Thoughts: Intelligence, by Stuart Ritchie

Well. I’ve been all very smug about my posh non-fiction reading, and when I read Intelligence something happened that had been going to happen right from the start, sooner or later:

I read something that disagreed with something I’d earlier read.

So, in June I read The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould. Stuart Ritchie disagrees with a lot of Gould’s conclusions, naming him specifically and accusing him of overt bias and relying on outdated science. This sort of ties in to what I was saying in my thoughts on The Angry Chef about why we need experts – I absolutely did not go through all of Gould’s sources and check them for accuracy, and I absolutely do not have the time, skills or inclination to have done so. Nor did I check the sources in this book. We rely on experts to interpret scientific discoveries for us, and if we aren’t relying on experts, then the charlatans will do it and their interpretations will be all we have. Not calling anyone a charlatan here, just making a general observation. The lesson though, is that even experts can make mistakes and have biases. We have to read widely. We have to rely on experts plural.

Let’s put my biases on the table: I read The Mismeasure of Man first, which makes a difference. Gould’s writing is more compelling, emotive and persuasive (he’s regarded as one of the greatest living science writers for a reason), whereas Intelligence is a book aimed at giving a broad summary of current research on the subject of intelligence and intelligence testing.

Gould was clear in the idea of intelligence that he was debunking: that it was reified into an entity, that it was gradable, that it was immutable. The only thing that seems to stand the test of Ritchie’s book is the mutability of intelligence, which changes as we age and is affected by our environment and health and education. I accept this, and as Ritchie’s book is the more up-to-date one, I assume (again, based on trust and no scientific knowledge whatsoever) that in matters of science, he is the one who is correct.

HOWEVER.

I think The Mismeasure of Man is still useful in many ways. Gould’s historical writing and wider social context of the effects of intelligence testing is valuable. Nowadays IQ tests are treated like amusements, and their worth (as explained by Ritchie) is underestimated or discounted as urban myth. And though there’s a huge sensitive spot in our culture about being considered intelligent/unintelligent, we increasingly don’t attach the same human worth to IQ tests as used to be the case. This evolution in attitude didn’t just happen organically, and we shouldn’t forget where we’ve come from.

My one* real disagreement with Ritchie is with his repeated assertion that facts are neutral and it’s all up to us what we do with them. Facts are neutral, but literally everything surrounding those facts – from whether they’re reported, to which ones are reported, to how they’re reported, to which ones are believed, to what we do with them – is emphatically not neutral, and pretending this isn’t the case and facts are on this pedestal of purity doesn’t help us.

That said, I do understand why he doesn’t go into the social aspect and the controversies – this isn’t the book for that. This is a primer on where we are now with intelligence research, and in this context, the best way to stop such controversies from propagating themselves is to just cut them out completely.

So this was a bit of a difficult read for me because of my prior reading, but I learned a lot, about both what we do and don’t yet know about intelligence. If you’re interested in IQ testing and intelligence, then I recommend picking this up first. It’s up to date and concise and at the end it gives a lot of interesting names and books to explore the subject more thoroughly.

I was a bit gutted to learn that I’m past the age of peak intelligence and it’s basically all downhill for me from here, but I was consoled by the satisfied thrill I always get when I learn that received wisdom isn’t true. And of course I was glad to have married Spuggy, because one of the biggest indicators for intelligence is having intelligent parents.


*Actually no, I’ve thought of another one. His opinion on grammar schools seems to be “no one can deny that they gave a lot of kids opportunities they wouldn’t ordinarily have had”, and to not acknowledge the damage that this did to communities (he does acknowledge the misuse of the system in consigning huge numbers of kids to the scrap heap) is hugely disingenuous to me.

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