Surely, being a full-time academic in a psychology department I shouldn’t be reading a teeny-tiny book on intelligence like this 115-page introduction. Instead you would think that I was equipped to take on one of the many massive and excellent textbooks that are out there on the topic. But I’ve discovered that reading short books can generate a different kind of satisfaction (you can pat yourself on the back if you finish it within a week!) that thick books can hardly provide, especially if the short one is as well-written and entertaining as this little book by Stuart Ritchie.
What I was hoping to get out of it when I ordered the book for Goldsmiths Library was a quick overview of the current state of the debate on some of the thorny issues that surround the psychological construct of intelligence and questions of how to test for it. For example, how strong is the evidence for the general intelligence factor (‘very strong’), how heritable is intelligence (‘about 50% heritability’), what does the genetic basis of intelligence look like (‘it is polygenic, i.e. at least several hundreds of genes can contribute it’), what are the brain correlates of intelligence (‘strong connections between frontal and parietal parts of the brain’), is there any effective training to increase your intelligence (‘for a while it looked like working memory training with n-back tasks would make you generally smarter but the initial findings don’t seem to replicate well’) or how many different tests does a comprehensive test battery need to include (not really answered). Of course you could get these answers from individual research or review papers or indeed form the big textbooks but you would have to wade through a lot of pages to find these answers. Naturally, there is a danger that a very short book leaves out a lot of the complexity and controversy of the actual scientific discourse and over-simplifies matters, just to make a neat story fit into 115 pages.
But Stuart Ritchie does not make this mistake. I think this is one of the greatest strengths of this short book: that it provides answers to all those interesting questions around intelligence based on the scientific evidence currently available, but at the same time he also tells the reader how certain or shaky the current evidence is – whether we are talking about results that have been replicated dozens of times (e.g. brain volume correlates with intelligence positively but the correlation is very small) or whether evidence is only building up currently or could be confounded by other factors (e.g. potential positive link between breast-feeding and intelligence).
Obviously, given the size of the book, Ritchie had to compromise somehow and he does so by not even attempting to give exhaustive views on any of the questions. Instead he uses the results of only one or two studies to demonstrate research findings in an exemplary way. Therefore, many of the chapters read like cliff-hangers where you really want to know the full story now. But that is good and probably the best effect that Ritchie could have hoped to achieve.
In this respect the final section of the book ‘100 idea to help you explore intelligence more’ is truly effective. The section doesn’t just contain lists of important papers, textbooks and living as well as dead intelligence researchers, but also gives links to a list of very active research websites as well as for example fictional characters known for high v. low intelligence (e.g. ‘Marvin the robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy v. ‘Homer Simpson’). Finally, the list that took me completely, was the ’surprising things that correlate with higher intelligence’ which lists facebook-liking of the 70s gangster drama The Godfather, where I felt very much vindicated for all these long hours in front of the screen. Now, who said intelligence research didn’t matter?
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