Monday, 28 January 2013

Miss Natascha Kampusch – Alice in Wonderland makes The Great Escape

The background to this ordeal is well-known. A 10 year old Austrian girl was abducted by a lone captor and kept prisoner for eight and a half years, or precisely the 3,096 days which she took as the title of her autobiography. Her composure when she was first interviewed on television after her release, and the quality of her speech and vocabulary astounded everyone.  There was immense interest as to how she was able to survive, and understandably the focus was on the horrific trauma and the resilience she showed under almost unbelievable stress. Although I have met Natascha and sat in on a long television interview she gave in London in 2010 I do not have any privileged knowledge about her, have not had a private conversation with her, have not been part of her of her clinical management, and am basing my comments entirely upon facts which are in the public record, particularly her many interviews and her autobiography.

3,096 Days. Penguin 9 September  2010

The reason that Natascha Kampusch survived, and did not become a corpse in a cellar, is that she out-psyched her captor, despite him having absolute physical control over her, and despite her being a young and helpless child.

She was far brighter than him, and had a far more balanced personality. Intelligence is always protective in psychological disorders, because the intelligent can try out different ways of looking at the situation, can formulate and put into effect different strategies, refine those strategies as circumstances demand, take a long term view and restrain immediate impulses. She realised that one day she would replenishment her personal capital, and that helped her deal with long periods of being emotionally overdrawn. Miss Kampusch was working on her abductor from the start, and managed to survive the most dangerous first 24 hours of her kidnapping, when being murdered and dumped in a lonely wood was the most likely outcome.

And what a task! She was at the mercy of a deluded, socially isolated, paranoid, obsessional-compulsive, who felt so totally inadequate he wanted a child-slave to dominate, in compensation for his lack of status in society, and his inability to get women of his age. Self conscious about his appearance, particularly his nose, he presented himself in public as conventional, conformist, and even dependable in the eyes of his one friend and occasional work mate. However, an un-named policeman in his neighbourhood whose report was ignored saw him, perfectly accurately “as a ‘loner’ who has extreme difficulties relating to his environment and problems dealing with other people… with a penchant for children with regard to his sexuality”. In private he was a tormented and tormenting bully, with an inner life of self justifying delusions. His obsession with cleaning rituals took up much of his time, and he had a rigid world view and a heartless lack of empathy which would have driven even the most dedicated mental-health professional to distraction. I doubt that many would have maintained professional calm if forced to spend a day or two in the same room with him on their own. He was a grisly festival of psychological disorders, but he held the power of life or death over her. His madness was her most essential reality.

In the early years of her captivity she had allowed him to accept her as a child. Such was his retarded emotional state that they were almost equals in developmental terms, though he was in full physical control of whether she lived or died. It was a Mad Hatter’s tea party, with two children eating meals together. Once she was old enough to menstruate he became violent because he was confronted by a real woman. Menstruation made his obsessional-compulsive disorder even worse. More cleaning rituals and general abuse were heaped on Miss Kampusch as a consequence of her achieving this normal milestone. As the years of abuse and semi-starvation went by eventually she let him hope that the story would have a perfect ending, and sometimes believed it herself. The child-slave would metamorphose into the submissive young girlfriend, obedient to his every wish. He would be able to show her off in public, and very cautiously started doing so.

In all this, the cost to her was great, as with all escapes from hell. She had to become a slave so that he could be satisfied as Master, and would then gradually accept what she was teaching him: that she had needs and wishes and ideas which he might allow her to enjoy, within his own very strict limits. The captor was by far the most essential element of her young life, and he accounted for well over half of her conscious memories, and all of the most terrifying ones. He subjected her to considerable physical abuse, and had ample time to demolish her boundaries, her memories and her world view (saying her parents would not pay a ransom for her). His relentless torture resulted in her accepting a new name, symbolic of having abandoned her old self. This is fairly common among the few known cases of early childhood abduction. The child apparently accepts being a new person with a new life, when the alternative is death. However, she got him to comply with her intellectual requirements. The captor brought her most of the books she needed. In this very odd way she had her own home school. She watched highly educational programs. She was a scholar monk: in a cell, mortified in her flesh, liberated in her mind.

Questioners who lack understanding often ask abused victims why they do not escape. It seems so obvious one should do so, yet thousands of women who undergo physical abuse from men often do not, or flee only to return, hoping for the best. They have been ground down into such a state of dependency and self hatred that they cling to the abuser, since he is sometimes kind enough to forgive them for their many faults. In these dreadful relationships it is the intensity of the emotion which seems to bind victims to their tormentors, rather than whether the emotions are positive or negative.

Questioners want the details of her confinement, the more intimate the better, but are not so interested in nuances of emotional experience, particularly when they go against their expectations. They feel it legitimate to ask this young woman exactly what was done to her as a defenceless child, questions they themselves would avoid about an unhappy love affair. The public want those juicy bits for their own needs, and the long pondered dilemma of how to survive against impossible odds is of secondary interest. Also, they ignore the impact of moments of reprieve, which Primo Levi so graphically described, those small islands of relief in a raging sea of horror, which make any sort of life have its half-happy moments.

Identifying with a captor is often a sensible survival strategy. Even to do that, and survive, it is necessary enter the captor’s world. In his self-concept, the captor imagined he had done Miss Kampusch a favour by saving her from sex, drugs and rock and roll. He had also, in his mind, saved her from the gang, entirely mythical, who had contracted him to kidnap her, and whom he used as a further threat to terrify her into submission. He was profoundly paranoid, and saw himself as the victim of a society which did not appreciate him, even though it very clearly had no reason to.

Questioners are very happy to accept the “Stockholm syndrome” as the explanation for Miss Kampusch’s unwillingness to join the public in absolute condemnation of the captors’ acts.  However, Miss Kapusch is making a more subtle point. Entirely unwillingly, she had more intensive exposure to a highly deranged individual than is normal even for experienced health professionals. Against her will, she carried out the ultimate observational study of a man with profound and dangerous mental health problems. She is able to say, quite accurately, that there were moments of tenderness and understanding, in which she understood the humanity within the perpetrator who treated her inhumanely. Outsiders demand that she should wish him dead. They find it inconceivable that she should wish him saved. She saw moments when he might have been capable of compassion, and treasured them because her life depended on it. Those moments were real nonetheless. She can assert that she saw them, without condoning his crimes.

Surprising as it may seem, Miss Kampusch was right to accept ownership of the house of her abuser. It was the place where she had the worst moments of her life, and very probably the worst moments of any life, and it belongs to her for as long as she wishes, in the way that Auschwitz belongs to Germany. When their clients feel ready for it, psychologists always try to return with them to the scene of the trauma, so as to confront the demons of imprinted memories, and attempt to understand even the most impossible cruelty by looking, touching, and smelling the place where it happened.  In this particular case the house was almost her entire world, and she does not want it to be a lost continent, submerged by the intrusion of others.

She was not so well advised to enter the media world as a presenter. Television appealed to her in captivity, showing her presenters who served as parent substitutes: friendly normal personalities who were reliable and trustworthy companions. Nevertheless, although she is usually very skilled and composed in front of the camera, this was a bridge too far. The audience felt aggrieved that she had illegitimately crossed a boundary, from admirable victim to glittering film star.  I think she has worked out that what she needs is an ordinary real life, with the usual ups and downs experienced in privacy, not an exciting, artificial, and thoroughly public one. With any luck this biography will be a chance to close the door.

What she is almost able to make us forget, is that Miss Kampusch was subjected to sensory deprivation, brutal torture, threatened execution, sexual harassment and psychological abuse, for a sustained period of 3096 endless days. By rights no one should be able to survive this, because in its intensity and duration it exceeds all normal limits. That she contemplated suicide, and made a few self harming attempts is unsurprising.

Even when the captor was thrashing her she was able to dissect him. In an even greater leap, she was able to understand and forgive. Towards the end there were probably times when she could have killed him. She did not do so, but when she raised the courage to escape she exposed his final lie. There were no explosives tied to all the doors of her caged life. He had been responsible for everything he did to her. There were no excuses. She was not his child, not his family, and not his girlfriend. When killing came, he killed himself.

I praise her dignity, her courage, and the triumph of her intellect.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A Handbook of Intelligence

This review appeared in Intelligence in 2012. 

The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence. Edited by Robert J. Sternberg and Scott Barry Kaufman. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. ISBN 978-0-521-73911-5. XIX, 885 pages.

A Sternberg handbook on intelligence is a welcome part of any psychologist’s library, and a new volume arouses pleasurable anticipation. Weighing in at 1.7 Kilos and almost a thousand pages, it is a small library in itself, guaranteeing that there will be much to enjoy and reflect upon.  Of the 84 authors only 12 are not from the USA and Canada. Four of that dozen are from Britain, 2 from Singapore, 1 from New Zealand, 1 from Australia (incorrectly classified as USA) 3 from Austria/Germany, and 1 from Russia, though she is also half-time in the USA. From the above it can be deduced that the cleverest people in the world come from Britain and its former colonies, a clear vindication of its lingering sense of exceptionalism.  The result is a pleasing preponderance of Anglo-Saxon empiricism, tempered by a moiety of Teutonic perfectionism. However, the majority of individual examples, legislative frameworks and historical references are US centric, 312 million citizens being given precedence over the other 7 billion. It is natural to search for truth where the light is brightest, and the grants most generous, but the results and the frames of mind may lack representativeness.

Residence in a nation state need not blind the authors to the global panoply of human accomplishment, so perhaps the deeper analysis is to turn to the back of the book and ask: “Who do these authors admire”? I list in ascending order the total number of pages on which the most popular authors are mentioned, for brevity setting 20 pages as the minimal entrance qualification: K.W.Fisher 21, R.E.Nisbett 21, C.J. De Young 21, P.Salovey 22 , O.Wilhelm 22, A.Binet 23, J.R.Flynn 23, R.D.Roberts 23, A.S.Kaufman 24, A.R.A.Conway 25, D.K.Detterman 25, K.A.Ericsson 25, J.R.Gray 25, S.B.Kaufman 26, D.Wechsler 26, J.D.Mayer 28, R.W.Engle 29, R.B.Cattell 34, P.L.Ackerman 35, S.J.Ceci 35, J.L.Horn 35, J.B.Carroll 38, C.Spearman 41, K.E.Stanovich 44, E.L.Grigorenko 46, A.R.Jensen 48, H.Gardner 58, I.J.Deary 71, R.J.Sternberg 156.

Is the list representative of the most accomplished and impactful thinkers? Readers will have their own preferences, and can compare the list with the usual citation indexes, but my own reaction is that (all artefacts aside) there are several names likely to gain general approval, some absences, and several surprises.  Daniel Kahneman, our one psychologist/economist Nobel Laureate does not make the cut, meriting 11 page mentions. There is a paper in this for someone.

Finally, one has to ask the indelicate question: “How intelligent are the authors”? None of them should flinch from this evaluation, but should metaphorically sit down next to thousands of test takers and welcome it as a contribution to knowledge. It is evident that all of them have vast vocabularies, which suggest exceptionally high intellects. However, they appear weak in visuo-spatial skills. There are a few path analyses, some exemplars of test and experimental materials, a very few drawings, some developmental scales and tiers, and one sliced and labelled brain. The scarcity of illustration would shame any Upper Paleolithic cave. There is little to help a hard-pressed lecturer throw together some teaching slides. Perhaps there were cost constraints. The authors’ numerical skills are harder to evaluate. Some have included a few tables with numbers, the others, perhaps wisely, have not.  Numbers may turn out to be wrong. The end result (with honourable exceptions) is proof of the power and the limitations of words, and testimony to psychology’s lack of precision: all those hours of psychometric testing and data analysis resulting in a tentative “perhaps”. It is instructive that the latest findings in intelligence can be communicated with few models and numbers, in a way that genetics or physics would find difficult. Lastly, believers in multiple intelligences will understand that I was unable to judge the authors in terms of their musical, naturalistic, interpersonal, bodily-kinaesthetic, or indeed gastro-intestinal accomplishments.

Despite this necessarily unrepresentative sample of high achievers, there are many good chapters in this volume, with enough clarity, enthusiasm, novelty and reflection to engender intelligent thought in the reader. A mere sampling, in quasi-random order: Zentall’s explanations of cognitive dissonance and gambling in pigeons;  Gaborra and Russon’s evolutionary history of intelligence, which is like paging through an ancient family photograph album, waiting for one’s own likeness to emerge; Nettlebeck on the  basic processes of reaction and inspection times, confirming their moderate links with intelligence(0.3 to 0.5); Conway et al. making a case (0.5) for working memory tapping processes shared with fluid intelligence; Niu and Brass on the Confucian path to knowledge “some by natural ease, some by desire of its advantages, some by strenuous effort, but the achievement being made, it comes to the same thing”; Halpern et al. “on average, women and men live systematically different lives”; Flynn’s lucid prose partly illuminating the mystery of secular intelligence gains (some well-chosen numbers here) arguing that modernity has taught us to cope with abstraction (though the gains for the ultimate abstraction of mathematics are the smallest, and baby tests show the same overall secular gains, so it cannot all be due to the availability of heuristics); Suzuki et al. provide the better chapter on race and intelligence, though hereditarians may feel insufficiently represented; Barnett et al. discuss the effects of intelligence on national economies and give Rindermann’s betas for each finding; Deary et al. sit on top of the psychometric gold mine of population-wide longitudinal samples from whence the bullion of new results regularly flow, in this instance on intelligence’s astounding effects on health and lifespan; De Young on personality, saying of the relation between intelligence and openness to experience that(quoting Saucier)  “Intelligence perturbs the orbit of any construct that comes near to it”, and to give final word to a 6 year old child writing to his mentor in Feldman and Morelock’s chapter on prodigies and savants  “I am working on a unified theory. Are you? My unified theory is broken up into many parts, each part the size of special relativity. I really know my geometry… A rhombicosidodecahedron is the largest known polyhedron. It is huge!”  Humans have spectacular intelligence.

There is strength in depth, and much to enjoy, but also some lapses.  Some authors “correct” group ability differences for socio-economic-status without considering that these economic differences may be due in large part to prior intelligence. Cross-lagged designs in longitudinal studies may offer methodologically superior results. I would have liked a strong comparative study of the predictive utility of psychometrics-as-usual versus multiple-intelligences with respect to the full range of intelligence on a range of real world variables.  Some theoretical chapters placed stakes in the ground, but the foundations had yet to solidify. “Giftedness” seems heterogeneous and poorly defined. Some authors could have benefitted from reading Earl Hunt’s epilogue, particularly on stereotype threat and the non-existence of race, and then re-considering their arguments. 

So, do these intelligent and conscientious authors deserve to pass? Apart from some minor typographical errors, this examiner would recommend that, with some rebalancing of most-quoted authors and the revision of a few chapters, and a thorough factor-analytic pruning of the multiple intelligences section, the candidates should be encouraged to proceed to the next volume.

James Thompson

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Wealth of Nations

Where did wealth begin? In narrow terms, wealth began when human beings made things. These things were traded, prices established, and wealth was created and accumulated. Our ancient ancestors were buried with emblems of their wealth and status. Millenia ago there were wealth disparities, hierarchies and a vivid appreciation that wealth conferred advantages. The clever and industrious prospered and also, for a time, the brutal and rapacious, but only because they stole from hard-working folk.

In broader terms, using the concept more generously, it has been argued that ancient humans were wealthy without realising it, because they had the world at their feet. They had more territory per head than we do. They were wealthy before they knew that things had prices. There was fruit on the trees, and fish in the sea. Some continents were more hospitable than others and so some peoples prospered more, just because of geographical luck. Neither personal industry nor cleverness was involved.

Can one resolve this debate? Traditionally wealth has been estimated by artefacts, housing and life spans. The ancient story is a pretty simple one – a few people at the top of the social hierarchy had considerable wealth compared to the mass of humanity, yet would be considered poor by contemporary standards. The ancient majority lived lives which lacked comforts, were restrained in terms of opportunities, and which were short, mostly because of high infant mortality rates, starvation and diseases.

By 1500 Europe was ahead, being about 5 times wealthier than the rest of the world. Then in September 1825, with the opening of the Stockton and Darlington railway, the world took off. The Industrial Revolution happened in England, and not by chance, and then spread round much of the world. Since the first Census in 1841 English life spans have increased by 2 years every decade. This staggering increase continues to this day, against all predictions that it must peter out. In terms of artefacts, housing, life style and life spans about 3 billion humans are very wealthy, and life is improving fast for the rest.

Was it mostly human wit or mostly geographical luck? History does not admit of random controlled trials, but it is littered with natural experiments. For example, we can compare East and West Germany in the period 1945 to 1990. When the Berlin Wall came down it was revealed that East Germany had barely produced 30% of what was achieved on the Western side. Incidentally, it still lags behind. North Korea initially did better than South Korea, but after a decade the South pulled away, and now the North regularly faces starvation. Hong Kong and Taiwan did far better than mainland China, Singapore far better than Malaysia. Mainland China embraced a market economy, under central political direction, and is now prospering. In terms of wealth, even restricting one’s self to comparisons between the same genetic and cultural groups separated by political boundaries, command economies have not made people rich. That has been achieved by market economies, in their various forms. Market economies are very rarely purely capitalistic, but are bounded by social norms and legal restrictions.

These comparisons, however instructive, in that they indicate that the form of social organisation determines outcomes, do not help us with the long march of history. Our first steps as a species may well have depended on geographic luck. This might have accounted for the move from hunter gathering to agriculture. Conversely, it might have been the increasing scarcity of big game that drove our ancestors to setting seeds in the soil. Has the luck of place been a good explanation for the advances of the last two millennia? The match between geography and wealth  is not all that good. There was very little about the British Isles as a geographical location to suggest that it would lead the world into the industrial age.

In “The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” Adam Smith showed the means by which wealth was created: the division of labour (each person concentrating on what they do best), the propensity to barter (each exchanging their surplus with another person’s surplus) the extent of the market constrains what can be exchanged (but ease of transport extends the market) the uses of rare metals as money (with the quality assurance of a national mint stamp) the nature of prices (as money or labour inputs) the prices of commodities and labour, and the profits of stock and the returns on investments, are the main topics of this economic history of human development. To my eyes this is a supremely psychological account, in the sense that it is an account of what people have worked out works to their advantage. The much quoted “invisible hand” is the aggregated consequence of individual wishes: personal motivations result in a thriving society. Smith’s account is part psychology, part history, part the new discipline of classical economics, which he founded. It is a story of people who had the wit to work out how to better their condition, even if most of them achieved this noble end with intending it. Unusually, I would propose it as necessary reading for all psychologists, at least in summary form, in that it shows the basic components of our modern economies, and the way in which individuals blend their wishes to the needs of others.

Smith’s account has not been bettered, but it has been extended by many economists. One particular economic historian with a great respect for geography, David Landes dared to update the text (1998) in a scholarly masterpiece which he entitled “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”. His conclusion, stated with some reluctance, was that the difference between rich and poor countries was based on culture. He went no further than that, and certainly made no mention of differences in intelligence or personality.  However, his key observations were that successful societies innovated, and taught their children how to manage those innovations. This is intellectual problem solving in all but name.

The causes of the industrial revolution are much debated, but one recent hypothesis presents an entirely intellectual reason, which is that England followed an inadvertent eugenic program for many centuries. In “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World” Gregory Clark (2008) argues that for centuries the wealthy left 4 surviving offspring for every 2 left by the poor. These industrious, restrained and clever children had to move down to modest occupations, and make the most of them by continuous improvement, thus eventually providing a broad base of intellects from which the industrial revolution was born. This accumulated wit produced a wealthy and compassionate society, culminating in 1870 with the Education Act and the very beginnings of the welfare state.

It is very hard to adjudicate between the conflicting hypotheses of “adventitious geography” and “native wit and character”.  The history of wealth creation does not have to be one or the other. The happy circumstance of a mild climate and rich soils may have given our ancestors their first start, long before the invention of agriculture. The loss of big game may have forced them to take up the domestication of plants and animals, with all the problems and risks involved. After that warm and happy stage it may have been geographic harshness, such as that experienced in wintry climates, which brought about the survival of the brightest. The pent up ability of those survivors, having to pit their wits against harsh geographies, may well have triggered the big explosion of innovation which has propelled us into modernity.

Without proofs, we cannot announce a winning hypothesis. As regards the causes of wealth in the last two thousand years, my money is on people and their characteristics being more important that benign geographies.

These are my musings, whilst lying idly on the beach.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Cognitive Capitalism

Economists often regard real human beings as a distraction in their theoretical models and prefer to deal with abstract, rational, equal-ability worker units instead. This certainly makes it easier to say that wealth grows out of the soil, either from the surface in terms of harvests, or a bit deeper down in the case of iron ore, coal and other natural resources. In this rather odd world picture, human beings are pretty much the same, but some have the good fortune to have fallen on rich soil, and others on stony ground.

Geography probably influences how economies get started, but whether they flourish depends on people, and how they solve problems of production and social organisation. The observation that people are different makes some theorists awkward. They are willing to concede that soils differ, but not that seeds differ. In their own lives they can plainly see that individuals differ in mental ability and application, but think it rude to mention it. In factual terms, even if we restrict ourselves to that smallest of economic groups, the family, by age 35 the brighter of the siblings earns more than the less bright sibling, and as a general rule by that age each extra IQ point results in another $810 in salary per year. Siblings in families are in the same social class, have very similar upbringings and similar advantages, so the dollar consequences of IQ differences cannot be attributed to the usual suspects: the social soil in which they were raised. People and their abilities and characters make a difference.

All problem-solving requires natural wit, and the degree to which people can exercise that wit has a causal effect on national wealth. Everyday life presents a succession of problems which require solution, and working life presents even harder problems, because many of the dilemmas are new, and require invention. Over a working life people have to learn new skills, and then abandon those skills in favour of even newer skills, without any guarantee of success. Equally, businesses have to form new combinations and new client relationships. Nations have to decide on employment law, the protection of patents, the general quality of national life and social progress, and everything which relates to the management of innovation and discovery. Nations can blossom or stagnate according to the decisions their elites make.

As a consequence, the actual intellectual level of the brightest 5 per cent of society makes an extra contribution. For example, while each IQ point increase in national ability increases GDP by $229, every extra IQ increase in the brightest 5% of the nation increases GDP by $468. If the elite make sensible and far-sighted decisions then everyone prospers, if they are unable to formulate and implement intelligent decisions then economies wither.

The cleverest cognitive elites make their peoples richer and their societies more agreeable to live in, which of itself can boost intelligence. Cognitive capitalism encapsulates this insight: smart people matter, and good ideas are the ultimate capital.

Cognitive Capitalism: The Effect of Cognitive Ability on Wealth, as Mediated Through Scientific Achievement and Economic Freedom. Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson (2011) Psychological Science 22(6) 754 –763, 2011. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

What makes a good IQ story?

A good story is one that people read. It may not be true, but it has to meet a need. What do people need when it comes to IQ? That it can be boosted? Certainly, it would be good to have a higher IQ, so long as it does not take too much effort. That IQ is not what it is cracked up to be? Most certainly, in that no self-respecting person wants to be tied down to one number, however predictive that may be. That some of the awkward findings about group differences (particularly racial differences) can be shown to be wrong? Great, now you’re talking. What’s the story?

As carried by The Independent, a London newspaper, the story (21 Dec 2012) was that IQ tests are 'fundamentally flawed' and using them alone to measure intelligence is a 'fallacy', study finds”. Alongside this confident headline was a dramatic X-ray of a human skull, showing the venous distribution into the brain. Case proved.

The idea that intelligence can be measured by IQ tests alone is a fallacy according to the largest single study into human cognition which found that it comprises of at least three distinct mental traits.
IQ tests have been used for decades to assess intelligence but they are fundamentally flawed because they do not take into account the complex nature of the human intellect and its different components, the study found.
The results question the validity of controversial studies of intelligence based on IQ tests which have drawn links between intellectual ability race, gender and social class and led to highly contentious claims that some groups of people are inherently less intelligent that other groups.
Instead of a general measure of intelligence epitomised by the intelligence quotient (IQ), intellectual ability consists of short-term memory, reasoning and verbal agility. Although these interact with one another they are handled by three distinct nerve “circuits” in the brain, the scientists found.
“The results disprove once and for all the idea that a single measure of intelligence, such as IQ, is enough to capture all of the differences in cognitive ability that we see between people,” said Roger Highfield, director of external affairs at the Science Museum in London.
“Instead, several different circuits contribute to intelligence, each with its own unique capacity. A person may well be good in one of these areas, but they are just as likely to be bad in the other two,” said Dr Highfield, a co-author of the study published in the journal Neuron.
The research involved an on-line survey of more than 100,000 people from around the world who were asked to complete 12 mental tests for measuring different aspects of cognitive ability, such as memory, reasoning, attention and planning.
The researchers took a representative sample of 46,000 people and analysed how they performed. They found there were three distinct components to cognitive ability: short-term memory, reasoning and a verbal component.
Professor Adrian Owen of the University of Western Ontario in Canada said that the uptake for the tests was astonishing. The scientists expected a few hundred volunteers to spend the half hour it took to complete the on-line tests, but in the end they got thousands from every corner of the world, Professor Owen said.
The scientists found that no single component, or IQ, could explain all the variations revealed by the tests. The researcher then analysed the brain circuitry of 16 participants with a hospital MRI scanner and found that the three separate components corresponded to three distinct patterns of neural activity in the brain.
“It has always seemed to be odd that we like to call the human brain the most complex known object in the Universe, yet many of us are still prepared to accept that we can measure brain function by doing a few so-called IQ tests,” Dr Highfield said.
“For a century or more many people have thought that we can distinguish between people, or indeed populations, based on the idea of general intelligence which is often talked about in terms of a single number: IQ. We have shown here that’s just wrong,” he said.
Studies over the past 50 years based on IQ tests have suggested that there could be inherent differences in intelligence between racial groups, social classes and between men and women, but these conclusions are undermined by the latest findings, Dr Highfield said.
“We already know that, from a scientific point of view, the notion of race is meaningless. Genetic differences do not map on to traditional measurements of skin colour, hair type, body proportions and skull measurements. Now we have shown that IQ is meaningless too,” Dr Highfield said.

Where to start? It would seem that there are persons walking about this earth, entirely unsupervised and with access to resources, but with any luck not to heavy machinery, who think that you can make statements about human cognition on the basis of 16 subjects. The level of insolent innumeracy makes one’s jaw drop. 16 persons do not humanity make. The sole description of these paragons is that they were healthy and young. No mention of their occupations or ability levels, or anything else about them.

Talking as I do to intelligence researchers involved in brain scanning and intelligence, they willingly concede that brain scans are not immune from the requirements of sampling theory. Simple power calculations suggest that sample sizes of 200 or so would be the minimum required for reliable findings. Lars Penke (University of Edinburgh) recently presented an interesting and sound paper on brain-wide white matter tract integrity and general intelligence with 420 older adults, supporting the Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory model. Richard Haier (University of California at Irvine) and his colleagues aim to go beyond that, and intend to treat intelligence brain scan studies with the same care as the standardisation of conventional psychometric tests.

Against those demanding standards few of the popularly proposed alternative tests would survive. You need sample sizes of about 1,400, you need to show that you have a good representation of the population in question (intelligence range, urban/rural balance, very good age representation) and in addition you need to double sample minorities i.e. if pure sampling theory indicates you should test 200 African Americans you have to test 400, simply to have better confidence limits. After all that, you are still open to legal challenge if any of the items even remotely appear to be biased against any group (determined by any one group doing particularly badly on that item). Only then can your sparkling new test be released to the public, and the process takes several years, and considerable effort and money.

Second, large numbers of self-selected subjects do not get round selection biases: they confirm them. I do not visit sites discussing the likelihood of Elvis Presley being alive. Sites offering an intelligence test tend to attract brighter subjects. Access to websites of any sort requires some IQ, as do voting machines. By means of voluntary computer testing one could easily exclude the bottom 25% of the population. g is extracted from the whole range of intelligence, and is weaker at the higher levels. Chris Brand has covered this point many times. The paper does not discuss this artefact.

Third, assume that a good study, not this one, were to show beyond doubt that intelligence could be decomposed into three factors. Would this do away with group differences? It would only be of interest if one or two of those factors had greater real life predictive value than the overall extracted g factor and that this factor ran against the usual hierarchy revealed by g. In that instance it would be possible to argue that one group was behind on g but ahead on spatial skills, and this was somehow far more important in life.  This is highly unlikely, and flies in the face of a century of psychometric results on group differences, but it would be very interesting if it could be shown that this was the case. It cannot be assumed as an act of faith, as the authors have done.

Most interestingly, the paper as published bears little relation to the interviews the authors gave. The paper per se is concerned with a model of the brain, and a component analysis of a set of computer administered mental tasks. As discussed above, if the model were to be applied to a proper sample, then the results might be interesting. Revealingly, the interviews go well beyond the sparse findings, to grandiose claims about the end of g as a construct, and the end of meaningful group differences. To counterbalance the shortage of scanned subjects there has been a surfeit of boasting.

How did this paper get such adulatory press coverage? It told a story that people wanted to believe. It ticked all the boxes required by wishful thinking. Cold fusion, anybody?

And a happy 2013.