I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues. —Franklin D. Roosevelt
Americans, apparently more than any other country, have an obsession with being smart. We heap praises on those who demonstrate intelligence beyond the norm and we get upset when we realize that our educational system is producing graduates who can only read at a fifth-grade level. Even our television viewing skews toward characters we perceive as smart. Programs such as Scorpion and Elementary (based on the character of Sherlock Holmes), consistently generate high ratings. We even like our comedy smart. The highest rated sitcom, for multiple seasons, is The Big Bang Theory, where we watch allegedly intelligent scientist bumble their way through life. One of the reasons we like that show is because it delivers lines like these:
The bluntness of the exchange makes us laugh, but at the same time, we recognize the intelligence of Sheldon’s response and consider ourselves smart when we use that line on someone else the next day. We like being smart. Although, perhaps more correctly, we like thinking that we’re smart. Many of us are lacking in cognitive skills. The intelligence of television characters doesn’t rub off and make us smarter. Some people are stupid.
We Have A Problem
Once upon a time, the rate of acceleration in IQ among high school graduates was pretty impressive. Psychologist James Flynn found that from 1932 to 1978, IQ scores in the US increased by 13.8 percent. Putting that in other terms, a score that was average in 1932 would be in the bottom 20% in 1978. Yay us! I’m in that 1978 group. We’re smart!
Unfortunately, that trend failed to continue. Just because we give allegiance to intelligence doesn’t mean we’re all doing well in the brain category. Measurements are tough to come by and even more difficult to verify, but that are glimpses of where we stand. Consider that the College Board, the entity that administers the SAT, considers a score of 500 as a benchmark for who will do well in college. Not everyone takes the SAT, but if we look at states where the test is free and participation over 90 percent, we find that only 33 to 40 percent scored above that benchmark.
An article published this month in The Atlantic, while trying very hard to convince us that there is an unfair war on stupidity, admits that:
… less intelligent people are more likely to suffer from some types of mental illness, become obese, develop heart disease, experience permanent brain damage from a traumatic injury, and end up in prison, where they are more likely than other inmates to be drawn to violence. They’re also likely to die sooner.
Being Smart Isn’t Easy
I was amused by Jeffrey Zacks’ essay published on aeon disproving brain-training games and exploring how difficult it is to expand our level of intelligence. His list of things that are marketed as improving our intelligence, such as programs offered by Lumosity, which rocketed to a high of 50 million users, and PositScience, which isn’t quite as popular but uses a similar methodology, is long. He makes a very good case against brain-training, especially.
One of the general issues with many of the concepts that are supposed to help us improve our brains is that they only focus on one particular segment, usually related to memory. For example, does anyone else remember those little plastic games with the tiles that moved around to create a picture, or put numbers in order? Those little devils actually help advance our cognitive ability, but only in the area of recognizing patterns. Likewise, those tricks for helping remember people’s names do improve some memory skills, but only in terms of memorizing lists. The effects are not transferable.
While we think of Adderall and Ritalin as being primarily used with children who have attention deficit issues, there is evidence of them improving the cognitive ability in normal adults as well. This area of study might actually be promising accept for the fact that the effects are short term. They give a momentary boost of cognitive enhancement, but then it stops as the drug wears off and over time the “crash” goes below the starting baseline. Users are trading a moment of lessened ability for a moment of enhanced performance. Oh, and the drug that works best? Nicotine. Go figure.
Solutions Are Available
Strip away the biases of both articles, and what we find are solutions that can make us all smarter and reduce the rate of stupidity (yes, I’m using the word) that seems to be prevalent over a frightening number of people. We simply cannot excuse the growing trend among those whose cognitive abilities are diminished to demonize those who are smart. Atul Gawande, in his commencement address to the California Institute of Technology, made an interesting conclusion after talking about the growing distrust of science:
Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.
Indeed, we need to be smart and that means we need to do the things that not only make us smarter, but put us back on track toward making our children and grandchildren smarter as well. Top priorities must be decreasing poverty and improving the quality and availability of early childhood education. One of our most stupid moves comes when we oppose funding that can solve both those problems. At the same time, nutrition and exercise, especially cardiovascular activities such as swimming, biking, and walking, are among the best ways to not only increase cognitive ability but prevent its decline as we get older. We have options.
Is This Really A Choice?
One thing for certain is that I’m not going to stop calling out those actions that are stupid. Perhaps we do need to be more careful in clarifying that, generally speaking, it is one’s actions and not the specific individual who is stupid. At the same time, though, we must realize that we are not nearly as smart as we like to think. We could be much smarter, even if we’re older and out of school. Our future depends on increasing our country’s overall intelligence so that we don’t do something incredibly stupid like nominating a bigoted, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, reality television host for president.
Oops, it may already be too late.