Dangerous ideas

The “third culture” Web site edge.org has a provocative New Year’s ritual: the Annual Question.

This year’s question, suggested by Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, is, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

The Edge describes it this way: “The history of science is replete with
discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally
dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are
the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about
(not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it
is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”

third-culture intellectuals, they mean people who believe in the
importance of a synthesis of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” That is, “The
third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the
empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are
taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible
the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

And a variety of them have at it.

Some of the ideas verge on the cosmic. We are/we are not alone, in the
universe. Often, if someone proposes one side of an idea, someone else
proposes its opposite. Michael Shermer defines the best way to live as
in a free society, characterized by free-market economics and
democratic politics, fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. Mihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi says the most dangerous idea is the hegemony of the
free market.

And some ideas leave you wondering: “Panpsychism.
Each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper,
flakes of skin, molecules _ each of them possesses the same inner glow
as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.”


Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted “dangerous” as
meaning something like “subversive,” challenging to one or another
received orthodoxy.

In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test.

And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and
district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the
variables measured.

Why is that subversive? Because so many
people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual
IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not
evenly distributed demographically.

In fact, Pinker’s answer to
his own question is: “Groups of people may differ genetically in their
average talents and temperaments.”

As it happens, I think he is
right about the genetic bit; but for purposes of deciding on good
public policy, it is not necessary to determine why groups of people
differ. One may declare oneself _ as Charles Murray and Richard
Herrnstein did in “The Bell Curve” _ “resolutely agnostic” on the “why”
question, and still acknowledge the need to deal with the consequences
of differences that demonstrably exist.

Eventual adult IQ for
most people is reliably established by the time children enter middle
school, say sixth grade. That would be a natural time to administer an
IQ test, under guidelines that need further study but that would
include at least the following:

  • Every child entering sixth grade would be offered the opportunity to take a brief, standardized, culture-fair IQ test.
  • Parents would have the legal right to exempt their children, without penalty.
  • Parents could obtain the results of the test, on request.
  • The results would be used only for statistical purposes, and no
    individually identifiable information would be accessible to classroom
    teachers or other school staff working with individual children except
    at the parents’ initiative.

Why would you want to do this? The
goal, and the likely result, would be not to amplify the significance
of group characteristics such as race, class and gender, but to
diminish it.

Here’s a thought experiment to ponder. A young
couple become the proud parents of identical twin girls. As the
children grow, the parents notice that the younger one, whose birth
records show she was born 9 ounces lighter than her sister, has trouble
keeping up. When they start school, the difference is unmistakable; the
older girl soars, the younger one struggles.

The parents take
the girls for a thorough professional evaluation, and the results are
unequivocal. The older girl has a measured IQ of 115, the younger, 85.

Race is not at issue; whatever image formed in your mind when you read “identical twin daughters,” the girls match.

Socioeconomic status is not a factor; whatever it is, they share it. They have the same genes.

And their parents love them equally, and will choose the best possible
educational setting for each of them, but it probably won’t be the same
setting. They won’t indulge in the folly of trying to “close the
achievement gap” between their daughters.

Schools trying to
close the achievement gap _ and they should try _ should first make
certain they have considered all the ways it may arise.

(Contact Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)