ie, sexism,) but it is possible that they are an entirely mundane side effect of people just having the wealth and opportunity to pursue careers in the things they are best at.

 

 

Is Capitalism the only reason to care about Intelligence?

Trophonius--ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν, ἀποθνῄσκει νέος.
Trophonius–ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν, ἀποθνῄσκει νέος.

Before we get started, I want to pause in memory of Henry Harpending, co-author (with Greg Cochran) of The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution and the blog West Hunter.

ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν, ἀποθνῄσκει νέος — he whom the gods love dies young. (Meander)

Harpending wasn’t particularly young, nor was his death unexpected, but I am still sad; I have enjoyed his work for years, and there will be no more. Steve Sailer has a nice eulogy.

In less tragic HBD-osphere news, it looks like Peter Frost has stopped writing his blog, Evo and Proud, due to Canadian laws prohibiting free speech. (There has been much discussion of this on the Frost’s posts that were carried over on Unz; ultimately, the antisemitism of many Unz commentators made it too dangerous for Frost to continue blogging, even though his posts actually had nothing to do with Judaism.)

Back to our subject: This is an attempt to answer–coherently–a friend’s inquiry.

  1. Why are people snobs about intelligence?
  2. Is math ability better than verbal?
  3. Do people only care about intelligence in the context of making money?

We’re going to tackle the easiest question first, #2. No, math ability is not actually better than verbal ability.

Imagine two people. Person A–we’ll call her Alice–has exceptional verbal ability. She probably has a job as a journalist, novelist, poet, or screenwriter. She understands other people’s emotions and excels at interacting verbally with others. But she sucks at math. Not just suck; she struggles counting to ten.

Alice is going to have a rough time handling money. In fact, Alice will probably be completely dependent on the other people around them to handle money for them. Otherwise, however, Alice will probably have a pretty pleasant life.

Of course, if Alice happened to live in a hunter-gatherer society where people don’t use numbers over 5, she would not stand out at all. Alice could be a highly respected oral poet or storyteller–perhaps her society’s version of an encyclopedia, considered wise and knowledgeable about a whole range of things.

Now consider Person B–we’ll call her Betty. Betty has exceptional math ability, but can only say a handful of words and cannot intuit other people’s emotions.

Betty is screwed.

Here’s the twist: #2 is a trick question.

Verbal and mathematical ability are strongly correlated in pretty much everyone who hasn’t had brain damage (so long as you are looking at people from the same society). Yes, people like to talk about “multiple intelligences,” like “kinesthetic” and “musical” intelligence. It turns out that most of these are correlated. (The one exception may be kinesthetic, about which I have heard conflicting reports. I swear I read a study somewhere which found that sports players are smarter than sports watchers, but all I’m finding now are reports that athletes are pretty dumb.)

Yes, many–perhaps most–people are better at one skill than another. This effect is generally small–we’re talking about people who get A+ in English and only B+s in math, not people who get A+ in English but Fs in math.

The effect may be more pronounced for people at the extremes of high-IQ–that is, someone who is three standard deviations above the norm in math may be only slightly above average in verbal, and vice versa–but professional authors are not generally innumerate, nor are mathematicians and scientists unable to read and write. (In fact, their professions require constantly writing papers for publication and reading the papers published by their colleagues.)

All forms of “intelligence” probably rely, at a basic level, on bodily well-being. Your brain is a physical object inside your body, and if you do not have the material bits necessary for well-being, your brain will suffer. When you haven’t slept in a long time, your ability to think goes down the tubes. If you haven’t eaten in several days (or perhaps just this morning), you will find it difficult to think. If you are sick or in pain, again, you will have trouble thinking.

Healthy people have an easier time thinking, and this applies across the board to all forms of thought–mathematical, verbal, emotional, kinesthetic, musical, etc.

“Health” here doesn’t  just include things we normally associate with it, like eating enough vegetables and swearing to the dentist that this time, you’re really going to floss. It probably also includes minute genetic variations in how efficient your body is at building and repairing tissues; chemicals or viruses you were exposed to in-utero; epigenetics, etc.

So where does this notion that math and science are better than English and feelings come from, anyway?

A. Math (and science) are disciplines with (fairly) objective answers. If I ask you, “What’s 2+2?” we can determine pretty easily whether you got it correct. This makes mathematical ability difficult to fudge and easy to verify.

Verbal disciplines, by contrast, are notoriously fuzzy:

  riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend 1
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to 2
Howth Castle and Environs. 3
    Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen- 4
core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy 5
isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor 6
had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse 7
to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper 8
all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to 9
tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a 10
kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in 11
vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a 12
peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory 13
end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. 14
    The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner- 15
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur- 16
nuk!)

So. A+ or F-?

Or how about:

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi presentable.

Best-seller, or Mary Sue dreck?

And what does this mean:

Within that conflictual economy of colonial discourse which Edward Said describes as the tension between the synchronic panoptical vision of domination – the demand for identity, stasis – and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history – change, difference – mimicry represents an ironic compromise. If I may adapt Samuel Weber’s formulation of the marginalizing vision of castration, then colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference. (source)

If we’re going to argue about who’s smartest, it’s much easier if we can assign a number to everyone and declare that the person with the biggest number wins. The SAT makes a valiant effort at quantifying verbal knowledge like the number of words you can accurately use, but it is very hard to articulate what makes a text so great that Harvard University would hire the guy who wrote it.

B. The products of science have immediately obvious, useful applications, while the products of verbal abilities appear more superficial and superfluous.

Where would we be today without the polio vaccine, internal combustion engines, or the transistor? What language would we be writing in if no one had cracked the Enigma code, or if the Nazis had not made Albert Einstein a persona non grata? How many of us used computers, TVs, or microwaves? And let’s not forget all of the science that has gone into breeding and raising massively more caloric strains of wheat, corn, chicken, beef, etc., to assuage the world’s hunger.

We now live in a country where too much food is our greatest health problem!

If I had to pick between the polio vaccine and War and Peace, I’d pick the vaccine, even if every minute spent with Tolstoy is a minute of happiness. (Except when *spoilers spoilers* and then I cry.)

But literature is not the only product of verbal ability; we wouldn’t be able to tell other people about our scientific discoveries if it weren’t for language.

Highly verbal people are good at communication and so help keep the gears of modern society turning, which is probably why La Griffe du Lion found that national per capita GDP correlated more closely with verbal IQ scores than composite or mathematical scores.

Of course, as noted, these scores are highly correlated–so the whole business is really kind of moot.

So where does this notion come from?

In reality, high-verbal people tend to be more respected and better paid than high-math people. No, not novelists–novelists get paid crap. But average pay for lawyers–high verbal–is much better than average pay for mathematicians. Scientists are poorly paid compared to other folks with similar IQs and do badly on the dating market; normal people frequently bond over their lack of math ability.

“Math is hard. Let’s go shopping!” — Barbie

Even at the elementary level, math and science are given short shrift. How many schools have a “library” for math and science exploration in the same way they have a “library” for books? I have seen the lower elementary curriculum; kindergarteners are expected to read small books and write full sentences, but by the end of the year, they are only expected to count to 20 and add/subtract numbers up to 5. (eg, 1+4, 2+3, 3-2, etc.)

The claim that math/science abilities are more important than verbal abilities probably stems primarily from high-math/science people who recognize their fields’ contributions to so many important parts of modern life and are annoyed (or angry) about the lack of recognition they receive.

To be Continued.