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.
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.
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