Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Intelligence Tests Miss, Keith Stanovich

Keith Stanovich's What Intelligence Tests Miss does a reasonable job of arguing that we have a couple of different things in mind when we talk about how "smart" a person is, and that some of the important aspects are very different from what IQ tests measure. His goal seems to be to convince us that the other parts are important and we would do better if we either found good ways to measure them (though there are caveats there) or reduce the societal importance of IQ tests and their ilk.

Most of the areas that Stanovich is interested in could loosely be called rationality skills. He starts out the book with the example of George Bush, whose apparent IQ (estimated from various of his tests results that are on the record) is about 120, but who is agreed to not have conventional smarts, or be a thorough, consistent, or deep thinker. The main point here is talking about how people are surprised, but shouldn't be, that IQ is separate from what we call smart. The book is mainly a riff on Kahneman and Tversky's work on human decision making, and all the kinds of rationality traps that we fall for.

Apparently, Stanovich's own research is in how the various layers of processing—the Autonomous mind, the Algorithmic mine, and the Reflective mind— interact and override one another in order to determine the kinds of processing we do. We spend most of our time in autonomous mode, with occasional incidents propelling us into slower Algorithmic thinking, and only rarely do we have a reason to actually think about what we're doing reflectively. Stanovich has a detailed model showing the interactions, and pointing to the Reflective mind as the director that gives the signal for when to invoke the Algorithmic level. His argument seems to be that people who don't "act smart" fail to engage their Reflective layer, and so end up on auto-pilot most of the time.

The rest of the book is mainly a rehash of the literature on rationality errors, and a plea for approaches like Thaler and Sunstein's Libertarian Paternalism, which are intended to provide support for people so they can get smarter results without having to reason more clearly.

In the end, I guess I'd say that there are some interesting ideas here, but not enough to make the book worthwhile.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

No Justice, No Peace

Matt Welch's Editor's column in the June issue of Reason includes this paragraph on a budget fight in Montgomery County, Maryland:

The housing bubble, with its tax-generating wealth, was already bursting in 2007. Yet as recently as 2009, Montgomery County, Maryland, decided to make "phantom" cost-of-living increases to the pensions of government workers, linking contributions to salary increases that did not occur. This sweetheart deal, which added more than $7 million to the county's annual budget (according to The Washington Post), tasted rather bitter at a time when the county's revenue was falling short of projections by more than $24 million. Yet after one Montgomery County Council member proposed eliminating this sop to the public-sector unions, four of his colleagues joined a rally on the rooftop of the council's parking garage, leading a crowd of 400 government employees in chants of "We've had enough!" and "No justice, no peace."

I boggled at the audacity of re-using the "No justice, no peace" chant in a context like this. Normally, when the left uses this chant at a rally, it's in support of a group that isn't getting fair treatment on housing or employment rights. The unstated thinking behind the chant is that societies that don't protect people's rights will find that the underprivileged are more restive. But in the mouths of public safety workers threatening to strike because outrageous privileges might be taken away, it sounds more like a threat, which I would paraphrase as "If we don't get what we want, we'll make your life hell!"

A little digging assured me that Montgomery County did rescind the pension increases eventually. Some the county council members are running on their record for having imposed fiscal austerity measures, even though they were in place for the initial largesse as well.