Saturday, September 4, 2010

The 48 Percent Part 2

At Beyond Belief 2006, when speaking about his work on phantom/paralyzed limbs and the denials that can accompany such phenomena, V.S. Ramachandran related a humorous anecdote about a study that asked people if they were above or below average in intelligence. Ramachandran pointed out the fact that like height, the distribution of IQ scores in a population take on the shape of the iconic “bell” curve (called by mathematicians a “normal” or “Gaussian” distribution). The salient property of Gaussian distributions of variations in a population is that 50% of the population will be below the average value (or arithmetic mean) for the trait in question and the other 50% of individuals in the population in question will be above the average value. [1] The punch line comes when Ramachandran reveals that 98% of the survey respondents indicated that they considered themselves to be of above average intelligence, a statistically impossible result which indicates that 48% of humanity are “in denial of their own stupidity.” His point was that even people without brain injury engage in classic Freudian, defensive denials every day.[2] Though the study may have been fictional, it is plain that only 50% of humanity can be of above average intelligence and therefore, the other 50% must fall below that average.

A consequence of the above dilemma showed up in an interview with Lord Martin Rees, Patricia Smith Churchland, A.C. Grayling conducted by Roger Bingham of The Science Network.
At about 00:32:00 into the dialog, Dr. Churchland notes that there is (primarily in the United States), and coming from both the far left and the extreme right ends of the cultural/political spectrum, a disturbing undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in general, and of anti-science in particular. She confessed that she does not know how to reach the sort of people who get their news from Rush Limbaugh and/or a certain American news channel that she left unnamed.

The brute fact that half of humanity will always fall above the normalized “average” intelligence (measured by whatever criteria one chooses) and the other half will fall below that “average,” poses a profound problem for skeptics, atheists, scientific rationalists, humanists, and anyone hoping to increase the role of evidence-based critical thinking in the discourse of our democratic republic. Proposed solutions usually involve some combination of better schools and/or teachers, more educational television programs, more popularizations by capable scientists or other public intellectuals, more scientifically accurate
Hollywood pictures, or better-trained science journalists. However, what if those things are only partial solutions? What if there is an asymptotic limit to the percentage of people that can be reached by reason and evidence? Amidst all the talk of science and math education in schools and efforts to engage the voting public, there is one question that has not been raised, let alone substantively addressed. What if some significant fraction of humanity is simply not cognitively equipped to think critically or rationally to the degree required to become a scientifically literate citizen in the 21st century?

No matter how “politically incorrect” the above question may seem, the question posed is very worth answering. Asking the question or attempts to answer it is not part of some sinister eugenics program or elitist, racist agenda. In
Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett advocated that all the tools in the arsenal of modern science be applied to understanding religious faith and practice. Dennett also maintained that religious faith is unique in that it is currently off limits to the kind of inquiry he was proposing, hence his choice of title. While it is certainly true that the “taboo” against looking too closely at religious beliefs for fear of dulling their sheen is probably the strongest such taboo, inquiries into other areas of human existence can also set off alarms in some people. It is quite likely that what follows, if taken up by experts in the relevant disciplines (I make no claim to be one), may be an important adjunct to the investigation Dennett proposed. If the question under consideration were “what percentage of human beings can reasonably be expected, based on the heritability of the required traits and assuming an environment that provides the opportunity to excel, would be able perform at the level of an Olympic athlete?”, the question would be entirely uncontroversial. That is precisely the kind of question posed (but not answered) in this series of essays.

As Steven Pinker argued so effectively in
The Blank Slate, human beings are not infinitely malleable. Relevant to the topic of these essays is the question of what exactly goes into making someone a skeptical, critical thinker (though not necessarily a scientist)? Obviously, “intelligence” or as it is colloquially called, IQ (after Intelligence Quotient)–an admittedly slippery term–is part of the picture, regardless of how “intelligence” is defined and/or measured. The openness and intellectual honesty demanded by rational inquiry, is essential to not only science, but to history, law, medicine, ethics, or any other field of human intellectual endeavor (not to mention the functioning of a healthy democracy), and is antithetical to any form of authoritarianism. The degree to which someone fits the authoritarian personality type certainly matters too. What is the nature/nurture split for authoritarianism? Likewise, curiosity and inquisitiveness are also essential to being an informed, rational citizen in the 21st century. However, there are hundreds millions of human beings in the United States alone, never mind the rest of the planet, who seem incurious and uninquisitive. To what degree are curiosity and inquisitiveness malleable or heritable? What areas of the brain light up in when someone that is asked to justify their rationale for thinking that evolution or anthropogenic climate change are preposterous ideas, and yet at the same time finds millennia-old miracle stories of virgin births, people rising from the dead, or nocturnal rides on flying horses, etc. to be completely credible and utterly reliable?

Some of the relevant research in all these areas has been conducted already, with the greatest amount devoted to the heritability of IQ. A limited amount of research has been performed on the heritability of authoritarian attitudes and very little research has apparently been done on the nature/nurture mix for things like critical thinking, tolerance for ambiguity, or curiosity and inquisitiveness. Nearly all attempts to engage the public to further science and reason seem to assume that a majority of those not already so inclined or engaged, can indeed be reached. Those convinced that the future of humanity critically depends on the application of science and reason to the problems that vex this planet would do well to test the assumptions underlying efforts to communicate science and reason in order to better direct their efforts. None of this should suggest in the slightest that if the number of people that can, in principle, be reached is below a certain minimal threshold, the effort is not worth it. Nonetheless, we need to have some idea of how successful we can reasonably expect to be, all other things being equal.

[1] Barring any “self-selection” biases of course.

[2] Ramachandran, Vilayanur S. Roger Bingham ed. Session 4. Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion & Survival. Salk Institute. La Jolla, CA. November 5 2006. The Science Network. 23 August, 2009. (at 44:12).