Sunday, December 1, 2013

That wasn't clever, Boris

I was a bit distracted at work on Friday morning. I was reading this article and the subsequent comments, which now number 2200. The article relates to Boris Johnson, mayor of London and possible future British prime minister, who made a highly controversial speech about inequality and IQ. He noted that as many as 16% "of our species" have an IQ below 85, while only 2% have an IQ above 130; he said we should do more to help the 2%.

His numbers are correct, purely by definition of how IQ scores are calculated. Modern IQ tests are designed so that scores are normally distributed (i.e. they give one of those nice bell-shaped curves) with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, and because of how the normal distribution works, you get those percentages that Johnson mentioned in his speech, and they never go up or down. (Well there is something called the Flynn effect that Tracy mentioned recently, whereby performances in IQ tests improve over time, so they have to tweak the test, or the way it's scored, to keep those percentages the same. There's evidence that the Flynn effect is slowing down or has even stopped altogether.)

So Boris got his numbers right, but that's about it. Some people got dealt a nice hand, and some didn't. But to focus only on those who did would be crazy and dangerous, and that's before you look at how blunt an instrument an IQ test is. Then he said: I stress – I don't believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity. Well hard work and determination absolutely should be rewarded, but not all powerful and successful people get there as a result of hard work, and likewise most people who are struggling aren't in that position because they couldn't be arsed. A lot of it is down to, as I said, the hand they were dealt at birth, as well as their upbringing. Martin, and that game of Scrabble, is a good example. Now he isn't stupid at all. But he didn't get a good formal education, and was never brought up to see that as being important. He said that, despite being born in 1987, he's far from a digital native. They had the internet at home when he was in his teens, and you can learn a lot from that, but his dad never let him or his brother use it. Having weird parents like that doesn't help.

Intellectual elitism, and smugness, is something I have no time for. I see it a lot, and I think it's very unhelpful. I had a friend in the UK who became a maths teacher. One day she was teaching one of the bottom streams. "These kids all think that 0.25 + 0.3 is 0.28. How could you possibly be so dumb as to think that?! When I was their age, well, younger than them, I got it straight away." Well I got it straight away when I was a kid too, but like you, I was lucky. Why shouldn't you think it's 0.28? And the fact that 0.3 is bigger than 0.25, that's not obvious at all.

Intellectual arrogance, unfortunately, is rife among so-called high-functioning people on the autistic spectrum. I'm absolutely right, and nothing you say will stop me from being right. And some of them don't mind boasting about their achievements either. Tracy, for instance, talked about an IQ test she took at school. Apparently she did so well that her score appeared as a blank in their system. The staff misinterpreted this, and Tracy wondered why she got chucked in with all the stupid kids. It's a funny story, and an alarming one (the staff didn't even notice how well she'd done in the test and stream her accordingly?) but Tracy certainly didn't mind telling us that she had an off-the-scale IQ. (I'd guess I'd score reasonably well, but not off-the-scale well, in an IQ test, but I've never felt like finding out - it just doesn't seem relevant.)

I've just started reading a book called The Nether Regions by Sue Gough. The library were offloading a bunch of books - I think I paid 50 cents for it. I'm actually half-way through already - good going for me. The story is based in Brisbane, and as the title suggests, a lot of the content is biological. Interestingly, for parts of the story, the narrator is mute. I wish the author wouldn't use such complicated words! I keep having to look things up in the dictionary, and sometimes the word isn't there. Numinous, is that like luminous? Or numerous? It gets over a million hits in Google so why didn't I know it? Maybe if I had a higher IQ. Or if I read more.

It's been a superb day here in Wellington. A great start to summer - let's hope it continues like this.

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