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intelligence is over rated

An interview in New Scientist this week caught my eye: an Artificial Intelligence researcher casually began answering a question with “I didn’t want to conflate intelligence with skill…” It set me thinking: what if intelligence CANNOT be divorced from skill? What if it’s impossible to separate the two? Take an IQ Test- a measure of raw intelligence- look at how many skills it requires: reading- fast and accurately, counting- fast and accurately, taking on data in a conventional way (ie. don’t be too lateral with an IQ question), physical skill in holding a pen and ticking boxes. These skills may be taken for granted in the west- so much so that they are invisible to a phd student- but they are, in fact, hard won skills requiring someone to have spent a fair amount of time sitting down and acquiring them. What if IQ measures not intelligence but skill? 

Science drives wedges between things that are normally joined in order to generate new insights. Like a diamond cutter the scientist turns the gem of his study over and over looking for the ‘fault lines’. These are the places of least resistance- get it wrong and the diamond will shatter. I spoke to a geneticist earlier this year and he told me scientific research was all about asking ‘the right questions, formulating the question in the right way’. In other words, choosing where to drive that wedge in.

Some places admit the wedge easily. It makes sense to separate the weight of a ball when you drop it, from its size- as Galileo did. From this division Newton went on to derive his classical laws of physics. Some wedges work for a while- highlighting the gene generated vast amounts of science; but it now looks as if the cell is the real cornerstone- epigenetic feedback systems have made the gene look increasingly less important.

Maybe the scientific fraternity will discover that making ‘intelligence’ an isolated and comprehensible concept to drive psychological research was a bad choice to make. Maybe 'intelligence' should be replaced with notions of varying types of skill.

Almost the first job I had was putting up fences around building sites in Birmingham. It was job for skivers as the council paid our wages to keep us off the dole. The foreman was an Irishman who’d spent his life doing real building work and he tried in vain to get us to work hard. He once took a pick out of my hand and in a few quick effective blows broke up the concrete below allowing a hole to be dug. Lads mocked him (behind his back) because he couldn’t read or write but this man had real intelligence in the way he worked. Put an Oxford graduate (me) next to him and I was the one who looked unintelligent.

Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize winning physicist but he used to call himself ‘physics smart’ acknowledging his inability in other areas.

Psychologists have spent over a century and a lot of ink trying to define intelligence- maybe the intelligent thing to do would be to see that concepts of intelligence without ‘skill’, which has a qualitative side that can’t be given a number, are meaningless.

Lots of things become clearer. I have a friend who is brilliant at maths but made two huge marriage blunders resulting in great unhappiness. He’s about to make his third. He has maths skill: remembers patterns, likes numbers, can do arithmetic in his head- and as a result has a high IQ- but he doesn’t have people skill, can’t tell a good person for him from a bad one. Normally we’d call him one of those super-intelligent people who are also stupid. But I think he just has skills that he has over and under developed.

Learning ‘skills’ have been mocked for being too ‘basic’, but perhaps they were simply ill thought out when presented for judgement. Real learning skills such as a good memory, the ability to get ‘into’ a new subject, the ability to find your own way into a subject- these are all vital sub-skills that relate to the acquisition of further skills, some of which will earn you the soubriquet ‘intelligent’.

But we all know what an intelligent fellow is don’t we? That’s the problem. An intelligent chap is someone with a skill for analysis, a quick logical mind and doesn’t make the same mistake twice in the area under consideration. It is simply a conflation of several skills- all of which can be taught and honed.

When my kids were at the British School in Cairo I remember one child who had been been written off as utterly dim. But then one day a maths teacher noticed the girl had got a very hard maths question right- and all the others wrong. Was she cheating? The girl was of Indian origin and her English wasn’t very good. And her handwriting was appalling. More to the point she was very slow at forming letters and numbers- which later she found hard to read. It was only by chance that she managed to copy down a maths question right. No wonder she got so many wrong. But the real breakthrough came when they saw how she held her pen- in a way that made it impossible to write fast. She lacked a single crucial skill. The school gave her an intensive course that remedied this- and her improvement was amazing. Her ‘maths intelligence’ was dependent on a physical skill- holding a pen.

We talk about ‘street smart’- someone who can look after themselves in a non-institutional environment, someone who knows the ‘ways of the world’. His or her intelligence cannot be divorced from their skill at reading people and situations.

When people say “I’m not that intelligent” they almost always mean they were poor at maths at school and not brilliant at any other academic subject. Sometimes you meet people who announce “It took me until I was 30 to find out I was intelligent after all.” Both are being played by a bogus concept. It is better to think of life as a place where certain skills are needed. You may find you have some painlessly, having been to a school and university, others you may need to work hard for. But unlike ‘intelligence’- which in its fairytale world is a constant, something you are born with, skills acquisition never ends, and skills can become rusty with lack of use. 

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