Monday, August 31, 2015

Mensa for Dummies

John Scalzi posted a grab of one of his tweets this morning:

It was prompted by the ongoing Sad Puppies vs. Social Justice Warriors "kerfuffles surrounding science fiction and its awards, there have been a couple of people (and their spouses, declaiming about their beloved) who have been slapping down Mensa cards as proof that they (or their spouse) are smart."  Scalzi explained, in his trademark style, why doing this tends to prove the opposite.  For example:
Your Mensa card does not mean you know how to argue. Your Mensa card does not mean you do not make errors or lapses in judgment. Your Mensa card is not a “get out of jail free” card when someone pokes holes in your thesis. Your Mensa card does not mean that you can’t be racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted. You may not say “I have a Mensa card, therefore my logic is irrefutable.”
Good enough.  The comments under his post are another matter, however.  They fell into two main groups. In one group, the commenter would mention that he or she had attended Mensa meetings, even joined for a while, and found the people in the organization to be mostly pretty nice people.  The other group declared that they'd never joined or gone to a meeting, but all the Mensa members they'd met were jerks.  I found this latter group fascinating, because despite their evident conviction of their own superior intelligence, they were making a fundamental logical mistake, one that Scalzi himself didn't: they were generalizing an entire group based on their experience of a few, probably unrepresentative, members.  Analogous stereotypes are "All the Christian fundamentalists I know are hypocrites," "Did you ever see a fag who wasn't effeminate?" (actual example), "All heroin addicts started out on pot, so smoking pot will turn you into a heroin addict."

(Just for disclosure's sake, I have never joined Mensa or gone to a meeting.  The Mensa members I know in person are quite nice and bright people, and the Mensa jerks I've encountered were all online, trying to establish their intellectual credentials by bragging about their IQ scores or their Mensa membership.)

Some of the discussion focused on IQ tests and SATs.  Several commenters pointed out the uselessness of IQ tests as a measure of intelligence.  One riposted:
IQ tests (what Mensa uses) are tests of aptitude. They are basically measuring how easily and quickly you will learn and absorb concepts of all types, and solve new problems. How accurate they are is almost beside the point because really they are irrelevant in most situations including arguments about topics.

How easily you could learn is not a measure of how much you know.
If two people sit down to learn a skill and one can attain expertise in 1 hour and the other needs 1.5 hours that is interesting. However if the first person never spends the hour learning the skill then the second person is absolutely the one you want around when you need that skill set.
IQ tests do not measure aptitude.  As far as I know, no one knows how to do that.  IQ tests mostly measure what you already know, or know how to do.  I last took an IQ test in high school, and I don't recall any part of it devoted to how quickly I could learn a skill; nor, from what I've read about the IQ controversies, has such an exercise become part of the test since then.

Similarly, the SAT, which was based on the Stanford-Binet IQ tests, was originally "called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, then the SAT Reasoning Test, and now simply the SAT."  The College Board. who owns the franchise, explains that it "tests the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math. Your strength in these subjects is important for success in college and throughout your life," which sounds like what used to be called an achievement test.  It is not an aptitude test, and it's not even a very good predictor of college success, though that's its usual rationale.  This commenter's confident assertions are interesting; they seem to have no basis in fact, and I wonder where he or she got them.

Another commenter, a former Mensa member, wrote:
I studied rhetoric in school and my mom was a physicist; what I learned from this background is that the way to persuade people is to provide relevant and verifiable evidence.
I think this person may be confusing "is" and "ought."  I also value relevant and verifiable evidence, but I've learned to my disappointment that many, even most people, don't.  The way to persuade people in the real world appears to be to assert, as loudly as possible, that your opponent is fat or Republican or a libtard or a funditard or an asshole.  This approach is more "natural," and much easier.  It's also more effective, from what I see.

For example, this morning a liberal / progressive friend of a friend shared this meme on Facebook:

According to Snopes, Palin didn't say this and wasn't even on Hannity on that date.  I pointed this out in a comment on the Facebook post, exulting sarcastically that liberals aren't gullible or dishonest like Republitards.  Of course the person who'd posted was displeased -- she reacted exactly like the right-wingers I know react when I point out that they've posted something bogus, asking why I was on her timeline and getting indignant about my meddling.  Mockery is a very private thing, especially when you're posting it in public on Facebook.  One hears that social media are an echo chamber, that people want to engage only with people who share their politics; to a great extent that's true, as this person showed.  And I suppose we need places where we can find others who share our opinions and prejudices, but we also need to engage with people who don't, or the social and political changes this person hopes for will never happen.

Back at Scalzi's blog, the same commenter continued:
Anti-intellectualism is hardly the worst form of prejudice, but I know people who have been hurt. Also it’s like fat-shaming; we’re not a protected class and some people think it’s okay to show disrespect.
This lament was oddly off-topic.  The Sad Puppies clearly see themselves as intelligent, and intelligence of certain kinds as important and a sign of one's value.  They may well be anti-intellectual, since they associate what they call Social Justice Warriors with a kind of pointy-headed intellectualism that is widely devalued and mocked by people who think themselves intelligent.  "And let’s be honest — we all know someone who’s pretty book-smart and pretty life-stupid," wrote another commenter, providing an example of this distinction.  I can't recall where, but not too long ago I read something where the writer distinguished between being intelligent and being an intellectual.  I think of an intellectual as someone who works with more or less abstract ideas; an engineer or other scientist may be highly intelligent but no good at dealing with ideas, and dismissive of those who can.

As for the rest of his remarks: Being in “a protected class” doesn’t mean that others can’t “show disrespect” to you, nor should it. “Protected class” is a problematic legal term which means that the law will protect you from certain specified and more-or-less carefully defined forms of discrimination. But showing disrespect is fine, and hardly anyone really believes that it isn’t — except disrespect to themselves. For example, almost everybody wants respect for their religious affiliation, and discrimination based on religion is forbidden by Civil Rights law in certain spheres. But just about everybody has some religious class — liberals, fundamentalists, “Cafeteria Christians,” etc. — they love to mock and disrespect, and they’d be outraged if anyone told them not to. And the other part of the First Amendment guarantees our right to do so, as it should.

So sure, it’s perfectly okay to show disrespect to intellectuals, or to the intelligent.  It's not necessary to define bookish kids as a "protected class" to protect them from the bullying they too often face at school.  But kids who aren't "smart" also face bullying and contempt at school, including from their teachers, and they also need help from those around them.  If anything, they are probably more vulnerable than the smart kids: I know people who've been hurt.

I've mentioned before the graduate student I once knew who told me, sweetly and almost shyly, “I don’t say this to many people, but I think of you as my intellectual equal.” I thanked him, embarrassed, because I realized that though I hadn’t thought about it before, and don’t go around making such comparisons in the first place, I didn’t consider him my intellectual equal.  But, as Scalzi noted this morning, what he said revealed more about him than it did about me.

Credit where credit's due: I stole this post's title from another of Scalzi's commenters.