Intelligence ≠ Mathematical Ability

Today a brief write-up on a study of gifted students annoyed me, primarily for its facile and false equations.  It starts by asking about how to “become ultra successful” (a term left undefined, but in our culture generally involving lots of money), and without warning then speaks of “some of the most influential leaders of our age.”  Some very influential people are not “ultra successful” according to most definitions of that term (Mother Teresa comes to mind, or Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose suicide sparked the Arab Spring).

The article then identifies that to attain to this level of success (or influence) requires more than drive or persistence, but even “super intelligence,” which it defines as “scoring in the top 3% on the SAT by age 13.”  (Apparently no one had super intelligence before the SAT was invented in 1926, and you can only be super intelligent if your parents make you take the SAT by age 13, which generally relies on a bunch of class-based factors.)  Even apart from the problem of defining intelligence relative to a single assessment instrument, the article then identifies that such students all have specific mathematical aptitude: “they could solve math problems they’d never been taught and they had exceptional spatial awareness – meaning they could remember spatial relationships between objects exceptionally well.”  Evidently only math nerds can be “super intelligent.”  (Full disclosure: I was a math nerd as a teenager, but I had below-average spatial awareness.)  So all the kinds of verbal and analytic reasoning measured by the SAT, to say nothing of other forms of intelligence (social, political, emotional, creativity), are at best optional extras to real “super intelligence.”

(Note that the article’s link to the study actually leads to the main landing page of the ongoing project, which specifies that some people were included for high verbal scores rather than high math scores, but part of the way the cohort was identified was by mathematics aptitude and interest.  So it is not the case that a group of kids identified as “super intelligent” all just turned out to have mathematics aptitude in common; rather a bunch of kids identified by mathematics aptitude were defined as “super intelligent.”  This is stipulation, not discovery.)

Finally, the punchline of this little article is to express hope that such “super intelligent” people “have the most potential to solve” the major problems of our day, “whether it’s health care, climate change, terrorism, energy.”  Having first talked about “ultra successful people” (money?), then “most influential” people (politics?), now it presents the “super intelligent” (read: mathematical eggheads) as “problem-solvers.”  So is the article claiming that we need super intuitive geometers to fix our health care system?  And how exactly will a mathematical autodidact solve terrorism (other than perhaps distracting terrorists with strangely named theorems and unusual definitions)?

Interlude: mathematician joke!  A farmer wanted to buy the least amount of fencing to encircle his cows, so he asked an engineer, a business major, and a mathematician for advice.  The engineer answered that the question was elementary: you simply plot the location of the cows in the field and compute the convex hull of those points.  The business major said she could do better than that, and with an initial investment she encircled the cows and prodded them until they moved closer to the center, cinching off the fence when all the cows were standing close together.  She returned the unneeded fencing and claimed this was the absolute minimum required.  The mathematician, however, claimed to do better yet: taking a six-feet length of fencing, he encircled himself and said, “I’m on the outside.”

It strikes me that mathematical ability is very good for solving, well, mathematical problems.  But to solve real-world problems such as those listed, we may wish to consult people with a broader range of intelligence than “super intelligence” restricted to self-taught mathematics and spatial reasoning.  Discovering new sources of energy rather than finite fossil fuels may profit from applied mathematical input, coupled with solid ability in physics (and probably chemistry?).  The problem with climate change is not that we don’t know what we need to do; it is that we refuse to do what we need to, which is a human rather than a mathematical problem.  And when discussing human problems, such as health care and terrorism, might one not wish to consult people brilliant in the humanities?

Such fraudulent scientism reveals a pervasive denigration of humanities reasoning, a denigration which is crippling all serious attempts to deal with the critical issues faced by humans today.  As activist chemists often say, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

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