Intelligence: All That Matters

In Intelligence: All That Matters, Stuart Richie presents a a succinct overview of intelligence research and where we are today.

I first met Stuart when we travelled up to Edinburgh for a national conference on how we could organise student humanist societies better. That is showing my age because he is now a fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Over the years he has spent much time trashing anti-intelligence articles and I have often thought “he should probably stop moaning and write a book about it”. Now he has, and although I’m bitter about not receiving a signed copy, it is a good read.

It comes across with a relaxed, somewhat “man down the pub” style. Though I should add that as most of my friends now have PhDs, the man down the pub is a very-well educated individual who just happens to be in a casual environment. Not someone who spouts nonsense without citing the relevant reference papers.

Richie challenges a lot of the new ideas that have come out in recent decades. Are there different kinds of intelligence for example? No, there is just one. There is no such thing as musical intelligence or football intelligence, there is just regular intelligence. There is some conciliation to emotional intelligence, but it should be noted that it does not correlate with success factors the way proper IQ does.

Intelligence also correlates with itself. If you do well in one area of an IQ test, you are likely to do well in the all. You can game it by practicing, to an extent, but who really has time to do that when you are mostly cheating yourself? Also, it will only affect certain areas of the test, which will be brought down by the rest.

IQ correlates with everything. Good health, good mental health, high earnings, education, liberalism and atheism all correlate. This surprised me as I had believed that high IQ correlated with poor mental health. Indeed, I have always comforted myself that I worry too much because I am clever, not because I am an idiot. Thanks for that. IQ correlates with leadership and creatively as well, though far more loosely than other traits.

There only seems to be one drawback of high IQ – it also correlates with short-sightedness. It is not understood why, though it may be because high IQ children read more. Just to be safe I am going to ban my kids from reading. If I have read Steven Pinker correctly, which I almost certainly have not, they will be fine anyway.

As we age our intelligence drops off a little. Bad news for me already being past my mid-twenties. This is seen in certain areas though. Crystallised intelligence (Wikipedia defines this as “the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience”) continues to rise while fluid intelligence (problem-solving) gradually drops off. Leading an active lifestyle can help maintain this.

50% of IQ can be accounted for genetically. It is polygenic, that is to say, no one gene accounts for it – there is no smart gene. The rest is environmental, though this is not really understood as, to reference Pinker again, parenting does not account for it. We are also seeing intelligence increasing at approximately three points per decade. This is known as the Flynn effect, but it is not obvious because IQ tests are regularly normalised.

This fits in neatly with what Michael Shermer writes in The Moral Arc about the expanding moral sphere being due to our increased intelligence, education and understanding of the world. Indeed Shermer also discusses the Flynn effect.

Unfortunately, there is no much you can do to increase your IQ. Any product telling you that it can is unlikely to be making an evidence-based claim. The one proven factor that does work, however, is education. A study in Norway when they extended mandatory schooling by two years, IQ went up. As they introduced it region by region, it was as close to a control as you can get, so suggests there is a causative link there.

The final section of the book looks at some of the implications and political debates surrounding intelligence research. Overall there are no differences in IQ between genders. Neither is smarter than the other. However, a 2014 paper by Miller and Halpern, looking at data from the Scottish government, suggests that males have a wider standard deviation (bell curve). This would explain why there are more men in higher academia and winning Nobel prizes, and also why there are more men of low intelligence (and as a consequence living on the streets, on Death Row, etc). Males are more likely to be at one extreme or the other.

In summary, IQ is important because there is only one kind of intelligence and IQ tests measure it pretty accurately. This correlates with health, wealth and happiness so is a worth topic for research.


As a bonus, Stuart appeared on my podcast in November 2008. It was a live conference podcast involving a dozen guests and intelligence is not discussed (or apparent) at any point during the show. However, for those who were at the conference, it is a reminiscent listen.



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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 24th, 2015 at 11:07 am and is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.