What is intelligence?

The following was inspired by a long discussion on the WWWAC mailing list about why Esther Dyson couldn't think of any smart women on the Charlie Rose show. Like many such threads it went off course fairly quickly, and the following was my contribution:

What does a high IQ mean? I'm damned if I know. Psychologists define an IQ test as a "test that measures intelligence." They define intelligence as "what an IQ test measures." See a problem?

I'm relatively skilled verbally and mathematically so I'd probably do pretty well on an IQ test. (I don't know for sure. I haven't taken an IQ test since my grammar school administered one without my knowledge or consent many years ago, and I don't know what the results were on that test.) On the other hand my wife is also a reasonably skilled writer, but she hasn't demonstrated much aptitude for math, programming, or other highly logical activities. Thus, she'd probably do worse than me on an IQ test. On the other hand she's incredibly accomplished musically, and composes beautiful music in a way that seems like a total mystery to me. She just had a major concert at Merkin Hall. I've got another Java book coming out. Who's smarter? Me or her?

The answer is that the question doesn't make sense. While in extreme cases you may be able to say that one person is better at particular types of tasks than another, the idea that you can boil our brains entire functioning down to a single number on a Bell curve and call it IQ is RIDICULOUS. Similarly any request for a list of the "smartest people" you know is silly. You can probably make a list of people talented in particular areas, but that's about the best you can do. Even ranking them is difficult and often impossible. Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein were both very smart physicists. Which one was smarter? I don't know. How could you even tell?

I've known a few high-IQ types whose ambition and personality limited them to working in grocery stores and living in their parents' basements. They may have had the mental ability to be Nobel prize winning scientists, but not the ambition. How can we account for that in a single number? And I've really just scratched the surface here. How do you measure emotional stability? charisma? manual dexterity? mechanical aptitude? All of these are very important parts of how we think and interact that an IQ test misses.

It is silly and a little embarrassing that Esther Dyson couldn't think of any smart women. There are certainly plenty out there. But the idea that anyone could come up with a valid list of "three smartest people they know" is ridiculous, gender aside. The question simply doesn't make sense.

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Copyright 1997 Elliotte Rusty Harold
Last Modified November 9, 1997