Book Review: “In the Know: Debunking 35 Myths about Human Intelligence,” by Russell T. Warne

I kept hearing good things about this book, so I was looking forward to Prof. Warne’s analysis of the misinformation about intelligence, and I was not disappointed. Prof. Warne methodically describes the basics of intelligence, starting with basic information about statistics and the history of research into intelligence, and leads the reader into 35 myths about intelligence.

The surprising thing to me was that Prof. Warne had so many myths to explode: 35! But on reflection, this number wasn’t blown out of proportion, for there are a lot of myths out there which can best be called, “zombie ideas” (a term which, sadly, I cannot claim I coined!). What myths about intelligence need to be de-bunked? Of his 35, I’ll select five:

  1. “Intelligence tests are just whatever a psychologist decides to measure” (Ch. 1).
    • Prof. Warne skillfully discusses the misconception about the most widely accepted theory of intelligence as a general ability which influences performance on variety of tasks—rather than intelligence being a simple “sum of a collection of tasks” (p. 31).
  2. “Intelligence is a Western concept” (Ch. 4)
    • Here, Prof. Warne notes that the statistical finding of the general intelligence is remarkably consistent in populations across cultures.
  3. ”The Content of Intelligence Tests is Trivial and Cannot Measure Intelligence” (Ch. 8).
    • I’ll start with my personal aside that “The content of scales, telescopes, and thermometers is trivial and cannot be used to measure physics” is obviously incorrect.
      Here, Prof. Warne takes a better approach by noting that the thing behind these seemingly trivial tasks—intelligence, often measured from an early age—are strongly related to later life outcomes such as adult socioeconomic status (SES). Putting this matter first later helps him address a later myth about the “chicken and the egg” paradox about SES supposedly being the cause, rather than the effect, of intelligence (Ch. 11).
  4. “Genes are not Responsible for Determining Intelligence” (Ch. 13).
    • The recent research by, among countless others, Robert Plomin on the identification of genes associated with intelligence should have made headlines, but, like so many psychological findings, instead it barely made a blip on the radar of science news in the mainstream media.
      Thankfully, Prof. Warne has read—and cites—several of Plomin’s and his colleagues’ articles. More importantly, Warne lays out how even alleles in single genes can be the cause of devastating conditions. It should not come as a surprise that a complicated and universal aspect of our minds like intelligence would have a genetic influence.
  5. “Every Child is Gifted” (Ch. 18).
    • Let me start with my initial reaction to this myth: Jim Barnes.
      Here, Prof. Warne poses the obvious counterexample: “No one would claim every adult is gifted.” (p. 159). Ha! He then addresses the implicit message behind the “every child is gifted”: the idea that if only more were invested in education, more children would go on to become gifted luminaries. Unfortunately, he lays out a series of devastating findings against this idea. Instead, he reasonably calls for ”rigorous education for all, not gifted education for all” (p. 167).

As you can see, I barely scratched the surface, and Prof. Warne’s book is of course much broader and deeper than I can do justice to here. This material is important to me as someone who has been frustrated with the misinformation about intelligence in the public sphere. Having spent over the same decade learning about and working on intelligence and assessment, it’s all too common to have someone outside of the field explain to me what their theories of psychology and intelligence are—not to mention a little insulting! I believe this to be the result of both negligent media outlets, websites that use the word “IQ” as clickbait links, a general rising anti-intellectualism, and perhaps a deep-seated discomfort with the idea that anyone could be significantly more intelligent than someone else.

Regardless of the reason for it, books like this are an important counter to today’s resurgent anti-psychology culture.

5 out of 5 stars.

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