Return to the NeoEugenics'
Weaving a tall tale about
intelligence: how Robert J. Sternberg keeps trying to derail the science of
"I, in fact, also asked a number of outspoken
opponents of g-theory to write a chapter, and reserved a full part of the book
for them, with the explicit purpose of seeking a balanced presentation of g
theory. Unfortunately, I did not have much success in reaching this goal. One
opponent said he had over the years had so many occasions to criticize g that
he would consider it inappropriate to once more present his critical points in
a book of this kind. He nobly added that his respect for Arthur Jensen was so
great that he would rather see the book appear as laudatory as could be. Other
opponents were rather brisk: "I do not want to contribute to such a
book". Still others, such as Howard Gardner and Daniel Goleman, could
neither find the time nor the motive to write a chapter. From the balance point
of view, this is regrettable because science progresses best by first
presenting all the pros and cons and then making an informed decision. But then
again, it is a free country. Perhaps Robert Sternberg from
That is a good indication of what type of person Sternberg is, but in science, one's temperament or political agenda should not be used as a means of argument. As much as possible, scientists set aside motives and personalities and concentrate on the data. But, where a pattern keeps reappearing, it is fair to also scientifically examine why certain people behave as they do, in a scientific pursuit to understand human nature and human differences. Does Sternberg dismiss entirely Jensen's construct of g—or mental ability? Not really, for he states in the above book, "The evidence in favor of a general factor of intelligence is, in one sense, overwhelming. This evidence is so well documented by Jensen that there is no need to repeat it here. One would have to be blind or intransigent not to give this evidence its due. Not only is there evidence for the internal validity of the g factor, there also is evidence for its external validity as well. Again, Jensen's documentation, as well as that of others, is scientifically impressive. The impact of Jensen's work on g to the field of psychology—in terms of both the support and the criticism it has generated—is a tribute both to Jensen and to his many ideas, including that of a general factor." (Nyborg, 2003)
Later I came across a chapter written by Sternberg in a book that provides a sampling of personality types and behaviors that tries to show that there are mixed blessings in say having high neuroticism, or low self-esteem (Chang, 2003). That is, many behavioral types can be beneficial or not, depending on the circumstances or context. Sternberg then was to provide an argument that high intelligence is not what it is cracked up to be, or at least as it is presented by Jensenists. In my opinion, he has done little more than create out of whole cloth subsets of general intelligence that just do not exist, as I will explain.
From his attack on Jensen, as well as what he has written elsewhere and here, he falls nicely into the group of intelligence detractors that are not happy with a non-Marxist, non-egalitarian approach to science. He states in his article that:
"[W]isdom probably is best developed through the incorporation of dialectical thinking into one's processing of problems. The essence of dialectical thinking is that most problems in the world do not have right or wrong answers, but better or worse ones, and what is seen as a good answer can vary with time and place. With respect to time, it involves the recognition that ideas evolve over time through an ongoing, unending process of thesis followed by antithesis followed by synthesis, with the synthesis in turn becoming the next thesis. When dialectical thinking occurs with respect to place (or space), it involves the recognition that at a given point in time, people may have diverging viewpoints on problems that seem uniquely valid or at least reasonable to them."
Clearly, Marxism is alive and well in our academic institutions, because to yield to science alone opens the door to eugenics, genetic engineering, inequality, hierarchy, libertarianism, and all manner of evil. To Sternberg and those like him, the world can only be saved if we reject science for a system of moralizing gods that do not tread on certain subjects—they must be relegated to a religious faith of some sort in a secular world. It is a reflection of the kind of thinking we see taking place over the
Sternberg's argument against general intelligence is a simple one—researchers have not gone far enough to uncover two aspects that have been hidden: creativity and wisdom. Let's see how valid his assertions are that these should be included as facets, or as he calls it, the triarchic theory of intelligence.
The first one is quite easy to dispense with. Creativity has been recognized as valuable, but it is hard to measure and this has been an accepted fact. But it also has been researched extensively, and recent data places creativity clearly in the category of a behavioral trait, even if it is one that has more potency when it is accompanied by intelligence. That is, a person can be creative and stupid, but they will never be a rocket scientist. All Sternberg shows is what everyone in psychometrics already knows: intelligence is a necessary but not sufficient trait in order to achieve great success in those endeavors that require intelligence—which is just about everything outside of athletics.
Sternberg correctly points out that many geniuses never amount to anything, and he uses that observation to draw an incorrect assumption that therefore there must be more to intelligence! It is an odd assertion, because the absence of greatness in many geniuses has been noted for many years and discussed. Simply put, having high intelligence gives you the ability to reason, but not the drive to reason and produce. Intelligent people, like stupid people, can be unmotivated. Behind intelligence, conscientiousness is the second most important behavioral trait that leads to success. All this means is that there are all kinds of personality traits, styles of nurturing, and life circumstances that lead a few people to strive for achievement while most people accept far less of themselves; quite normal really.
Colin Cooper discusses Sternberg's theory in Individual Differences, 2002:
"The final theory to be considered here is that of Sternberg (1985). Sternberg argued that conventional ability tests were rather narrow in scope when compared to laypersons' views of what constituted 'smart' or 'intelligent' behavior. In Sternberg's eyes there seems to be relatively little difference between being 'intelligent' and 'being successful in life in twentieth-century America'…."
"Kline (1991) raises some serious problems concerning this theory, but I am worried by a more fundamental point. By defining intelligence so broadly, it seems that Sternberg is stepping deep into the realm of personality and performance. 'Style' of behavior (which presumably includes problem-solving) was, after all, how we initially defined personality. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Sternberg's focus has recently turned to understanding the relationship between (his theory of) intelligence and personality (Sternberg, 1994), which all seems rather circular."
So making good use of one's intelligence (the motivation) is far different from having the necessary intelligence to acquire levels of knowledge or skills that are associated with intelligent behavior. An interesting observation that is being made by psychometricians is that creativity may be associated often with psychopathy. That is, the same individuals who are insensitive to others, and have a more mechanistic personality style, are also those (especially males) who are aggressive and creative. They are the nonconformists that care little for the feelings of others, and they come in many flavors from the highly creative mathematician to the crooked politician, to the serial killer. It is a personality trait that has nothing to do with intelligence.
Eysenck states, "The best evidence available, using an agreed system of classification (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—DSM-III), has been provided recently by Felix Post, who carefully read through the biographies written about 291 famous men of science, politics, music, art, writing, and thinking, and diagnosed them in terms of factual ac-counts of their behaviour. He found the least amount of marked or severe psychopathology in scientists (44 percent); composers showed 50 percent, politicians 59 percent, artists 56 percent, thinkers 62 percent and writers 88 percent. Whatever ordinary men might have shown of psychopathology during the last century (when most of the geniuses lived), it is unlikely to have been quite that much! So Post agrees with the best qualified psychiatrists who have done similar studies that there is a close relation between genius and psychopathology, but he also found strong evidence of what psychologists call ego-strength—a high degree of motivation, marked ability to work hard, intense concentration. Normally ego-strength and psychopathology are negatively correlated (around -0.60), thus the combination of the two make the genius quite unusual." (Eysenck, 1999)
Kinner tells us why even though Sternberg thinks creativity is good, the personality types that are creative is a mixed bag of good and bad: "The very concept of psychopathic personality has been, and continues to be, controversial in both academic and criminal justice circles. Nevertheless, the construct has both considerable clinical and predictive utility, and extensive theoretical support. A diagnosis of psychopathy should inform the decisions of judges, juries, parole boards, mental health tribunals, and clinicians alike. An evolutionary understanding of psychopathy as an adaptive, discrete, frequency-dependent life strategy should likewise inform the decisions of policymakers concerned with reducing crime, minimizing violence and maximizing the potential of at-risk youth. Antisocial behavior is neither desirable nor adaptive, but with appropriate, intensive and timely intervention, psychopathic individuals might be challenged to make their mark on the world in asocial, if not prosocial, ways." (Kinner in Bloom, 2003)
So Sternberg seems to be trying to "redeem" those who are not "academically intelligent" by trying to show that some people can be creative but not necessarily smart in terms of mental ability. This is the same egalitarian motivation that
Sternberg admits that higher levels of intelligence leads to generally good outcomes, "Intelligence is correlated with many positive life outcomes, such as generalized socioeconomic status, being employed, income from employment, various kinds of evaluations of job success, prestige of job, marital stability, and freedom from criminal record…. Moreover, the correlation between IQ and job success seems to hold across virtually all jobs."
He gets into fuzzy ideas about intelligence when he starts telling his just-so stories without support from empirical evidence. For example, he claims that, "creative flexibility [helps] to keep up with a rapidly changing set of expectations, technologies, social mores, and so forth. With respect to practical intelligence, an important aspect of job success is being able to relate effectively to colleagues and supervisors and being able to figure out the kinds of behavior that lead to salary increases and job promotions."
It appears however that creative people are not the same people who will follow orders blindly. Creative people will challenge the status quo, and that often is not appreciated when human nature is for the most part extremely docile. Those who creatively challenge procedures for example quite often get into conflicts.
As to practical intelligence, in the above statement he is again just talking about personality traits such as neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc. A person can be highly intelligent and have an impossible personality to deal with. They are not connected.
He then claims, that intelligence is not tied to leadership qualities, something that I would not expect from highly intelligent people anymore than any other group. Leaders of drug gangs need not be intelligent at all, but are quite often at least more intelligent on average than the gang members. So as Sternberg points out, yes leaders are usually more intelligent than the average person that is being led, but the differential is not that great usually. A highly intelligent academic is best at leading other highly intelligent academics, they would be frustrated talking down to say union members if they were the union rep. In fact, say there was a drop-out genius who just wanted to be a custodian. I would doubt that with their intelligence, they would then want to be head of the custodial union! It is obvious to me, and research does show, that there is rarely a large gap in intelligence between the leader and the led. But I do not find this fact very extraordinary, as Sternberg tries to develop it. Again, IQ is not the same as personalities or being able to communicate with peers.
He then remarks that: "Under conditions of low stress, intelligence is positively associated with leadership; under conditions of high stress, however, intelligence is negatively associated with success in leadership (whereas experience is positively associated with leadership success)." Again, under stress like emergencies, a person with rote learning will react without thinking. There is nothing remarkable about this observation. Intelligent people I would expect to be those who are always taking on more tasks, learning new skills, and moving on to other tasks when they get bored. The less intelligent worker is more likely to stick to the script, and when there are emergencies, they react in a natural way to what they know.
I for amazed at craftsmen who just start ripping into a project, tearing out walls, floors, and electrical equipment and then reconstructing it almost without thought. I am equally amazed, how little they understand about the history of construction and what the systems are intended to do; they can make egregious mistakes because they are running on autopilot. So yes, if my house got hit by lighting and needed a fast repair, causing a great deal of stress, I would want craftsman to reconstruct it as fast a possible. But when it comes to planning and designing my retirement home, I want to take my time and put together an elegant design that will be as close to perfect as possible. I think that is all we are seeing in leadership under stress versus leadership not under stress. The first gets the job done using rote learning, the second can use intellect to make something that surpasses the average.
Sternberg then tries to claim that Bill Clinton got into problems with his sexual escapades because intelligent people make "mistakes that characterize many individuals who are intelligent, even brilliant, but at the same time unwise and even foolish." I don't see it like that at all. Powerful people get into trouble because they have little guilt, or they have so much power that when THEY get into trouble it makes the news.
What Sternberg is arguing for is a linkage between practical intelligence, wisdom and mental ability, because like any religious dogmatist he wants people to conform to his egalitarian value system. In order to impose this new orthodoxy, he needs to try and link something real (mental ability) with something that is abstract but universal (wisdom). This is just another form of that old-time religion:
"Wisdom is not just a story about great leaders of the world. It is something anyone can show. Wisdom can be defined as the 'power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.' (Webster's New World College Dictionary, 1997, p. 1533). Thus, wisdom is related to intelligence, but it is more than intelligence. This is a characteristic open to anyone, and there are several reasons to understand wisdom beyond saving the world. A second reason is to provide people with a means to achieving happiness and contentment in their lives, not just success. Intelligence, ambition, and sheer drive may be keys to success of certain kinds, but the history of our times shows they provide no keys to happiness. Wisdom, I argue, does. A third reason to study wisdom is that it is open to anyone. It is not some unreachable attribute that only the few can share."
However, if we accept Sternberg's sermonizing, we can certainly use what he calls wisdom to alter society to his liking. Note there is no empirical basis for his statements concerning the linkage between wisdom and happiness. Humans did not evolve mechanisms to make them happy, they evolved mechanism to make them reproductively successful meaning that striving for success is everything. Happiness, like orgasms, revenge, anger, love, and all the other emotions are purposeful because at some time in our evolutionary past they motivated us to act on average in such a way that we reproduced and left offspring. Wisdom, to my knowledge, is not a brain module that is different from intelligence just because Sternberg does not like what evolution has produced via human nature.
Later, he places additional moral constraints on his vision of wisdom:
"Wisdom, in contrast, is used when people use their tacit knowledge in the service of a common good. They seek the best possible outcome not just for themselves, but rather for all. They believe that in the long run, what is best for all truly is best for them too. The common good takes into account the interests of anyone who might potentially be affected by a judgment or decision."
The above violates everything known to evolutionists. A great deal of work has gone into why humans act altruistically, resulting in concepts such as kinship, reciprocal altruism, and group evolutionary strategies that indeed do seem to benefit the individual who acts to help or cooperates with others. However, to link wisdom with an evolutionary goal must be rejected outright as an invalid understanding of the fundamentals. One could hope that we lived in a world where an organism took into consideration all other organisms on the planet, and not just their own selfish needs, but it just does not work like that: an ought is not an is. To reduce human conflict we need to understand human nature, and not go about inventing new forms of justification for making people behave against their own best interests.
Sternberg then mixes a normative ethical system with an empirical concept of intelligence: "How do wise people go about seeking a common good? They do so by balancing their own interests with the interests of others and of institutions (e.g., an organization, a community, or a society). Thus wisdom always involves a balancing act, and it is for this reason that the theory is called a balance theory of wisdom. In the theory, these three interests are referred to as intrapersonal interests (one's own interests), inter-personal interests (the interests of others), and extrapersonal interests (the interests of institutions and society)."
Every ethical system proposed by philosophers has failed because they are normative rather than natural (see Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition by Casebeer, 2003). Only a system based on an evolutionary understanding of how and why humans behave the way they do has any chance of being based on something that goes beyond mere indoctrination, where the elite gets the masses to act against their best wishes. It seems to me then that Sternberg is arguing for people to act in such a manner that will again benefit the elite, by giving them rules to live by, where they will be less problematic to the elite. Now not only are they good Americans, or good Christians, but they are wise to boot! Sternberg's message is just more indoctrination of the masses.
Sternberg does seem to understand evolution but then twists it into something else:
"Adaptation occurs when individuals modify themselves to suit their environments. People adapt when they enter new jobs, move to new communities, or start new relationships. Adaptation is important because without it, a person or any other organism would not survive for very long, as
Of course, wisdom in the above sense is nothing more than acquired knowledge of the world, which is easier to acquire the more intelligent a person is. The fact that some very bright people may be so isolated from some parts of the world like an inner-city ghetto may get them into trouble if they happen to get lost and wonder into the ghetto, it says nothing about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps a wise person is just a very smart person that has been exposed to more of the world than an introverted, pampered, bookworm. That is a matter of exposure to different environments. It does not mean that there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom. Perhaps we could say that wisdom is the combination of intelligence (the ability to learn) coupled with a broad exposure to different learning experiences. Nevertheless, in a world of specialization, it may not be necessary or even beneficial to most people to be exposed to every nuance of life so that they can acquire some nondescript form of wisdom that can't be quantified or qualified in any empirical way.
Finally, Sternberg goes out on a speculative limb and states: "However, a natural experiment has taken place: Over the last few generations, IQs around the world have been rising, even though the conditions of the world seem not to be a whole lot better. Maybe this is because the answer is not and never was in increased intelligence but in increased wisdom."
There are several errors here. First, he is talking about the Flynn Effect, where intelligence test scores have been rising, but now seem to be leveling off. We saw the same thing happen with people's heights. Even though stature is about 90% genetic, people overall got taller as good nutrition became almost universal. However, those studying the Flynn Effect admit that they don't see any real increase in the apparent intelligence of people. It remains a mystery (see my review of The Rising Curve).
Second, Sternberg wants us to believe that the world in not any better from what is was say fifty years ago. He blames this on a lack of wisdom. Of course, I don't know of anyone who has come up with criteria for measuring a better world. What does a better world look like? For Sternberg, a better world would be one based on a Marxist dialectic. For me, a better world is one where we can increasingly understand what life means, how we got where we are, and how can we change ourselves for the better through genetic engineering. I think the world is getting very good indeed.