Tag Archives: intelligence

John Philippe Rushton (1943-2012)

Controversial psychologist John Philippe Rushton (above), best known for his views on the relationship between race and intelligence, has died. Rushton passed away after a battle with cancer on October 2nd. He was 68.

Rushton was born in Bournemouth, England, in 1943. While still a child, he emigrated first to South Africa and then to Canada. He went on to receive his PhD from the London School of Economics in 1977. Prior to receiving his PhD, he taught for a time at York University (1974-76) in Toronto and then at the University of Toronto (1977). He joined the faculty at the University of Western Ontario (UWO, now Western University) in 1978 and became a full professor at the university in 1985. In addition to his work on race and intelligence, Rushton also produced controversial research on the relationship between race and crime, and race and penis size.

In the late 1980s, Rushton’s views on race-based differences in intelligence sparked vehement protest at UWO. (More photographs from these protests can be seen here.) Despite calls for Rushton to be fired – by UWO students and Ontario’s premier – and although he was relieved of teaching duties during the height of these protests, he remained on the faculty of UWO for 25 years. The attention Rushton received for his controversial views on race and intelligence also led to a prominent debate between Rushton and geneticist, and environmentalist, David Suzuki on the subject in February, 1989 (the full debate can be viewed below).



Notice of Rushton’s death can be found here. Further discussion of Rushton’s passing can be found here, here, and here.

Essay: “‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination”

“‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination,” wrote Christopher Goodey (2004) in Medical History, 48(3). Why, yes, I thought. It does. And it seems especially apropos to revisit this topic today: through his delving into the past, we may well find a more interesting interpretation of contemporary pranksters’ April tomfoolery.

As Goodey points out, “foolishness” is often equated with a kind of “mental deficiency.” (Early texts describing it are now read by doctors as having anticipated modern diagnoses.) And the origins of April Fools’ Day could be read in this way too: on the earliest appearance of the day in English literature — as the 32nd of March — Chaucer’s (1392) cockerel Chanticleer was tricked into being eaten by a sly fox, who was then in turn tricked into letting his dinner escape (in the Canterbury Tales).

But did the origins of April Fools’ Day, in the Middle Ages, reflect this contemporary understanding? Has “foolishness” always been the opposite of “intelligence”?

Goodey suggests that the answer to this question is, simply, “no.” It is misleading, he shows, to reduce one to the other.

The idea of an intelligence peculiar to the human species… arrived only after logic-based methods started to be used to define essences of species, i.e. with the birth of modern biological classification in the eighteenth century. An ability for abstract thinking was perceived as universally human only when political and ecclesiastical élites were challenged over their divine right to prescribe the abstract principles known as “common ideas” to the rest of the population, and individuals started getting ideas by themselves. (p. 290)

In other words, the notion of intelligence as we think of it today is a relatively modern invention. As a result, we cannot read its meaning — or its opposite — into the texts of earlier writers.

Yet, it is the case that many contemporary April Fools’ Day pranks assume the mental deficiency of their targets (i.e., they assume their audience is “stupid”). Having accepted Goodey’s invitation to examine the notion more closely, however, I now suggest that this need not be the case.

Instead, I suggest that “stupid” pranks can be understood as reflecting a fundamental presentism. Recognizing this, and applying Hacking‘s notion of “the looping effect,” there then also seems to be a way out: contemporary pranksters have been led, by this misunderstanding of historical sources, to act differently than they might have otherwise.

Delving still more deeply, it seems that historicist readings of “foolishness” — and thus also of April Fools’ Day — may well be more subversive (and more interesting) than is usually thought at present. As Goodey points out:

Erasmus’s Praise of folly and Brant’s Ship of fools both use foolishness allegorically to attack political and ecclesiastical élites. (p. 292)

We are thus led to wonder: Were Chanticleer and the fox both actually stupid? Or did Chaucer use their foolishness to afford a commentary on a larger issue?

Thus, to close: if you pranked someone today, did your prank assume they were stupid? Or were you subverting something larger?

Gardner Lindzey Dies

Famed American psychologist Gardner Lindzey died on Tuesday, February 5 at the age of 87. The announcement was made on the e-mail list for Cheiron by John Hogan, the History and Obituaries Editor for American Psychologist. No other details were given.

Perhaps best known for editing the two-volume Handbook of Social Psychology, first published in 1954, Lindzey also authored popular textbooks on psychology (with Calvin S. Hall and Richard Thompson) and on personality (with Calvin S. Hall). He also co-edited several recent volumes of the History of Psychology in Autobiography, a series begun by Carl Murchison in 1930. Continue reading Gardner Lindzey Dies

The History and Future of Bell-curve thinking

The latest issue of Educational Theory, 58(1), includes an article examining the idea of “normal.”

Bell-curve thinking, as a model of distribution of success and failure in society, enjoys a perennial (ahistorical, objective, and law-like) status in education. As such it provides a rationale for sorting (tracking or streaming) practices in education, which has led many educators to criticize both bell-curve thinking and associated sorting practices. In this essay, Lynn Fendler and Irfan Muzaffar argue that the existing critiques of bell-curve thinking ring true for people who believe that the purpose of schooling is to promote a more equitable redistribution of resources in society; however, these arguments do not criticize the law-like character assumed for a bell curve as a representation of social reality. To extend these critiques, Fendler and Muzaffar focus on the history of the bell curve, from a representation of binomial probability, to a bearer of real things in nature, and finally to a set of expectations about how people should behave. They ultimately argue that the acceptance of bell-curve thinking in education is part of a recursive project of governance and normalization.

In related news, the latest podcast to become available free via iTunes from NPR — Intelligence Squared, which features formal Oxford-style debate on controversial subjects — recently zeroed in on Bell-curve thinking as it pertains to race, gender, and equality: the resolution, Is it time to end Affirmative Action?, catalyzed a fascinating discussion.

Taken together, the two media forms present different approaches of a single very difficult problem: How to characterize the realities of achievement. Get more details about the article here; get the debate on mp3 here. They complement each other nicely.

A New Look at Old Intelligence Tests

James FlynnMalcolm Gladwell, best known for his books Blink and The Tipping Point, has just published an article in The New Yorker about the Flynn Effect and how it may undermine many of the assumptions that ground the past century of intelligence testing. Named after New Zealander James Flynn, the “effect” shows that IQ test scores have steadily risen worldwide at the rate of about 3 points per decade. The effect is masked, however, by the fact that IQ tests are periodically re-normed (i.e., made more difficult) to keep the average score at 100. If Flynn is right, this means that our grandparents, on average, had IQ scores nearly 20 points (!) below our own. Interestingly, however, the apparent gains aren’t the same across all intelligence domains. Math, verbal skills, and general knowledge rise the least. Continue reading A New Look at Old Intelligence Tests

A Book for The Holidays

John CarsonI have run across a fine book on a popular aspect of the history of psychology that might be of interest as we head into the holiday season. It is The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940 (Princeton University Press, 2007). It was written by John Carson of U. Michigan, a well-known figure around Cheiron meetings and History of Science Society conferences. Carson attacks the interesting issue of why intelligence tests found their greatest success in the US even though the basic methodology used to construct them to this day was invented and first used in France. He finds the answer in differences between the characters of French and American societies. According to the book’s blurb:

Continue reading A Book for The Holidays