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  • Writer's pictureMelinda

How Smart are You? "This Many!"

How our obsession with measurements gets us in trouble

Yeah, OK, not my best title, but give me some credit- I work a full time job, commute 2.5 hours a day, and I've got a toddler and a 7 year old teenager. And if those aren't enough reason to cut me some slack, I've got my own personal antagonist- the universe itself. That's right. The universe is against me. Yes, it's incredibly egotistical to say that but I don't care. For the last month or so, Universe Man (They Might Be Giants reference, you're welcome) has been waving both middle fingers at me. I feel like Triangle Man over here. Or is it Particle Man? Which one is the loser of the song? Eh, who remembers. Anyway, my point is, cut me some slack, I'm a hot mess over here.

"Wow, these posts are really going off the rails earlier and earlier," you say.

"Damn, sassy reader," I answer. "You were always cute-sassy. Now you're just being feisty-sassy. But who am I kidding, I totally dig it and you know it." :)

OK, on to my actual blog post. What is this even about anyway? I mean the title so clearly evokes a toddler holding up four fingers when she clearly just said three (I'm looking at you, Allison. That's my 3yo. She gets shit wrong all the time. But I'm nice about it and I only say wonderful things about my lovely children (Because it's "frowned upon to make fun of your own kids" and "inappropriate to refer to your kids as assholes at work, Melinda."). Anyway, the topic of this post is how we try (and fail) to measure intelligence. The toddler part of the title is meant to mirror how ridiculous these efforts often are. Allow me to digress. Er, explain...

We are obsessed with metrics. We like to measure and assign numbers. Why? Because our brains love to put things in little boxes. If we can label something, it makes sense to us and we can sort of mentally put it away. When we can't figure things out, it bothers us and sticks in our brain. But it goes beyond that and it can be dangerous. People don't like to be labeled. We don't like being put into boxes because it robs us of being dynamic, multifaceted individuals. Even worse, if we are labeled by certain problematic evaluations like the IQ test, our entire futures can be affected adversely. For an excellent rant about this topic, you should listen to episode 17 of one of my favorite podcasts: Science! With Friends. In this episode, Brad and Jocelyn discuss the issues we face when we try too hard to measure things like intelligence.

One test could never (and should never) define an individual, especially at a young age. Intelligence itself is a tricky and ill-defined thing. What is intelligence? Ability to learn? Ability to retain facts? I am a scientist, so clearly I value academics but I really do believe that we place far too much value on academics. What about empathy? What about one's ability to create art and literature? We place so much value on rigid schooling but we forget that the world needs car mechanics and dancers. We need art as much as science. So why the focus on academic intelligence? Especially when one set of biased questions could never really define anyone.

Now, I'm not saying tests aren't important. We must be able to gauge certain skill sets. We need medical doctors to pass exams to ensure they have the proper knowledge and training before they are allowed to affect the health and well being of others. We need to make sure life guards know how to deliver life-saving care before we give them jobs at local pools and beaches. But for gauging a life-trajectory of a child? Just no.

But we cannot escape the obsession to measure. Scientists have studied brains of geniuses like Einstein and Gauss. While there were some anatomical differences compared to "normal brains," results were variable. Their brains are no larger than yours (actually they're sliced up and shriveled by now so they're likely smaller). Publications regarding genius brain findings are problematic to trust because of publication bias (higher likelihood of articles being accepted for publication if they highlight a finding versus if the study found no difference). You can read more about this here. In any case, there is little to no correlation between sweeping values like brain size and intelligence (if one could even measure that). See, that dude at the bar was right -- size doesn't matter!

Oh and hey, remember phrenology? Of course you don't, you weren't alive silly. In the early 1800's, a bunch of pseudo science dudes (Because let's be real, chicks weren't coming up with this crap back then. They weren't allowed to participate in stuff yet.) decided that intricacies in the surface and shape of one's skull could tell us things about that person's intelligence and personality. Below you'll see a dictionary page that explains phrenology.

What do you think the upshot of this was? Yep, you guessed it. We realized it was hooey and wrote about it in the history books. Someday, maybe we'll feel that way about the IQ test. Who knows? Though I have to say, we don't learn very well (talk about low IQ's). I mean, we did terrible things to people based on their intelligence in the 1930's (see the Wikipedia page on Eugenics. It's disgusting- we sterilized people who were deemed 'morons.' Yes, we used terms like that.). This is the danger, people!

What I'd love to see in place of a measure of intelligence is a multi-level diagnostic of empathy, personality, likes, dislikes, passions, of our youth. Then we could steer them in certain directions based on various aptitudes to best serve them in their schooling. But not use it to exclude children or deprive them of anything.

One of my brothers never liked school. He was social and made it through but had a terrible time in rigid settings (poor guy, right in between me and my other brother, who is an MD,PhD). While we both went on to careers in academia, my other brother floundered a bit with what he should do. I know in some ways he probably feels inferior as the meat in between PhD sandwich breads, but that couldn't make me more sad. He has done things with his life I could never do, including teaching himself computer programming, professional photography, and next-level cake making (I'm talking cakes that look like they could be on the Food Network). He is a self-directed learner and achiever. And isn't this a type of intelligence? I sure think so. In a way, staying in academics is easier because it's prescribed. He is also the most loving and giving individual I know. And we simply can't forget about empathy. Especially not now when the world needs it the most.

My point in all of this is simply that intelligence (and I'll extend this further into our value as humans) has many levels and many forms. When we seek to classify and divide based on numbers, we forget that we are all on a continuum. There is no smart. There is no stupid. There is a dynamic level of intelligence, creativity, compassion, artistry, and love in all of us. We must seek to be empathetic and see the good in everyone instead of dividing people with dubious classifications.

(Hey, I really got my act together, am I right? I bet you didn't think I'd have anything intelligent to say after that first paragraph. See??? See what labeling does? I'll just pretend that was my point all along.)


Your average neuroscientist,


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