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It is a common belief, even among some brilliant IQ experts, that educating people, and providing people with knowledge and understanding, can actually make them smarter. But this belief is false.

A Promethean once told a story about how 90% of chess grandmasters could not solve a chess puzzle that many high IQ people who suck at chess can easily solve. If I recall, the problem involved putting many queens on a five by five chess board so that all of the queens would be safe. Grandmasters often have ten or more years of education, knowledge and understanding related to chess, yet were not able to solve a chess problem that high IQ chess beginners with chess ratings about 1000 points lower could solve quite quickly. This demonstrates that education, knowledge, and understanding improve specific skills but do virtually nothing to improve one’s ability to adapt when the situation changes and adaptability is the essence of intelligence. Chess grandmasters are experts at playing chess on an eight by eight board with one queen per player, but all that expertise did not increase their intelligence. It didn’t even increase their chess intelligence because they were no longer chess masters when the rules of chess changed. All it improved was their ability to play the very specific form of conventional chess they had practiced.

Scholar Arthur Jensen cited a study where people practiced over and over to improve their short-term memory. At first people could repeat only seven digits from memory, but with practice they could improve up to 100 digits. But when asked to repeat letters instead of digits, they were back down to only seven. So all that endless training did nothing to improve their short-term memory span, let alone their overall intelligence. All it improved was the extremely narrow specific ability they practiced.

Cognitive abilities are hierarchical. At the top of the hierarchy is said to be g (general intelligence). One level below g is what’s called second-order factors (i.e. verbal ability, spatial ability, and memory). The next level down, these second-order factors are subdivided into primary factors. So verbal ability might be subdivided into primary factors such as verbal comprehension, verbal fluency etc. Spatial ability might be subdivided into primary factors such as 2D spatial reasoning and 3D spatial reasoning etc. Memory might be divided into long-term memory and short-term memory. At the bottom of the hierarchy, the primary factors can be subdivided into specific tests like memory span for digits, memory span for letters, jig-saw puzzle solving etc.

Image from page 337 of Arthur Jensen's "The g Factor"

Image from page 337 of Arthur Jensen’s “The g Factor”

According to Jensen, the research shows that if you train yourself on a particular test, if you’re lucky, you might show improvement on another test dominated by the same primary factor, but the training will have virtually no impact on tests dominated by different primary factors, let alone different second order factors. In short, you can teach people knowledge, skills and understanding, but you can’t teach them how to think.

This is why I’m extremely skeptical when people try to provide educational or psychological explanations for the Flynn effect. Sure education can improve one’s knowledge and vocabulary, but the biggest Flynn effects have been found on tests involving “novel problem solving” and are on different primary or second-order factors from anything taught in school (or taught anywhere else most people experience since such tests were designed to be novel). Thus, to me, the most brilliant explanation for the Flynn effect ever provided was scholar Richard Lynn’s nutrition theory, because it provided a physiological rather than a psychological explanation for the Flynn effect. Richard Lynn is one of those old-school “psychological traits are like height” people that one of this blog’s commentators complains so much about.

A further blow to the “intelligence can be taught” people recently came from a devastating comment by blogger Meng Hu on Dr. James Thompson’s excellent blog:

deaf children are environmentally, severally, depressed, have academic achievement lower than the average children, and are severally depressed in their verbal skills, and yet their performance IQ (assessed by reasoning tests) was about 100 points, exactly the same as in the general population. That means neither school deprivation nor verbal deprivation can cause IQ.

Checkmate!

Now the only caveat I should add is that in a recent post, I suggested that chronometric training might improve intelligence, however I consider chronometrics to be on a different level from psychological or educational training, and more similar to physiological training. But the jury’s still out on whether chronometric exercise can make you smarter.

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