What defines intelligence?

What defines smart? One of my memories from intermediate school, years ago, was the time my class sat a science test.

One of the other kids had made it his life’s mission to jeer at me at every opportunity – mindless bully-stuff like ‘you’re an idiot’ by way of greeting – and happened to get one mark more than I did. This resulted in a new put-down: ‘I know more than you in science’. This guy went on, as I understand it, to become a teacher and later headmaster in Auckland, which probably says something about the kind of people attracted to work in the school system.

My point, though, is that we are conditioned to judge the intellectual worth of others not on ability to reason, or to think, or to understand the way  shapes and patterns that comprise reality fit together; but instead by whether somebody can memorise individual facts (technically, in this sense ‘point-data’) and then regurgitate them while under artificial stress.

An actual photo of one of my schoolteachers.

All that school tests ever did, as far as I can see, was measure how well some people can do that – they couldn’t show how capable the kids were. That was particularly so for some kids because – back then – cognitive issues such as dyslexia (or dyscalculia, or dysgraphia, or any of the variants) were regarded as a personal failing. The child had deliberately chosen to muddle up letters and words, or hand-write badly, because they were lazy and stupid, so of course they were going to misread the test and fail it. As far as the schools I went to were concerned, all any kid had to do was just snap out of it and stop being dyslexic, and if they didn’t – well, it was their own fault, and punishments were naturally redoubled by way of incentive.

This same mind-set – that ‘knowing a data-point’ defines ‘intelligence’ – is embedded in society. It shows up in a general sense in our fascination with TV quiz shows, all of which boil down to that ability to regurgitate factoids. And people who can, usually, are regarded as ‘smart’. Although, oddly, I have a computer that can regurgitate data faster and more accurately than any human, but which has less intellect than a flatworm.

To the extent that empirical data is a part of analysis, we do need to be able to do this stuff. But it isn’t an end of itself. And, ultimately, we don’t need to store every factoid in our heads; all we need to know is where to look the more obscure ones up. What’s more, if somebody can’t instantly think of an answer, there’s usually opportunity to look it up.

Aha – I must be smart… I own a slide rule… (can anybody spot what I set it to calculate?)

What counts more, certainly from my perspective, is the analysis – the ability to contextualise, to evaluate the nature of any data-point, and to identify the interactions of the shapes and patterns around it. This last is something that cannot be expressed or demonstrated in words or numbers, and this is something that can’t be easily tested if it has to be reduced to that level. As I understand it, the modern school system across the western world is trying to do this, but the main result as far as I can see is a hilarious series of misfires that suggest all the system has done is find a new way of punishing children for not measuring up.

To me, there is no single definition of ‘intelligence’. Certainly it cannot be defined by a single number such as IQ, and nor are such tests fair; all they do is measure how closely the person comes to what the psychologist who set the test supposes to define intelligence. Such tests are culturally biased, and the fallacy was exposed some years ago by an extensive study that, instead, identified three factors that defined intelligence; working memory, reasoning, and verbal skills. And yet, to my mind, even this is flawed. Dyslexics, for instance, have terrible working memory; and as Einstein (who was dyslexic) once put it, if you measure a fish by its ability to climb a tree – well, it will go through its life thinking it is stupid.

Any thoughts on this? What, to you, defines intelligence?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

7 thoughts on “What defines intelligence?

  1. Whew! Define intelligence? Better minds than mine, etc.

    Intelligence is the inability to resist an intellectual challenge (curiosity, if you wish, although I make the more abstract formulation deliberately) coupled with the ability to constantly test results. I would rate “intellectual honesty” as important also, i.e., the refusal or at least the reluctance to lie to oneself, or, to flip than on its head, holding the truth — facts that can be verified, for a working definition — as more important than preconceptions.

    Thus one can see that one’s “intelligence” may vary on a random basis. We’re not always curious or willing to “do the math” or even to examine our own preconceptions. Maybe the more important trend is to try and keep trying.

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    1. I agree – particularly the concept of continuing to try! I also suspect that intelligence varies for individuals, day to day: it’s a function of the mind, after all, and well have our ‘off’ days. One of the aspects that always intrigues me, with which I am still wrestling in terms of understanding it, is the way that it is possible for people to actually be very bright in terms of many of the accepted social norms, and yet behave in ways that are manifestly stupid. When I was a teenager, the family doctor had the disastrous combination of vast ego, a massive sense of self-worth, and yet was so inept at his profession he only ever diagnosed anything by accident. One could call it Dunning-Krugerism, but yet he’d actually got through med school. He’s a classic example and I’m sure there are others, it seems to be a ‘thing’ in which ‘intellectuals’ also display symptoms of deep stupidity. I keep thinking it’s something to do with personal insecurity and self-worth, rather than intellect – an example of behaviours influencing intelligence.

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      1. Once upon a time I worked as a dispatcher in a flying school. We had a fellow with something like four or five master’s degrees come in — I think he might have been an MSc as well. He got his private pilot’s license, bought one of our Cessna 150s, and on his first trip ran it out of gas and cracked up in an open field. Because, as he explained it later, “the manual says you can fly 450 miles.”

        Well, in theory, so you can. In a new airplane, with a new engine in good condition, with zero wind, etc., etc., through a number of other practical items.

        Perhaps the phrase “in theory” is the operative one. I thought a little earlier today about degrees of intelligence, and solving problems of a concrete sort, such as hunting food or finding water, is the sort of problem-solving intelligence one might expect any vertebrate to have (and possibly some invertebrates as well). But the ability to grasp abstract concepts and apply them to yet other abstract concepts (ivory-tower mathematicians come to mind) doesn’t necessarily translate to the “practical” or “street smart” sort of intelligence. An interesting literary example might be one of my favorite Nevil Shute novels, No Highway, as well as the movie derived from it. Theo Honey might be the abstract type; Marjorie Corder, the street-smart, practical type.

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  2. I think one element of intelligence is the ability to see patterns and links between things that seem unrelated. Also to visualize solutions to problems and then figure out ways to test the solutions. But what about the realm of creativity? There are people who seem hopeless at remembering facts and figuring out practical problems, but can create art. Maybe it’s that right brain, left brain thing. For sure intelligence can’t be defined by a few limited criteria, but doing that simplifies life for the testers.

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    1. I think creativity is one of the highest forms of intelligence – and it can’t be measured by IQ tests! This is true not just of artists, writers etc but also in the sciences where many of the more esoteric concepts, these days, demand absolute creativity. Often the maths are reverse-engineered afterwards (and I’m especially thinking Einstein, who came up with his theory of General Relativity as a shape-and-pattern idea, and then had to get a friend to help develop tensor calculus so it could be described in ‘scientific’ ways).

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  3. I used to both love and loathe doing IQ tests while all the while being aware that they didn’t measure my ‘real’ intelligence. For me intelligence was always about being able to understand and process what was happening both inside and outside of myself and communicate it so that others could understand. These days, not so much (to understand that you can read my current post, if you want.)

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