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Intelligence and Education

I’ve noted a few times that the political center needs to come to grips with research on genes and intelligence or we risk ceding the field to people with scary impulses and frightening goals. I think something like what the center-left position should be is reasonably well articulated by Richard J. Haier. Haier is a professor emeritus in the University of California at Irvine medical school, editor in chief of the journal Intelligence, and he was one of the signators of the Mainstream Science on Intelligence: An Editorial With 52 Signatories, History, and Bibliography in 1994.

Here is a recent article by Haier:

Historically, assaults on intelligence research were launched as a reaction to studies that suggested that average intelligence test scores were lower for some disadvantaged and minority groups. Combined with the possibility that intelligence might be genetically determined, this incendiary combination resulted in efforts to discredit the validity of intelligence tests and genetic studies. Concurrently, there was a single-minded focus on environmental factors as the predominant, if not only, influence on differences in mental abilities and the cause of achievement gaps.

This has led to 50 years of earnest and expensive but largely futile attempts to reduce education achievement gaps. These include focuses on early childhood education, raising students’ expectations, smaller classes, better teacher training, more testing and greater accessibility of challenging classes. Such interventions should not be expected to reduce gaps appreciably given the consistent research that shows that such variables do not influence academic achievement all that much – especially compared with the large effect of a student’s intelligence.

Education is for individuals. It does not matter if there are average intelligence differences among groups defined by poverty or race because there is more overlap than separation. As in modern medicine, any genetic influences, although real, are best thought about as probabilistic rather than deterministic. Basic neurobiology is the same for all humans, and both genetic and neuroimaging research connects neurobiology to intelligence. Understanding the complexities of how this works has potential for designing ways to improve mental ability and maximise education for all students, irrespective of background.

No one is well served by education reforms that neglect research findings on the nature of intelligence and its central role in student achievement. Neuroscience and intelligence research cannot solve all the issues of failing schools and education, but it is time to follow the data and add what we know from these perspectives to discussions about what research to fund, and what reforms to try next.

(The bolding is mine.)

While this may be anathema to much of our educational and academic establishment, it is, from what I can tell, pretty close to the position of the best -known researchers in the field like Stephen Pinker and James Flynn. Which is to say, the position is mainstream science on intelligence.

We ignore that at all of our peril.

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Today’s Taboo, And Where to From Here?

Here is the abstract from a paper that appeared two years ago in Molecular Psychiatry:

Intelligence is a core construct in differential psychology and behavioural genetics, and should be so in cognitive neuroscience. It is one of the best predictors of important life outcomes such as education, occupation, mental and physical health and illness, and mortality. Intelligence is one of the most heritable behavioural traits. Here, we highlight five genetic findings that are special to intelligence differences and that have important implications for its genetic architecture and for gene-hunting expeditions. (i) The heritability of intelligence increases from about 20% in infancy to perhaps 80% in later adulthood. (ii) Intelligence captures genetic effects on diverse cognitive and learning abilities, which correlate phenotypically about 0.30 on average but correlate genetically about 0.60 or higher. (iii) Assortative mating is greater for intelligence (spouse correlations ~0.40) than for other behavioural traits such as personality and psychopathology (~0.10) or physical traits such as height and weight (~0.20). Assortative mating pumps additive genetic variance into the population every generation, contributing to the high narrow heritability (additive genetic variance) of intelligence. (iv) Unlike psychiatric disorders, intelligence is normally distributed with a positive end of exceptional performance that is a model for ‘positive genetics’. (v) Intelligence is associated with education and social class and broadens the causal perspectives on how these three inter-correlated variables contribute to social mobility, and health, illness and mortality differences. These five findings arose primarily from twin studies. They are being confirmed by the first new quantitative genetic technique in a century—Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis (GCTA)—which estimates genetic influence using genome-wide genotypes in large samples of unrelated individuals. Comparing GCTA results to the results of twin studies reveals important insights into the genetic architecture of intelligence that are relevant to attempts to narrow the ‘missing heritability’ gap.

I’ve been doing some reading in the field, and there’s nothing particularly special about this paper. I picked it because the abstract provided a fair summary of where the literature has been for at least a generation now. In fact, I specifically avoided a couple of papers that would have seemed hair-raisingly controversial to people who haven’t looked at the literature.

My point is simple. Cognitive science and genetics are at a place that is very, very different than most people think. And the science is getting better, faster and more precise. I believe it is, in fact, fair to say that we are in the early stages of a revolution in the biological sciences, particularly where it concerns the study of intelligence and other mental traits.

So what is going on? Why does the science seem so alien in 2017 America? To quote no less an authority than Steven Pinker:

Irony: Replicability crisis in psych DOESN’T apply to IQ: huge n’s, replicable results. But people hate the message.

As a complete outside, I wouldn’t dare argue the science with Pinker. Still, his statement is partly wrong. Sure, most people hate the message.  But some people love it.  The people who love the message love it because they can use it to justify the hatred in their heart. The rest of us hate it because we understand what it implies. If intelligence and other personality traits are largely heritable, people aren’t a blank slate. It casts doubt on many of our cherished myths. More disturbingly, it almost implies people have some sort of destiny, one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gattaca world, or worse, a Brave New one.

Of course, if something along those lines were the case, it would be useful for the majority of the body politic – say, the center left, the center, and the center right – to develop ideas and policies for how to deal with it in a way that fits our values. Instead, a monopoly on that sort of discussion has been granted to the haters… and you can well imagine the policies they have in mind. For everyone else, such topics are now mostly taboo. They can be discussed in a lab setting, in technical terms, but woe betide anyone, including a biologist who translates them into the vernacular.

But what if it turns out that the actors, attorneys, community activists, educators, HR professionals, journalists and liberal arts professors are wrong? What if the world’s most pre-eminent cognitive researchers, geneticists and neurobiologists know the science better than they do?  What if traits like intelligence and behavior are transmitted very much as described in the scientific literature?  I know. It sounds nuts. But what if? What would we do then? In such a world, what policies should we set? And how do we ensure that those are the policies that actually do get enacted?

Update. Corrected link to abstract.

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