May 10, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell on the Flynn Effect

When Gladwell isn't crippled by political correctness or by his hunger for corporate ka-ching, he remains an insightful commentator. Here he writes about Steven Johnson's book on the Flynn Effect:

Being “smart” involves facility in both kinds of thinking—the kind of fluid problem solving that matters in things like video games and I.Q. tests, but also the kind of crystallized knowledge that comes from explicit learning. 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. When it comes to the other kind of intelligence, 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. “Everything Bad Is Good for You” doesn’t answer that question.

America's stumbling into the War in Error in Iraq does not suggest that we know more today than in the past. Our taste for thinking hard about serious things does not appear any greater, especially when we have so many clever distractions so readily available.

For example, the number of IQ points burned every year these days in the study of baseball statistics is phenomenal. A funny (or perhaps not so amusing) example of this is how much more critical comment Steven D. Levitt has elicited by attacking Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, which praises Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's use of advanced statistics to find winning ballplayers for cheap, than by trumpeting his Swiss Cheese theory that abortion-cut-crime, an assertion that most commentators have accepted on faith. You can see the red-hot controversy over Levitt's heresy on the Oakland A's here, here, and here.

Gregory Cochran looked at how much adult Americans know today about things of real world importance versus in the past for The American Conservative and discovered the answer in both cases was: not much.

Still, I'm tired of hearing comparisons of the sophistication of "The Sopranos" to lowbrow old time mass market TV shows, as in this quote from Gladwell:

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.

Look, "Dallas" was for morons then, too. I took a train ride in Italy in 1980, sharing a compartment with two English hooligans on their way to Turin for a soccer riot. They asked where I was from, but they'd never heard of Houston. So, I said Houston was near Dallas. "Who shot J.R.?" they excitedly exclaimed in unison.

The market has simply changed. There were three networks and almost no cable then, so shows had to obtain a huge audience to survive.

In contrast, have movies gotten more intellectually sophisticated? Does "Kingdom of Heaven" have a more subtle script than "Lawrence of Arabia?" The market has changed there, too, getting more juvenile and global and thus screenplays are now more puerile and illiterate.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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