Of Mice and Molecules...
Last night, Susan gave our cat Mike a small jar of baby food containing the dregs of pureed ham. The jar's opening was too small for him to lick the bottom, presenting a serious problem for our boy. This was no problem; Mike instantly jammed his paw into the mush at the bottom of the jar, then licked his fingers clean. It was a smart play.
On the other hand, the little guy has his weaknesses: If I'm in the kitchen, grabbing a little deli chicken (his favorite food), Mike will immediately begin screaming his head off.
Why does he do this? Mike knows he's getting a bite. He just can't help himself. What he doesn't seem to get is the fact that his frenzied cries act as an alarm for the other cats. Soon, Hamlet and Bob, his brothers-from-another-mother, arrive, increasing the number of mouths snapping at the finite supply of chicken.
Is Mike smart or dumb? Do we use anecdotal evidence to draw conclusions, or do we try and develop an overarching theory that more accurately recapitulates the various facets of intelligence?
To me, the near-inarguable conclusion is that what we consider to be 'smart' is rather subjective and that the description of what is intelligent is - and how we measure it - is in dire need of redefinition.
I'm partial to real-world intelligence assessments, far removed from the traditional measurement of so-called IQ as dictated by the Stanford Binet, the Wechsler, or even the Woodcock-Johnson tests. In addition to sounding like bad sex moves, these tests are good for little more than getting you in the ballpark of a person's potential. There's also the issue of attaching a static numerical value to a trait that may fluctuate and the fact that IQ measurement becomes a dick-measuring contest, but I'm going to try and stay focused here.
My Definition of Intelligence
Over the years, I've come to favor the following definition: Intelligence is the ability to interact with your environment in such a way so as to achieve your objectives in a socially responsible manner. (The last part's there solely to address the sociopath loophole). Note the absence of logic, traditional "academic" performance and objective measurement.
My definition probably clashes with most of the traditional metrics, but I think it works better in the real world. To prove this out, I'd like to share a personal story in which I am presented with a serious problem. By traditional measures, it should be an impossible quandry but, in the real world, was overcome using methods that largely defy quantitation.
I suffer from two major academic weaknesses: really advanced math and foreign languages. In college, I was confronted with a crisis that brought these limitations into sharp relief: my school's general education requirements broke down all the subjects into - I think - seven areas (something like: life sciences, physical sciences, math, history-type stuff, social sciences, artsy crap, and foreign language). The curriculum mandated we had to take classes in six of these areas. In other words, I could avoid math or foreign language, but not both.
My intention to major in the sciences solved this difficult decision, as the major necessitated a disturbing amount of math and (its ugly cousin) physics. So while I was off the hook as a future polyglot, I was rewarded with a daunting amount of quantitative reasoning - five semesters worth. In this rock-and-a-hard-place scenario, my path led straight through numerical hell.
So how does a weak-minded simpleton like me navigate this problem?
Nothing starts without a plan. I began by cataloging the individual challenges. In this case, had to get through five classes, three advanced maths and two calculus-based physics courses, the latter of which was centered on particle physics and electromagnetism (a particular weakness). While I lacked natural ability, I did have time and energy to throw at the problem. To maximize this, I decided to take my math-heavy requirements on one at a time. It wasn't a solution, but it helped.
I would need more than this, though, to survive. I required solutions that didn't rely on intrinsic quantitative ability but would improve my performance*. I eventually found what I thought was a solution: difficult STEM courses are usually graded on a curve. I didn't have to do well, just well enough relative to my peers. Logically, it would behoove me to place myself among the weakest possible competition. Using this line of reasoning, I registered for the easiest acceptable math courses. Furthermore, I signed up for a section that met at 8 AM, hoping the early hour would depress attendance (and the ensuing grades) of my peers. Using this relatively simple strategy, I basically tried to overpower two semesters of calculus during my frshman year.
The first course was taught by a quant named Ko Honda who, on the first day, lectured us on his interest in topological quantum field theory. Read his work on the field if you really want to know how fucked I was. No matter how well you position yourself, there's a point where you have to go in and solve some equations.
I was terrible at it. Awful. Disastrous. As a sidenote: You may be thinking I'm a lazy "can't get math" type. Not true. Not by a long shot. Yeah, I could get through the easier stuff (basic calculus, for example) OK, but I absolutely fell apart in multivariate equations, finite math, and the like.
For the first and only time in college, I got a tutor, a Thai Scholar (i.e., one of the top TEN students from the country of Thailand). I worked my ass off and salvaged a B-minus. Little did I know that I had hit my theoretical limit - if my brain was a tube of toothpaste, I had just squeezed out the final drop.
Filled with false confidence, I dived into the next course. I remember very little of the experience. I recall having a really amazing Kiwi teacher. I also reacall getting a D for the course, which included (I think - a lot of these memeories were repressed until just now) a 32 on the final exam which I had spent weeks preparing for.
However, what I remember most vividly was the gateway test, a masochistic invention created by the department to prevent people like me from graduating. It was a shortish test that had to be passed with a high score; no matter what your grade, you couldn't get credit for the course without first passing the gateway test.
We could take the test a (supposedly) unlimited number of times. They were given weekly in a large lecture hall. At first, all 500 or so students took it. When I returned to re-take it the next week with the others who'd failed, only a hundred of my peers were in attendance. By the time I finally slogged through it (fifth or sixth try, for the record), there were maybe ten people left, one of whom just retired after a long career in the NBA.
Limping away from the experience, it was clear that elbow grease and industry had taken me about as far as they were going to in this arena. The real problem wasn't the blight on my GPA, but the fact that I still needed one more math credit and there was literally no classes left in the course catalog that I could pass with any degree of certainty. Know what's worth than being pummeled for a semester? Being pummeled and failing the class.
A Side Trip Into Physics
Confidence shattered, I put off taking on physics until the summer between sophmore and junior year. This time, a little trial and error lead lead me to a relatively painless solution. I initially just tried to suck it up and take physics at Duke, but ended up dropping the course almost immediately. In addition to the difficulty of the material, I was taking a course filled with pre-med gunner types who would destroy the grading curve. Moreover, I was concurrently taking some very difficult science classes and was badly overloaded.
For my second attempt, I scheduled consecutive semesters of physics over a single summer at the neighboring University of North Carolina. This was by design: summer physics classes are comprised of two types of people, those who failed physics the first time around and those seeking to avoid harder options. This, combined with the aforementioned STEM curve, made for a much better environment.
For once, my plan worked out as intended. Against weak classroom competition I made an 'A' in the first semester (gravity n' stuff), then ground out a 'B' that overstated my working knowledge of electrons and nucleons by a wide margin. I was able to do all of this while holding down a full-time summer job and getting my golf handicap down to a solid 10 or 11.
Taking physics at a different school also allowed me to transfer credit for the courses without suffering the middling grades I would inevitably earn had I remained at Duke. While my GPA thanked me, it turned out this loophole could only be used once. I still needed one more advanced math class to graduate, and it had to be taken right here at Duke.
Once More Unto the Breach
With (hopefully) my last semester looming, I took stock of the course catalog and came away shaking my head. By all accounts, a credit - even a D - in advanced math was an impossibility. There was simply no way to legitimately navigate a class that difficult.
Switching majors would require additional courses and would add at least another $20,000 to my college bill. I could try cheating, paying someone to take my exams. Honestly, I considered this as a viable option; if you're going to fail the course anyway, you know what cheating's called? A fighting chance.
Anyway, I kept looking for a more legitimate solution. Finally, just before registration began, I heard about a program run by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the biochemistry lab I'd been working in. The program was a combination research program/grant/course combo offered to students contemplating advanced degrees in STEM. Long story short, one of the program's requirements was enrollment in a seminar course where different lecturers spoke about life as a researcher. It was a puff course, to be sure, but with one interesting feature buried deep in the course catalog: because the program drew students from disparate fields, the course was cross-listed so so as to be easily utilized by students from different majors. The fine print did nothing to prohibit us from categorizing it as we chose. So I simply registered as though I was a math major.
I'm smiling as I write this - my last semester of "advanced math" was spent in a course where not a single equation was ever mentioned. And I proceeded to live happily ever after, blissfully unaware of how anything works.
Does this story connotate some form of intelligence, or does it prove I'm an idiot who got lucky? I'm biased, so I'll let others decide. But I have a few things to conclude with:
In the real world, all of us are patching solutions together. Things are rarely pretty and perfect, and the ability to deal with things as they are, rather than as we'd like them, is a CRITICAL difference in separating those who can from those who can't. Managing our strengths and weaknesses to solve problems is simply a part of this greater reality.
Lastly, I'm increasingly realizing that large, complicated (and, in this case, multi-year) problems like this are far better tests of measuring a person's potential. Think of the qualities that were tested: basic industry, cognitive ability, adaptation, ingenuity, improvisation, creativity, perseverance; the list could easily go on. Few of these are measureable by a 90-minute IQ test. Instead of letting a number dictate potential, perhaps we should let the individual demonstrate it.
Also: It works for cats as well.
*It's very reasonable to wonder why, since math seems so central to a science degree, would I major in the sciences? The answer (in my experience): It really isn't; you can steer clear of a lot of the really shitty math and have a perfectly uninhibited scientific career. I'm not sure why it's there, actually, other than a natural deterrent against an overpopulation of STEM people.
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Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.