What is intelligence? Is it, to paraphrase the remarks that a Supreme Court Justice made about pornography, hard to define but you know it when you see it? Attempts to define and, of course, measure intelligence have been going on for a long time. Greek philosophers — recognizing that ‘it is a gift from the gods’ was not a cutting edge explanation — tried to distinguish different kinds of intelligence or mental operations. They also distinguished based on what it was used for: that of a military leader for example as opposed to the abilities of a leader in peacetime.

Though for the most part the Greeks were more concerned about wisdom than intelligence — which are two quite different things.

In more recent times, the first systematic attempt to define intelligence was carried out by the US Army. A standardized intelligence test that measured things like the ability to solve arithmetic problems, to recognize and use a variety of words, to figure out spatial puzzles and so on. The purpose was to make sure soldiers could follow orders so you have to wonder exactly how much intelligence they were looking for.

Interestingly, if you apply this test (as people have done) without making changes we see that intelligence is rising over time. Are we actually getting smarter? Apparently not; we are simply getting more sophisticated — that is more broadly exposed to complex tasks and requirements. We score higher because we have to. Necessity is the mother of intelligence, it seems.

Concerns about measuring intelligence have been raised over and over. Specifically, the idea of having standardized intelligence tests that are gender, class and racially or culturally neutral has always been problematic. Tests generally are devised to measure very specific things — like the ability to follow orders — and so we tend to measure the things we want or, more likely, value. So an individual who can speak well and solve math is considered more intelligent than someone who can, say, survive in the wilderness. Great news of you live in a modern city and have to shop or go to court but not so great if you actually get plunked down in the wilderness.

So, intelligence now is considered to come in a variety of forms — linguist, analytical, emotional, artistic, physical and so on. We now think of people in terms of these multiple intelligences and recognize that some people are better at some things than others.

How profound! I’m not sure we needed a Ph.D. to notice that but we did need one to get people to take it seriously. In any case, it’s not clear whether it makes a difference. For example, things like learning styles don’t actually seem to exist or, at least, make any difference.

I may have to stick with the judge and simply recognize it when I see it.

But that’s ten minutes.


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