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Intelligence in Astronomy: What Is Intelligence? (Part 1)


In my previous post we saw how you, the readers of this blog, see intelligence as a key to success. The vast majority of you also see intelligence as something that can increase in time. But a question was left lingering: What do we mean by intelligence?

Is intelligence encapsulated in standardized tests? How about the IQ test? Here's what a famous psychologist, Alfred Binet, had to say about the IQ test:
“The scale [the IQ test], properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.” 
"With practice, training, and above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally become more intelligent than we were before."



So who was Alfred Binet? He's the dude who invented the first IQ test! He designed the test to identify students in the French public school system who were lagging behind their classmates. His plan was to provide remedial education to these children to bring them up to speed with their classmates. Sadly, American scientists saw the test as a way of weeding out "retarded" kids and separating them from the gifted kids. The full story is told in Scott Barry Kaufman's book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, which I encourage you to add to your reading list post haste (check out this review, and see my previous post). 

Other problems withe IQ test and other, similar standardized tests include:

  1. Dependence upon the exact method that the test is administered, with huge scatter in test results given to the same child by different examiners
  2. Environment matters, with large scatter seen depending on the conditions under which the exam is administered
  3. People develop at very different rates in a non-linear fashion. Single exam results at one age provide little predictability for the test result at a later age.
These problems are also inherent in other standardized metrics of intelligence, such as the infamous GRE-Physics exam. 

Here's a more modern view of intelligence as articulated by Robert Sternberg, a psychologist and psychometrician, known as the theory of Successful Intelligence (credit Wikipedia for the text):

In case the text is difficult to read:

  • Conventional (analytical) Intelligence - The ability to complete academic, problem-solving tasks, such as those used in traditional intelligence tests. These types of tasks usually present well-defined problems that have only a single correct answer.
  • Creative Intelligence - The ability to successfully deal with new and unusual situations by drawing on existing knowledge and skills. Individuals high in creative intelligence may give 'wrong' answers because they see things from a different perspective.
  • Practical Intelligence - The ability to adapt to everyday life by drawing on existing knowledge and skills. Practical intelligence enables an individual to understand what needs to be done in a specific setting and then do it.
See also Sternberg (1999) and references therein. From the abstract of that paper,
This article presents a theory of successful intelligence. The theory is substantially broader than conventional theories of intelligence. It defines intelligence in terms of the ability to achieve one’s goals in life, within one’s sociocultural context. The article is divided into four major parts. The article opens with a consideration of the nature of intelligence. Then it discusses measurement of intelligence. Next it discusses how people can be intelligent but foolish. [emphasis mine]
I like that third sentence. It implies, as I, too, believe, that intelligence is related to the ability to attain one's personal goals. Intelligence is not some inherent trait, but instead something that is manifest in one's life through their actions. As fro that last sentence, ever met one of those highly intelligent yet foolish people? If not, just wait until you start attending campus-wide faculty meetings. Nobel laureates say the darnedest things!

Going back to the notion that intelligence is as intelligence does, here's the US Department of Education's stance on giftedness in children:
"Gifted And Talented" Students…[are t]hose ...who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities. [again, emphasis mine]
Indeed, most modern concepts of intelligence define it as a learned trait rather than something intrinsic to an individual. It goes way beyond doing physics problems in one's head, and instead refers to a person's ability to set goals and find success in the world. It is something that is multifaceted and difficult to measure quantitatively unlike height or weight. There is no cgs or SI unit of intelligence. 

However, qualitatively it is a trait that is most certainly observed in individuals who are successful in astronomy. In my next post, I'll talk about an alternative to smartness or intelligence that focuses on an multidimensional concept of excellence.


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