|Good points, elene and grant. I think I am just so irritated with the education reporting in the Times right now--so much of it is targeted to a very wealthy, entitled, and status-obsessed audience (the kind of folks who pay for consultants to get their children into the "right" preschool)--and that Kristof tends to irritate me for a number of reasons, that my reaction was a bit skewed. (I meant to keep the focus on wondering how this kind of work is likely to be read by that audience, but I didn't really do that.)|
And I think my first readings completely missed this sentence (or I forgot it): One lesson may be that if you discriminate against a minority and repeatedly shove its members off the social escalator, then you create pathologies of self-doubt that can become self-sustaining. This is a good point, but this, in particular, is a complex issue, and realize that newspaper column real estate is limited, but I'd definitely like more on this. (And I wonder if "pathologies" is the best word? I'll talk about this below.)
Red Concrete, what does it mean to say that general intelligence is >50% genetic, exactly? This is an honest question. I can't quite get my brain around how numbers like that are arrived at. How do the scientists control for historical pressures, familial configurations, stereotype threat, and lack of access to the best training, which can have an exponential effect over time? I'm not disputing that they might be able to control for these factors, I just don't quite get how they do it, when as you say, interaction with the environment is inevitable and there are no doubt several gene clusters involved, and it's unlikely that we'll arrive at anything like predictability.
The article I linked to, just above, on "stereotype threat," (from the Atlantic Monthly, 1999) takes on the idea that poor performance on tests is a kind of internalized, pathologized self-doubt (possibly ingrained over the course of generations) as Kristof suggests. Instead its author, Claude Steele, a Stanford prof in I think Sociology, argues that it's highly situational--which is the good news. Here's one way they tested it--which has bearing on the particular question we're exploring:
Suppose we told white male students who were
strong in math that a difficult math test they were about to take was one on
which Asians generally did better than whites. White males should not have a
sense of group inferiority about math, since no societal stereotype alleges
such an inferiority. Yet this comment would put them under a form of
stereotype threat: any faltering on the test could cause them to be seen
negatively from the standpoint of the positive stereotype about Asians and
math ability. If stereotype threat alon[e]--in the absence of any internalized
self-doubt--was capable of disrupting test performance, then white males
taking the test after this comment should perform less well than white males
taking the test without hearing the comment. That is just what happened.
Stereotype threat impaired intellectual functioning in a group unlikely to
have any sense of group inferiority.
I've attended an academic lecture by one of Steele's colleagues on these projects, where the data were presented for a number of these kinds of experiments, done by a variety of researchers, and the numbers were impressive. I am pretty convinced that stereotype threat is real, although it can be fairly easily addressed, if the teacher or experimenter thinks carefully about it in structuring test-taking situations and feedback. But most of us don't, in my experience. I am curious as to how much it is accounted for in current intelligence studies?
The other article I've read recently that also emphasizes the role that social circumstances play in creating any kind of ability is this one from a recent NY Times (5/6/2006, and again with the annoying registration policy--pm me if interested), "A Star is Made", where economists Dubner and Leavitt (of Freakonomics fame), report on the work of Anders Ericsson on learning, whose work began specifically on studying memorization skills:
In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person "encodes" the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.
Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.
Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.
The rest of the article does make it clear that of course everyone who goes out and deliberately practices basketball for 5 hours a day isn't necessarily going to become Michael Jordan--i.e., they argue that some "inherent" features apply and that to do the 5 hours of practice a day you have to be extremely motivated and even deeply love the activity--but that Michael Jordan wouldn't have become Michael Jordan without a ton of focused practice and a lot of critical feedback. And, I would add, a kind of trust in the system--a kind of trust that your work has a chance of paying off, that you'll not be prejudged, that there may be some link between the work you're putting in and the rewards you'll maybe get out of it.
I guess, for me, the question is: what's both the basis AND the value of a statement like "intelligence is at least 50% genetic" when environment is so dreadfully critical and poorly understood, and when ideas like that are so readily open to abuse, and where there's just so much we don't know and can't know about how something so elusive works? My gut tells me that there's just so much work that really must be done to make learning more accessible before we can come anywhere close to understanding what's genetic about it, and for that genetic information to have any positive use-value at all. But I really am willing to have my thinking on this point corrected.