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.)