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Originally posted by Jennifer Snow from Literatrix

This little book by Steven Johnson posts an interesting hypothesis: is it possible that modern popular culture is actually making us smarter? According to Johnson, there's a very good chance that it is.

In a world where prophetic warnings against the dumbing effects of popular culture are rampant, Johnson's view seems more than a little crazy. However, he points to a number of trends that seem to support his viewpoint, trends he refers to as the "sleeper curve". One of the most intriguing is his mention of the Flynn Effect: an unusual and unexplained rise in IQ scores over the past 30 years.

Across the board, irrespective of class or race or education, Americans were getting smarter. Flynn was able to quantify the shift: in forty-six years, the American people had gained 13.8 IQ points on average.

The trend had gone unnoticed for so long because th eIQ establishment routinely normalized the exams to ensure that a person of average intelligence scored 100 on the test. So, every few years, they'd review the numbers and tweak the test to ensure that the median score was 100. Without realizing it, they were slowly but reliably increasing the difficulty of the test, as though they were ramping up the speed of a treadmill. If you looked exclusively at the history of the scores themselves, IQ seemed to be running in place, unchanged over the past century. But if you factored in the mounting challenge presented by the tests themselves, the picture changed dramatically: the test-takers were getting smarter.

What in popular culture could possibly be responsible for this shift in intelligence? Why attribute it to popular culture at all?

The real problem is that the Flynn Effect doesn't correlate to anything else. After all, during the same period educational performance has been very obviously decreasing, as evidenced studies of SAT scores and other performance indicators too numerous to mention. If Americans are performing less well as students, (and, in my opinion, being taught increasingly poorly at the same time) how on earth are we getting smarter?

Johnson's answer: video games. Well, not just video games, but a number of forms of popular entertainment: television, movies, even Dungeons and Dragons. As a gamer, I found this section particularly amusing (bold emphasis mine):

Once you released your Dwarven fighter into the world, the calculations involved in determining the effects of his actions--attacking a specific creature with a specific weapon under specific circumstances with a specific squad of comrades fighting alongside you--would leave most kids weeping if you put the same charts on a math quiz.

Which gets to the ultimate question of why a ten-year-old found any of this
fun
. For me, the embarrassing truth of the matter is that I did ultimately grow frustrated with my baseball simulation, but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn't that arcane language wore me down, or that I grew tired of switching columns on the Bases Empty chart, or that I decided that six hours was too long ot spend alone in my room on a Saturday afternoon in July.

No, I moved on from [the baseball simulation] <strong>because it wasn't realistic enough.</strong>

Does that seem bizarre? Most of the gamers I know have gone through precisely this experience, and decided to design their own system to fix what they perceived as the problems with the existing ones! Remember, also, that we're talking about ultra-complicated hobbies that once only ultra-geeks pursued at all . . . D&D is now huge!

The trend towards more complicated, and thus more intelligence-raising entertainment can be found everywhere. Yes, appalling junk still exists, but as he says, "even the crap is getting better."

The book is an interesting read, although Johnson doesn't prove that pop culture is making Americans smarter. He says that a lot more research needs to be done, a fact that only adds to his presentation. How often does some pseudo-scientist notice a correlation between two facts and immediately announce that this necessarily indicates causation as well? Here, at least, we have someone that is willing to say "I have two facts that run roughly parallel, maybe they're related?"

As for me, I'm hoping this means that, in the future, there will be some TV shows I might actually want to watch.

Rating: 3.5

Cross-posted to the Objectivism Metablog

http://ObjectivismOnline.com/blog/archives/000932.html

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More generally, I would say that there is an continuing increase in the information density of our civilization. For example, my social network includes people from all over the world. Locally, I follow more hobby groups than were possible before the Internet. And at work, product development cycles are much shorter than before, and my responsibilities are wider than one person could do before.

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Dave: Please modify the metablog to include the author's name or user-id at the beginning or the end of the message. I do not like having to follow links to get that information.

... is it possible that modern popular culture is actually making us smarter?

.....

Why attribute it to popular culture at all?

.....

After all, during the same period educational performance has been very obviously decreasing, as evidenced studies of SAT scores and other performance indicators too numerous to mention. If Americans are performing less well as students, (and, in my opinion, being taught increasingly poorly at the same time) how on earth are we getting smarter?

If people are getting smarter (which is quite possible), it is not a result of anything learned (culture). There have been adequate challenges and stimuli to learning in every period of time. Rather, it is a result of Darwinian evolution. Stupid people are killing themselves off in many ways -- automobile accidents are a prime example.

The decline in knowledge of various specific subjects is due to the definitions of what one needs to know in those subjects (and the choice of important subjects itself) becoming outdated. Taking history for example, people no longer learn about the crucial events of the first millennium because they are too busy learning about things in the third millennium.

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... include the author's name or user-id at the beginning or the end of the message.
A good idea. Something similar was discussed here recently. Anyway, henceforth, the name and source-blog title will show up as the first line in the post.

...Darwinian evolution. Stupid people are killing themselves off in many ways -- automobile accidents are a prime example.
Without data to back this up, I find it unconvincing. One could say: stupid people are being supported by welfare as never before... stupid people have more babies than the bright ones... Without data, it's all a guess.
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There have been adequate challenges and stimuli to learning in every period of time.

I'm not sure what, if anything, this means. Certainly the skills necessary to survive have changed significantly from pre-civilization to the middle ages, to the modern day. Ancient periods stressed hunting and gathering skills, in dark ages, high intelligence was probably useless or worse, and today we are developing skills never before needed - like reading and mathematics.

Rather, it is a result of Darwinian evolution. Stupid people are killing themselves off in many ways -- automobile accidents are a prime example.

Evolution takes hundreds and perhaps thousands of generations. I don't think there has been any meaningful change since civilization began, and certainly not since infant mortality dropped of in the industrial world.

Taking history for example, people no longer learn about the crucial events of the first millennium because they are too busy learning about things in the third millennium.

I would rather say that it's because government education is too incompetent to teach kids anything, much less ancient history.

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... henceforth, the name and source-blog title will show up as the first line in the post.

Thank you.

Without data, it's all a guess.
Yes, but the whole point is to explain the "rise in IQ scores over the past 30 years".

... in dark ages, high intelligence was probably useless or worse, ...

What makes you think that?

Yes, different skills are needed today than were needed in the past. But intelligence is not a skill; it is the ability to acquire skills.

Evolution takes hundreds and perhaps thousands of generations.
I think that your understanding of evolution is wrong. Evolution can change a species significantly in one generation, if the selective pressure is strong enough. For example, Dutch elm disease has virtually exterminated the vast majority of elms which are susceptible to it. The next generation will come only from the survivors from which they will inherit resistance.

... government education is too incompetent to teach kids anything, much less ancient history.

You got me there. :)

Edited by jrs
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I think that your understanding of evolution is wrong. Evolution can change a species significantly in one generation, if the selective pressure is strong enough. For example, Dutch elm disease has virtually exterminated the vast majority of elms which are susceptible to it. The next generation will come only from the survivors from which they will inherit resistance.

So in THIRTY YEARS enough stupid people have been killed off, presumably by technology, that the following generation was much more intelligent? The trend over the past thirty years has been for the highly intelligent to have FEWER children, not MORE.

Evolution is no explanation for a dramatic increase taking place over one generation. The increase is most notable in the middle part of the population, the part that gains the most benefit from increasing complexity of entertainment. A genius is still not challenged by our better entertainment, and geniuses haven't evidenced a similar increase in intelligence. Likewise, a moron never had the capacity to understand or benefit from even the existing entertainment, and morons have not evidenced a similar increase of intelligence.

Frankly, I'm amazed that you can draw such a sweeping conclusion with no basis: this is a book review, intended to encourage you to review the book! I didn't cover even 1/10th of the author's argument, and I CERTAINLY didn't express all his evidence for each particular point!

It's much better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

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So in THIRTY YEARS enough stupid people have been killed off, presumably by technology, that the following generation was much more intelligent?

I would not blame technology. Rather, I would say that it is their failure to deal with the complexities of their environment whether technological or otherwise.

Ayn Rand stressed that reason was Man's means of survival. Reasoning works better with more intelligence. So it should not be surprising that intelligence is selected for.

The trend over the past thirty years has been for the highly intelligent to have FEWER children, not MORE.
Could it be the upper class which is having fewer children rather than the more intelligent people?

It's much better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

Right back at you.

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