Tuesday, May 10, 2005

IQ's Rising Because Of....

Through an interesting book review in the New Yorker, I was introduced to "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" - a book which suggests that we get smarter (or, at least, get higher IQ's) by watching more television and playing more video games. Now, I will admit that I have not read the book, but I question some of its arguments as set forth in the review.

First, the review alludes to James Flynn, who reviewed historic IQ data and determined that, within the industrialized world, IQ has risen over time.
Flynn found, I.Q. scores showed a steady upward trajectory, rising by about three points per decade, which means that a person whose I.Q. placed him in the top ten per cent of the American population in 1920 would today fall in the bottom third.
An important aspect of Flynn's findings was not mentioned - the increase was not in the learning-based aspects of IQ testing, such as vocabulary, math skills, or general knowledge, but was instead in the abstract problem solving or "lateral thinking" portion of the test. This is important in the context of the book review, as it helps explain why the author is proposing that various aspects of "pop culture" which test our problem-solving skills may be responsible for the IQ boost - what the author describes as cognitively demanding leisure. Granted, the review later states, "If Johnson’s book has a flaw, it is that he sometimes speaks of our culture being “smarter” when he’s really referring just to that fluid problem-solving facility." I just believe that the true nature of Flynn's findings should have been discussed explicitly, even if not up-front.

My trouble starts with the examples provided in the review. For example,
A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot.
The review continues by noting how many modern television shows require more "filling in" by the viewer to get a full understanding of the story. But, while I grant that TV shows of the 1970's were often tedious, for the "TV is getting harder" argument to work shouldn't it be the case that the TV programming of that era, or of the decades that preceded it, should have been "harder" than radio drama? In my opinion, producers of television used the visual aspects of the medium to shortcut the type of plot and character developments that were often found in radio drama, and a lot more "filling in" is required when you are listening to a drama and have to create the dramatized world in your head instead of watching it on a screen.

The "TV is hard" argument is the opposite to that advanced in an editorial I read a week or two ago, the source unfortunately forgotten, where the author proposed that today's "smart" television is an illusion - that we feel good about ourselves for getting the jokes on a show like Frasier, but that all the hard work was done by the show's authors and we are simply passive recipients. I tend to think the truth lies somewhere between the two positions - I do think that there are television shows which, by virtue of their plots and scripts, challenge the mind. However, for the most part, those same show can be watched passively, and not just by the intellectually incurious, but also by smart people who aren't challenged by the humor (even if they believe they appreciate it more than other viewers). In my opinion, there can be a lot more challenge in a single panel of "The Far Side" than in an entire episode of Seinfeld. It's not always the case, but it can be the case.

Also, as the author suggests that more complex television and more complex and involved video games may be responsible for the rise in IQ, it should be noted that the rise commenced prior to the modern generation of video games and TV shows. Which is not to say that I don't believe that there are video games which can help kids develop their minds - even back in the 1970's, there were simple computer games which required application of problem-solving skills and, despite a simplicity or paucity of graphics, by the 1980's many such games were available, and some were quite sophisticated. The catch is perhaps revealed with the statement, "Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or Pac-Man were simple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition." - well, no. But perhaps a majority of video game players of that era chose games like Tetris or Pac-Man over Infocom's text-based adventure games, NetHack, or Wizardry. And there is no guarantee that today's video game players are consistently choosing the more intellectually challenging games over "point and shoot" - while the sophistication of "point and shoot" games has increased, they still rely heavily on motor coordination and pattern recognition. Go figure. Meanwhile, a computer game-addicted friend of mine insists that most current strategy games are less challenging than some that he used to play on his Intellivision.

The book review quotes a few paragraphs where the author jokes, "but only in part", on the subject of books, which are described as understimulating, isolating, and linear, inspiring passivity - "books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children"; "You can’t control their narratives in any fashion - you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you." Well, it is certainly true that your senses are stimulated across a broader spectrum by watching a TV show or playing a modern video game, than from reading a book. But a book is no more passive than your first viewing of that TV show or first playing of the video game, when you passively experience what happens.

Even within the context of a sophisticated video game where you ultimately learn to control your environment and experience multiple "story lines", there's a lot more pattern and predictability than the author prefers to suggest. Players get comfortable with their "favorite character", master that character's special skills, and confront the puzzles and problems in a methodological fashion. (The author suggests that a video game which creates a simulated world represents "delayed gratification" - in fact, each time you do better than during your previous attempt, you get gratification.)

The book review also notes that, whatever progress we have been making in our entertainment culture, all is not equal:
When it comes to the other kind of intelligence [beyond fluid problem-solving facility], it is not clear at all what kind of progress we are making, as anyone who has read, say, the Gettysburg Address alongside any Presidential speech from the past twenty years can attest. The real question is what the right balance of these two forms of intelligence might look like.
And this is where I think it is important to note that, while many of my highly intelligent peers loved a challenging video game, sophisticated live role playing games, good television, theater, and film, there is also some truth to that stereotype of "the nerd with his nose stuck in a book". Most of the really smart people I know devoured books when they were kids. And whatever I am to make of an overall growth in problem-solving skills, or the increase in the challenge of certain aspects of our society, there are some very important areas of our culture which have been dumbed down to the point where you would think people would feel offended by the dripping condescension. (Perhaps particularly in the manner in which we are treated by our elected officials, or by the media.)

The book review closes with a subject I have previously discussed - mandatory homework policies - and the reviewer seems to share my low opinion of such policies. There, I think the review is completely correct - assigning pointless homework to be completed during time children would otherwise spend doing something else (or even "goofing off") may well be counter-productive to their development.

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