Archive for the ‘Learning from books’ Category

By chance, I spotted Richard E. Nisbett’s book Intelligence and How to Get It in the bookstore, glanced through the table of contents, and saw chapter 6: “IQ in Black and White.” An incident in one of the classes I taught prompted me to buy it.

(Note: In this post, I use Nisbett’s convention of “black” to mean Americans of African descent.)


The class incident

I am lecturing about brain structure. A Caucasian student raises their hand and pops out a nonsequitur question.

“Are some races smarter than others?”

“Absolutely not. That’s a myth.”

“No, really. I heard that, you know, some races have better developed brains than others, and they’re smarter.”

Several non-Caucasian faces in the class tighten. Alarm bells go off in my head. I respond from my gut, speaking without proof in a science classroom.

“Well, intelligence comes from cellular processes in the brain. There are variations in brain development in the population, but not by race. It has more to do with the opportunities you have for education in childhood and on how much you use your brain.”

I strongly believe that skin color has no bearing on a person’s intelligence (we all need smarts to survive) and that measured differences have more to do with social situations than biology – particularly after getting a taste of how racism can affect the psyche. But this is science. If the student chose to challenge me again, I would need data to back up my assertions, and I didn’t have it.

Students can find plenty of information online supporting a race-IQ connection. Possibly my student was citing something dissected from The Bell Curve. Indeed, Nisbett notes that

[f]or decades, whites scored an average of 100 points on IQ tests, while blacks scored about 85—a difference of 15 points or a full standard deviation. (pp. 93-94)

What could I use to refute this correlation between race and IQ scores?

Is the race-IQ connection even a valid question to study?

An opinion piece in the journal Nature, which debates the validity and utility of researching the correlation between race and intelligence, highlights a few of the problems inherent in the question.

Steven Rose argues that both “race” and “intelligence” are socially-defined concepts that can’t be put into a scientific, measurable context, and so such studies should not be undertaken.

In a society in which racism and sexism were absent, the questions of whether whites or men are more or less intelligent than blacks or women would not merely be meaningless—they would not even be asked. The problem is not that knowledge of such group intelligence differences is too dangerous, but rather that there is no valid knowledge to be found in this area at all. It’s just ideology masquerading as science.

Stephen Ceci and Wendy M. Williams argue that, while they “think racial and gender differences in IQ are not innate but instead reflect environmental challenges,” race-intelligence research must be encouraged, even when it produces politically incorrect results, in order to spur research to disprove it.

Claims that sex- or race-based IQ gaps are partly genetic can offend entire groups, who feel that such work feeds hatred and discrimination. But hatred and discrimination do not result from allowing scientists to publish their findings, nor does censuring it stamp out hatred. Pernicious folk-theories of racial and gender inferiority predated scientific studies claiming genetic bases of racial differences in intelligence.

While the race-IQ connection may not be a valid line of inquiry, nonetheless, the question has arisen in my science classroom. I feel the need to briefly define intelligence, per Nisbett’s book, and then work through a few bits of evidence he cites to refute a genetic connection among race, genes, and intelligence.

What the heck is intelligence?

Nisbett describes “intelligence” in the first chapter of his book. Per Linda Gottfredson:

[intelligence] involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—“catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do. (p. 4)


IQ is often used as a proxy for intelligence, but the IQ test was specifically designed to predict school achievement, and does not necessarily predict how well an individual will function in society. The IQ test leaves out some types of intelligence, such as pragmatism and empathy, that are highly valued in some cultures (and by many employers).

G factor

Another measure of intelligence, which correlates well with IQ, is the “general intelligence factor” (g factor). The g factor is composed of two parts: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is the sum of all the facts and patterns a person has learned about the world. The more stimulating a person’s environment (such as in homes where parents use large vocabularies and expose their children to as many educational opportunities as possible), the higher their crystallized intelligence is likely to be. Fluid intelligence involves the ability to solve new, abstract problems. Fluid intelligence is linked to the prefrontal cortex area of the brain—an area that is linked to the limbic system and does not function well when a person is emotionally stressed (such as when confronted by prejudice and poverty).


In addition to traditional intelligence, motivation must be factored into any discussion of success in school or at work. A very intelligent person will not perform well if they are not motivated; a less bright person can perform very well if they have a strong drive to succeed. Peer pressure that discourages kids from “acting smart” can hinder their success. Additionally, prejudice makes it harder for educated minorities (particularly black males) to get jobs, which effectively devalues their diplomas and “[saps] their motivation to complete their education.” (p. 103)

Ammunition to refute the race-IQ correlation

In Intelligence and How to Get It, Nisbett discusses evidence supporting and refuting various hypotheses about the source of intelligence, and concludes that “intelligence is highly modifiable by the environment”—particularly by environmental influences such as education systems and cultural expectations. Further, he argues that the measured racial difference in IQ in the United States is caused by environmental factors, not innate capacity. He refutes genetic race-intelligence difference hypotheses in an appendix. I now have arguments and data to cite if this issue arises in class again. (I could just hug the man!)

I couldn’t possibly describe in a single blog posting all the nuances that refute the race-intelligence relationship. Instead, I highlight a few of the points I found interesting. I have left out tons of good information, so if you’re interested in this topic, I recommend reading the book!

Refuted hypothesis #1a: IQ is due more to inheritance than environment.

Studies showing insignificant difference in intelligence between identical twins adopted into different families cannot be used to argue that environment has negligible influence on intelligence. High socioeconomic status (SES) families give kids the opportunity to develop their intelligence to the fullest, while low SES families are highly variable in that regard.  (Think of the genetic potential for height, which correlates well with inheritance when nutrition is good, but not so well if kids eat poorly.) Adoptive families all tend to be of higher socioeconomic status; therefore, their environments are virtually identical, and the study is fatally flawed. Nisbett aptly references Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (See chapter 2 “Heritability and Mutability”.)

The IQ and achievement gap between black and white Americans has decreased over the last several decades—a time period in which

[t]hings have improved both materially and socially for blacks, what with the civil rights movement, affirmative action, the increase in the proportion of blacks who are middle class, and the fact that blacks have penetrated into the highest levels of society . . .”. (p. 232)

In sum, an improved environment (not a genetic change) has resulted in improved test scores.

Refuted hypothesis #1b: The environments of black and white Americans are not sufficiently different to explain the difference in IQ scores.

Blacks tend to be of lower SES than whites, and lower SES is correlated with lower IQ (upper-middle vs. lower SES gives a 12-to-18-point IQ difference, p. 21-22). Lower SES affects intelligence in a variety of ways, including parenting practices and:

poor prenatal care and nutrition, relative infrequency of breast-feeding, hunger, deficiency of vitamins and minerals, lead poisoning, fetal alcohol poisoning, poorer health care, greater exposure to asthma-causing pollution, emotional trauma, poor schools, poor neighborhoods along with the less desirable peers who come with the territory, and much moving and consequent disruption of education. (p. 101)

Even when blacks and whites are of similar incomes (33% gap in 2002), their wealth remains different (88% gap in 2002) and affects their ability to weather economic downturns. In part, this wealth difference is due to historical discrimination in homebuying, which prevented black families from accumulating wealth through real estate. The rate of unmarried mothers is higher in the black community (72%, versus 24% for whites), and a one-adult household can be less stimulating. (See p. 101.)

Social discrimination against blacks exists in the U.S., which results in a lack of “effort optimism.” (p. 104) (What’s the point of working to get ahead when the system will just keep me down?) The psychological effect of this discrimination is powerful—black students do worse on IQ and achievement tests when “in an integrated setting and it is made explicit that it is intellectual ability that is being tested.” (p. 95)

Refuted hypothesis #2: the IQ test is culture-neutral.

IQ tests must be re-normed over succeeding generations because scores keep going up. People’s intelligence can’t go up that fast due to genetics, so the difference must be due to cultural factors. (See chapter 3 “Getting Smarter”.)

As little as three months of a Western-style education improved the ability of African teenagers to perform a variety of spatial perception tasks . . . by as much as .70 standard deviation”. (p. 43)

Refuted hypothesis #3: Sub-Saharan Africans average an IQ of 70; the greater average 85 IQ of African-Americans must be due to European ancestry.

The smartest black children in Chicago’s schools do not have more European ancestry than the rest of the black population, and “blood group assays show no association between degree of European heritage and IQ.” (p. 97)

Refuted hypothesis #6: Brain size is correlated with IQ, blacks have smaller brains than whites, so whites are smarter.

While the evidence supporting the first two parts of this hypothesis are shaky, two quotes can knock this one down:

[T]he brain-size difference between men and women is substantially greater than that between blacks and whites . . ., yet men and women score the same, on average, on IQ tests. (p. 96)

[T]he cranial capacity of black females was the same as that of whites, yet the IQ difference was the usual standard deviation . . . . The IQ difference therefore is found in the absence of a cranial-capacity difference.” (p. 220)

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw


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The engineering students I used to work with seemed pretty impressed by one of the books they had to read in a technology, globalization, and culture course: Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat.” I finally got around to reading it, and found one particular section of the book that resonated for me, with my varied job history. To paraphrase: the world’s changing, bub; you’d better get with the program and work that brain!

Swiss Army Brain

Swiss Army Brain

People are losing their jobs because technology has made their work obsolete, because their company is relocating operations overseas, because their company is downsizing, because they are (like me) relocating to follow a spouse’s job. All this change is reflected in employment statistics: the average person will likely hold more than ten different jobs over their lives. A critical skill in moving from one job to another is the ability to learn.

Friedman describes a modern business culture that meshes with my own personal experience job-hopping: an attitude of lifelong learning is required to stay afloat.

. . . people need to become less like specialty tools and more like Swiss Army knives. Those ‘Swiss Army knives’ are the versatilists.

Versatilists are capable not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing. (p.294)

Twice thus far my world has changed because I’ve followed my spouse to new cities for his doctoral and postdoctoral pursuits. My ability to learn has sustained my employability through these relocations.

We are uprooting a third time. The “late 2000s recession” job picture is still dim. I am not fond of the upheaval and uncertainty I’m facing, but I am confident that my ability to learn will carry me through to a new job. I’m excited about the new subjects get to take a stab at!

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Before starting this blog, I read several books and lurked in the blogosphere to figure out, first of all, what blogs are (since I didn’t own a cell phone until mid-2008, it’s not surprising I didn’t know this). I also wanted to know what makes a good blog.


I’ve distilled in this post some of what I’ve learned, which I’ll try to use in my blog posts. However, ancora imparo. Whenever I stray from my ideal, feel free to let me know!

Blogging is like the game Othello: it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.  (The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging p. 24)

What are blogs?

I once thought that blogs were mainly an outlet for political rants, personal journals, and marketing stunts. They are that, but they can also be a platform to foment change, a collection point for specialized information, a source of entertainment, a community of people linked by their interest in a subject, and much more. Blogs provide an equalizing effect, allowing more people to publish their opinions and news to the wider world without barriers of cost, geography, or editorial restrictions. Additionally, blogs allow two-way, active communication, not just a top-down, passive dissemination of information.

What makes a good blog?

Stick to one topic

The best blogs center around one general topic and are written for a specific audience. Each blog posting focuses on a single idea that is stated in the title and restated in the beginning of the posting. Each posting is more than just an anecdote and has a take-away lesson.

Help the reader

A glass of water from the fire hose

The Internet is chock-a-block with information. Good keywords, categories, and titles can help readers find a post and determine if they want to read it. To keep readers updated on new blog posts without having to check back to the site, include options for an RSS feed and an email subscription. To allow readers to refer back to a specific blog post rather than wading through the main site, include a permalink in each post.


While a chattier, informal writing style is common in blogs, good grammar and spell checking lend legitimacy. Short posts and visual elements – such as photos, headers, bulleted lists, and offset quotes – that break up a “wall of text” will make a post more attractive to busy readers. A punchy, pithy first paragraph that states the point of the post will draw readers (especially when only the first paragraph is displayed in an RSS feed).

Build a readership and a community

The greater the number of readers, the better the chance of developing a blog community whose members will suggest improvements and help scout for relevant new topics.

Recruit readers through personal contacts via email, social networking sites, and old-school business cards. Links to social bookmarking sites on each blog entry will increase visibility. Sending helpful, blog-related information to local mainstream media sources can elevate a blogger to “hometown smartypants” on a subject and drive more readership. Commenting on and linking to other blogs (“trackbacks”) will also funnel more readers.

Drawing readers into a sense of community and ownership in a blog will suck them into reading regularly (“lurking”) and may spur them to actively contribute. Bloggers should encourage and respond to reader comments and ask for specific feedback. Because the openness of the internet brings out the snark and basest commercial instincts in people, a comments moderation policy is critical to control spam, trolls (disruptive or off-topic remarks), and flaming (personal attacks) that will drive readers away.

Keep it interesting

Regular posts (2-3 times per week is a common suggestion) keep a blog fresh, give readers a “fix”, also help boost the ability to be found on search engines. Tried-and-true journalism techniques draw interest as well: true personal stories, a sense of place (conjured by describing view, feel, taste, smell, sound), or a surprise or emotional connection.

Exploit the Internet

The ability to add hyperlinks to other sources of information makes a blog a rich medium (although too many hyperlinks are distracting). Links in posts can back up a point or add another layer of meaning. Links to previous posts on a topic (a “thread”) brings the richness of a conversation to a blog.

Books I read on this topic

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. By the editors of the Huffington Post. Simon & Schuster 2008.

I wouldn’t call this book a “complete” guide to blogging. It gives a good overview of the big-picture how-to of blogging, but not a lot in the way of technical details. It is pragmatic about the likelihood of making money off a blog (not likely). A strength of this book is the number of comments contributed, which makes the book feely “bloggy”. A downfall of the book is its focus on the Huffington Post and its political leanings, which will likely turn many people off.

Blogging for Dummies, 2nd Edition. Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley. For Dummies 2008

This book has good information on the details of setting up a blog, though it sometimes includes too many specifics. Several topics belong in another book altogether (such as how to use Blogger and how to write HTML). Strengths of the book include deciding whether to blog, what to blog about, choosing your blog platform, and which features to incorporate. The book discusses making money from your blog, which I think is unrealistic.

Blogging America: the new public sphere. Aaron Barlow. Greenwood Publishing Group 2008.

This book was more of an academic overview of the phenomenon of blogging, and somewhat boring other than the final chapter, which provided examples of the scope of blogs within the genre of Christian bloggers.


Many thanks to Kate Hopper and Bonnie Rough, who fortuitously introduced me to the value of blogging during The Loft Literary Center’s  Memoir Festival.

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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