Date: Saturday, January 21, 2006

The “third culture” Web site has a provocative New Year’s ritual: the Annual Question.

This year’s question, suggested by Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, is, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

The Edge describes it this way: “The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”

By third-culture intellectuals, they mean people who believe in the importance of a synthesis of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” That is, “The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

And a variety of them have at it.

Some of the ideas verge on the cosmic. We are/we are not alone, in the universe. Often, if someone proposes one side of an idea, someone else proposes its opposite. Michael Shermer defines the best way to live as in a free society, characterized by free-market economics and democratic politics, fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says the most dangerous idea is the hegemony of the free market.

And some ideas leave you wondering: “Panpsychism. Each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules — each of them possesses the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.”


Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted “dangerous” as meaning something like “subversive,” challenging to one or another received orthodoxy.

In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test.

And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the variables measured.

Why is that subversive? Because so many people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not evenly distributed demographically.

In fact, Pinker’s answer to his own question is, “Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.”

For purposes of deciding on good public policy, however, it is not necessary to determine why groups of people differ. One may declare oneself, as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein did in The Bell Curve, “resolutely agnostic” on the “why” question, and still acknowledge the need to deal with the consequences of differences that demonstrably exist.

Eventual adult IQ for most people is reliably established by the time children enter middle school, say sixth grade. That would be a natural time to administer an IQ test, under guidelines that need further study but that would include at least the following: Every child entering sixth grade would be offered the opportunity to take a brief, standardized, culture-fair IQ test.

Parents would have the legal right to exempt their children, without penalty.

Parents could obtain the results of the test, on request.

The results would be used only for statistical purposes, and no individually identifiable information would be accessible to classroom teachers or other school staff working with individual children except at the parents’ initiative.

Why would you want to do this? The goal, and the likely result, would be not to amplify the significance of group characteristics such as race, class and gender, but to diminish it.

Here’s a thought experiment to ponder. A young couple become the proud parents of identical twin girls. As the children grow, the parents notice that the younger one, whose birth records show she was born 9 ounces lighter than her sister, has trouble keeping up. When they start school, the difference is unmistakable; the older girl soars, the younger one struggles.

The parents take the girls for a thorough professional evaluation, and the results are unequivocal. The older girl has a measured IQ of 115, the younger, 85.

Race is not at issue; whatever image formed in your mind when you read “identical twin daughters,” the girls match.

Socioeconomic status is not a factor; whatever it is, they share it. They have the same genes.

And their parents love them equally, and will choose the best possible educational setting for each of them. It probably won’t be the same setting though, and they won’t indulge in the folly of trying to “close the achievement gap” between their daughters.

Schools trying to close the achievement gap — and they should try — should first make certain they have considered all the ways it may arise.

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Sunfish at home

sunfish_carpetThis is my cat Sunfish, who came to live with me in November 2008, when she was two years old. She’s a cream-point Ragdoll.

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Family ties

I’ve had people tell me that email communication is wildly inferior to in-person visits or even phone calls. But they’re just different.

My son Peter, who goes by Seebs, mentioned (that is, wrote) that he hadn’t been feeling well, and I replied:
<Makes sad face>
Seebs: You misspelled “:(”
Me: Sorry, I never learned simplified characters.
Seebs: Heh.

We are easily amused.

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Sanitizing rhetoric

Seebs put up a post on “eliminationist” rhetoric:

So, seriously. Drop the eliminationist rhetoric. Stop demonizing the people you disagree with. Start asking them what they believe instead of telling them what they believe. Stop mistaking your beliefs about the likely outcomes of their actions for their intent in taking those actions. Instead of organizing groups of like-minded people who sit around holding everyone else in contempt, start seeking out people you disagree with and really listening to them.

Consider that “eliminationist” means “full of, and emitting, shit”. It may seem like a pun, but if you keep it in mind while reading various diatribes calling for people to be forced out of office with guns if necessary, you may find it clarifies the matter substantially.

I responded:
I can’t take credit for the term, it’s quite common. And it is used to refer, not to feces, but to extermination of individuals or groups..

Those points aside, I agree with the general point; it’s related to the invalidity of the ad hominem argument. Your opponents’ motives are not entirely irrelevant to their arguments; if someone takes a particular public position, you may reasonably think that he might have taken a different position if he did not have a financial interest in the outcome, although of course he might not. Maybe the causality runs the other way; he acquired the financial interest because he already believed in whatever position he took. It’s fair to mention those possibilities, but they do not ultimately determine the truth of his conclusions.

Whatever position you take, there are people of the opposite opinion who are smarter than you are, better educated, more expert; not all of them, but enough that it is their opinions you must address, no matter their motives. It is then easier to treat their opinions respectfully, and as a result you are less likely to alienate those of your opponents who are more stupid, ignorant and incompetent than you are.

As an editorial writer, I tried to remember that. Not that I always succeeded.

It’s also worth noting that not all uses of language that involve metaphors invoking violence are either intended to incite violence or even disrespect, or likely to do so. Seebs frequently addresses his cats in the most graphic terms, and they pay no mind to him at all.

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New research on ADHD

My son Peter, who is ADHD and autistic, pointed me to several articles reporting research, conducted at The University of Nottingham in Great Britain, on children with attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder that suggests what goes wrong,

There’s a part of the brain that is working whenever people aren’t doing anything in particular. It’s called the “default mode network (DMN)” — it’s what your brain is doing when you’re daydreaming. and it’s inactive when you are paying close attention. It’s been known that people with ADHD have difficulty turning off the network.

The researchers compared magnetic resonance images of children playing a computer game. For children in the control group, who did not have ADHD, the network was inactive while they were playing the game, while the children who had been diagnosed were always being distracted by something the daydreaming part of their brain happened to notice.

So much is not entirely new, but what the researchers found is that if the children were taking their medication (Ritalin, or some other form of methylphenidate) their mri scans looked like the scans of the children in the control group. But that wasn’t the only way to affect the scans; making the game more exciting, for instance by increasing the incentives to do well, also made their brain activity resemble that of the control group. That suggests a reason why ADHD children can sometimes focus with great attention over long periods on something that intensely interests them. And when they don’t they are not merely being contrary.

Science Daily reported:

By studying the brain scans, the researchers were able to show that typically developing children switched off their DMN network whenever they saw an item requiring their attention. However, unless the incentive was high, or they had taken their medication, the children with ADHD would fail to switch off the DMN and would perform poorly. This effect of incentives was not seen in children without ADHD — activity in their DMN was switched off by items requiring their attention regardless of the incentive on offer.

The university’s press release is here, and the paper, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, is “Task-related Default Mode Network modulation and inhibitory control in ADHD: effects of motivation and methylphenidate.” Information about this and previous papers are here.

Several British papers have picked up the press release, including the Telegraph, the Independent and the Daily Mail.

UPDATE: Peter comments: “[The research is ] of interest to me because it’s such a very good description of what goes wrong with my brain. It also, I think, explains why fidgets work so well for helping me focus; if I’m fidgeting, the default mode network can busy itself fidgeting while I go pay attention to something else.”

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Satisfactory Election Day.

Big Republican majority in the U.S. House; both houses of the Minnesota legislature (among some 20 legislative chambers nationwide, crucial in a redistricting year); enough Republican senators that any filibuster will hold (crucial for Supreme Court nominees, if any);lots more Republican governors (also crucial in redistricting); all in all, a good day for the country.

Too bad about control of the U.S. Senate. But I knew Michael Bennet when I worked in Denver, and I’m pleased for him personally. And I’m not surprised John Hickenlooper won the Colorado governor’s race over Tom Tancredo (I knew and like both of them), but Tancredo made an astonishing showing for a third-party candidate (and the Colorado Assembly is Republican again, so that’s not too bad either).

I guess it won’t be too awful if I have Mark Dayton to apologize for as well as Al Franken.

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Northfield under water

The Cannon River through downtown Northfield has flooded after five inches of rain. I’m a mile or so from the river — and it’s not that big a river — but my son Peter, who lives closer but is still on dry ground, went out for a looksee. His photos are at

“This justified getting a Flickr account,” he said. My goodness, so it did.

Earlier, he’d written,

So, we went downtown. I got pictures.

Then they told us to please not stand on the bridge because there’s
a large electrical service there which is underwater and could explode.
But they’re not saying we *can’t* stand there. “Life’s all about

I chose not to continue standing there.

I’m delighted by the notion that an emergency worker of some sort would say, “Life’s all about choices.”

If you would like more updates and photo albums, our civic blog Locally Grown is on the case, at and so is the local paper, the Northfield News, at

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Mensa & Odd Obits

From my column in the September Mensagenda

I also read a number of blogs devoted
to linguistics and editing. One I
like a lot is written by John McIntyre,
formerly the head of the copy desk at
the Baltimore Sun, and now, after an enforced
hiatus, back there as night content
editor, or some such thing.

McIntyre snarked recently at an obit
for the late senator Ted Stevens, which
began, “Ted Stevens died Monday the
way Alaskans die, in a plane crash in the
wilds of the state he devoted his life to.”

No, the obit writer wasn’t trying to
be funny. But McIntyre invited his readers
to send him candidates in the same
style for the lead sentence in their own
obits, and they are funny. I especially enjoyed
seeing the comments from people
whose language blogs I read. Try it yourself,
and post comments on my blog.

There’s one Minnesota contribution among McIntyre’s comments:

Ole Finnerud died the way most Minnesotans die: of a massive heart attack while screaming his head off near the end of a close high school hockey game. His last words, “Did we win?”

Posted by: Toma

Your turn.

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Mensa & Mirrors

Mensagenda columnist (and communications officer) Mat Rouch wrote an article for the September issue on a topic that fascinates lots of people, including him and me. He asked, “Why do mirrors reverse left-right but not up-down?” The article is available online in the members’-only section of the chapter website,

I’d like to hear other members’ responses, so do read the whole thing (the article starts on page 18), and sound off in the comments. Mat’s conclusion:

And finally, when you look at your reflection in your bedroom mirror you do not perceive it as a flat image of the room you are in (which would be correct). You perceive it as a space behind the mirror. And the only rotational axis you can choose that (a) allows you to preserve the direction of gravity, (b) keeps the image of your bilaterally symmetric self still looking reasonable and (c) retains a sense of the reflection being a volume behind the mirror is the left-right axis. So that’s the one your brain chooses for you, automatically and beyond your control. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It’s a fine story. But it’s not much like mine. I said:

If someone were standing next to you, walked forward past the plane of the mirror, turned around, and walked back to stand “next to” the apparent position of the mirror image, his right hand would be to your left. But the work here is being done by “turned around” — that is, he performed a 180-degree rotation around a vertical axis, and thus reversed both front-to-back and right-to-left. Your reflection in the mirror did not turn around, so it reversed only front-to-back. (If you have a ring on your left hand, and reach out and touch the mirror, the image-hand you touch also has a ring, and it is to the left in the mirror.) But it would be the ringless right hand of a person who turned around, and that is how your brain interprets it.

Mat responded:

I think your analysis is precisely correct as a description of what a reflection is, but what I wanted to get across is why the human brain insists on interpreting it as a left-right reversal as opposed to any other axis, when others are perfectly valid. You want to interpret what you see as a space behind the mirror (which it isn’t) and the only sensible way you can do that, bilaterally symmetrical and stuck in a strong gravitational field as you are, is by swapping left-right. Flip up-down and not only is your head facing the wrong way, everything is stuck to the ceiling.
The four-armed starfish does not have that limitation. He lives more or less in zero-g and his head looks just like his feet. If he swapped up-down the result would be a perfectly reasonable space-behind-the-mirror, and the same would be true if he swapped left-right. So he could and probably would do either one, as appropriate.

There you go. Your turn!

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Nisbett, Jensen and Rushton

Hunter High School is an extremely selective exam school in New York City, recently the subject of some attention because a student speaker at graduation, upset about the racial/ethnic mix of students there, said:

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that.”

In a related thread on the blog KitchTableMath, commenter Crimson Wife said:

Richard Nisbett has a long discussion about race & IQ in his book Intelligence and How to Get It. He makes a convincing argument that the differences are mostly environmental (which can be changed) rather than genetic (which obviously can’t). If it were genetic, then IQ in blacks would be positively correlated the degree of white ancestry- and it isn’t.

Well, it is, but never mind. The broader point is that Nisbett is a spirited defender of the politically correct view that racial disparities in IQ result primarily from differences in children’s environments. The implication is that these disparities will mostly vanish if environments become more similar.

That’s more wishful thinking than argument, and it’s “convincing” only to those who already agree with Nisbett’s thesis. But it’s too vast a subject to settle here, so let me just offer a couple of links.

In a May 2009 working paper, J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen critique Nisbett’s book point by point. If you agree with Nisbett, you won’t agree with them, and vice versa, but if you’re going to write about these things you ought to be familiar with arguments on both sides.

About five years ago, Jensen and Rushton published a paper, “Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 235-294. They do not claim that environment plays no role in cognitive ability — indeed, no one has ever claimed that, as far as they know. Their much more modest claim, that the effect of heredity is greater than zero, is radioactive enough. Remember that Nobel laureate James Watson was hounded from his position for much milder comments, and he didn’t even mention heredity.

That’s one reason so few researchers risk working in this area. But both Rushton and Jensen have already survived that gantlet — Jensen more than 40 years ago — so they have nothing further to fear.

I should add the disclosure that I am slightly acquainted with both men, and admire them, their work, and their determination.

Posted in Education, Politics, Science and technology | 1 Comment