Monday, April 13, 2009

"What Intelligence Tests Miss; The Psychology of Rational Thought" by Keith E. Stanovich

Mr. Stanovich is professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. That IQ and SAT exams only indicate a general capacity for rational thought-processing without demonstrating in the least whether those processes are actually being used by the subject is "the hook" upon which the professor hangs a wide-ranging discussion of various cognitive mal-functions.

To put his thesis into the inconsistent mess of 'folk language' (everyday usage) one could simply say : supposedly 'smart' people often do very 'dumb' things.

The author's schemata for rational cognition looks like something akin to the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages. Perhaps Predictably Irrational; The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely gets closer to the earth people actually walk on. Neither are there very many interesting stories in this book with the exception of his examination of the behavior of Wall Street investors which looks cribbed directly from Nassim Taleb's Black Swan. One could boil the whole matter down to an even more concentrated form:

' At seventy I realized that instead of being a lunatic, I was a moron. I read too little and read very slowly, I knew too little about so many things. I picked out this and that which interested me and jumbled them into a bag but that's not the way to make a work of art. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I've always been wrong, eighty-seven percent wrong! Do what you can to save the innocent...stop this Pound influence from spreading to the young!' *

- Ezra Pound-

Sustained rational thinking takes a lot of attention (requires concentration), is slow and interferes with other more pleasant thoughts and actions. But before coming to a conclusion about any important ( and even some seemingly unimportant questions) it is wise to collect a lot of information, seek several different points of view, think of future consequences, weigh the plus and minuses as explicitly as possible, seek the nuances and avoid absolutism. Remember that ambiguous evidence should lead to tentative beliefs; eschew overconfidence, don't waste effort trying to explain chance events and focus more on what you have to gain then what you might lose.

* see comment


  1. "A Serious Character; The Life of Ezra Pound" by Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988, a pastiche of various passages beginning on page 863.

  2. In regard to how to actually make a work of art perhaps the example of Stanley Kubrick sets the bar exceedingly high. Few would have the luxury of going to the lengths he did- collecting material for years before getting down to making a film. He designed special boxes to hold his research material, which is an enormous collection of stuff now housed in a museum somwhere in England.

    Some guy was given unique access to the collection before it was sent to the museuem and made a movie about his experience. It may or may not be available on any given day at this link to free movies:

    Never-the-less, long-term commitment to the process even in the context of limited or uncertain expectations can really pay off in the end. Imagine what you could learn over a period of thirty years if you just devoted one hour each day to reading an interesting book, not to mention the health benefits (lowering blood pressure etc.)

    Of course I wouldn't recommend that what you read just be The Bible or any other equivalent foundation for one or another "spiritual practice". As John Calvin wrote ( what, 500 years ago or so?)

    "We should have the prudence to apply ourselves to what God has done: history, notable judgements left in writing, not only Holy Scripture."

  3. There are a couple of components to rational thought processing which I neglected to mention in my summary. Or, rather, a couple of important irrational processes one might wish to avoid.

    We should try to avoid making decisions based on trivial rewordings of the question.

    This is the "framing" issue, the classic case being the way politicians refer "the estate tax" ( few americans have an estate which qualifies for such a tax)as the "death tax" (all Americans must die one day) thus making an issue which concerns a tiny, privleged minority seem important to everyone.

    But even the author is somewhat guilty of a similiar offense when he introduces alot of schematic, 'cognitive science' jargon such as the 'memeplex' which itself could be explained in historical/anthropological terms with much greater accuracy.

    One should also be careful not to be unduly swayed by vivid presentations of evidence, which are often highly unrepresentative: the 'bread and butter' of network news and most advertising.