Models of human intelligence

I want to revisit this Alex Knapp quote yet again:

if [politicians] hold ideas about the world around us that are fundamentally at odds with scientific evidence, then that will ultimately infringe on their ability to make reasoned judgments about a host of issues where the economy touches technology.

As I read it, such statements (here’s another example) implicitly invoke a model of human cognition. They assume human intelligence operates in a certain way, such that we can use how people think about topic X to predict how they will think or approach topic Y. A question we can ask about any model is…is this a good model? How does it encapsulate what we know about the subject? What are its deficiencies? What can we trust and what can’t we?

As a trivial example, consider models of the solar system. If you study these models (or just read the first paragraph of the linked Wikipedia article), you see that most are not to scale and do a terrible job representing the relative sizes and distances of the planets. We can critique different solar system models as better or worse on these criteria. Model A might better represent the sizes of the planets whereas model B does the same for distances.

So instead of worrying about societal implications, or how we treat individuals or groups, or whether Knapp’s argument is statistical or deterministic, let’s try to deconstruct and critique it as a model. I see Knapp (and much writing on creationists) modeling human intelligence as a single measurement on-off switch. That is, they model people as either rational (on) or irrational (off), full stop. And to determine whether the person “is” or “isn’t” rational, you can make a single measurement–does this person believe in evolution? So does this model make sense? Does it encapsulate the full range of outcomes we see in human intelligence?

To start answering this question, we’d have to study cognitive psychology, something I’ve started delving into. The main take-away from my reading is that this issue is fri**ing complicated. As just a single example, here’s a paragraph from James Flynn’s contribution to Cato Unbound’s extensive discussion on IQ:

All of this has implications for the theory of intelligence.  There is nothing really the matter with the concept of [general intelligence]; it is just that we have misused it by making it the omnipresent concept in our study of cognitive abilities.  Intelligence is important on three levels, namely, brain physiology, individual differences, and social trends (collectively, BIDS).  The core of a BIDS approach to intelligence is that each of those levels has its own organizing concept, and it is a mistake to impose the architectonic concept of one level on another. We have to realize that intelligence can act like a highly correlated set of abilities on one level and act like a set of functionally independent abilities on other levels.

We need a conceptual model of human intelligence that helps us understand and appreciate how complicated it is, and how it manifests itself in so many different ways. I have the germ of an idea that I’m going to try develop in the next few posts. But to give you a preview, that’s where I’m headed.


  1. Interested. Of course my question would be what’s the point of creating such a conceptual model of intelligence at all. Doesn’t model imply predictability and you might be possibly saying it’s not predictable.

    1. Really good question. This could easily devolve into a debate on “what is a model” or “what are the purposes of models.” I admit I may be applying the term loosely…but from my quick research (I linked to it in my post), conceptual models help us understand a topic.

      Maybe I should have been less ambitious and just use the word “analogy.” I think that’s what I’m getting at anyway. Analogies and metaphors help us understand topics we might be unfamiliar with. I think we need a good one for cognitive ability.

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