Bell Curve's Reliance on IQ Scores To Make Its Point Is Rapped

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New York

It has been nearly a year since the book The Bell Curve ignited a controversy over alleged racial differences in IQ, but the debate was still going strong at the national meeting of the American Psychological Association here last month.

During the five-day meeting, at least four sessions--almost all of them critical--were devoted to the book.

"Selective presentation of data is bad science," Robert J. Sternberg, a Yale University psychology professor, said during one of the sessions. "A book like that would not pass peer review."

The central point of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Society is that America is becoming stratified into a nation of intellectual haves and have-nots. But the book's authors--the late Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, a public-policy scholar with the American Enterprise Institute--drew their sharpest criticisms for suggesting that blacks as a group are intellectually inferior to whites. Moreover, the authors suggested, there is little that can be done to close that gap because intelligence is largely a matter of heredity. But psychologists here said part of the problem with the book is that it relies too heavily on IQ scores as a true measure of intelligence.

In his own studies, Stephen J. Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University, found, for example, that IQ scores had little or no bearing on a person's earnings in adulthood. The more important predictors, he found, were level of education and social factors.

In another study presented at the conference, Claude Steele, a psychology professor at Stanford University, determined that such scores may not be valid for another reason: They can be altered just by making test-takers aware of stereotypes surrounding their own racial or gender groups.

For his experiments, Mr. Steele and his colleagues administered standardized achievement and intelligence tests to high-achieving women and black college students. Before administering the tests, however, the experimenters subtly made students conscious of stereotypes surrounding their racial or gender groups. They either asked the students to check off their race or sex on a form or they directed instructors to mention that the test was one in which their particular groups have been shown to perform poorly. The effect was to depress the scores of the students from the targeted groups when compared to scores of control groups of blacks and women who were not made aware of the stereotypes.

All of the debate, however, had a familiar ring for some conference-goers. The same arguments took place during in the 1970s after psychologist Arthur Jensen published similar views.

As longtime New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, observed one participant: "'It's d‚j… vu all over again."'

Reading--or even just being around lots of literature--can make you smarter.

That conclusion comes from studies conducted since the mid-1980s by Keith E. Stanovich, a professor of applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Canada.

To determine how literary his experimental subjects were, Mr. Stanovich and his colleagues devised a series of checklists targeted to specific age groups. The lists were given to hundreds of students, ranging from primary school pupils to graduate students. All were asked to check the names on the lists that they recognized to be authors or titles of magazines or books, depending on which list they were given.

The researchers discovered that people who scored high on the lists also tended to score high on standardized intelligence tests, achievement tests, and even tests of general and practical knowledge.

The experimenters also observed travelers waiting in airport lounges to determine which were nonreaders and which were readers. When both groups were given intelligence tests, the readers--those who had been observed reading books or newspapers while they waited--again scored higher.

Moreover, the researchers found in still later experiments, exposure to reading explained much of the variation in the growth of students' test scores as they moved from 3rd grade to 5th.

"There certainly is a lot of support here for the emphasis that teachers have put on free reading in recent years," Mr. Stanovich said in an interview. "The most important habit you can develop is the tendency toward autonomous reading, because then a lot of cognitive skills are going to come with it."

Researchers at another APA session suggested that a seemingly harmless pastime may be damaging young minds. Apparently, playing soccer may have its risks.

Adrienne D. Witol of the Medical College of Virginia, Frank M. Webbe of the Florida Institute of Technology, and Eric A. Zillmer of Drexel University studied 60 male athletes 15 and older who played soccer up to five times a week. They found that athletes who "head" frequently--hit the ball with their heads 10 times or more per game--were much slower at some types of cognitive tests than both nonplayers and players who rarely headed balls. The tests measured attention and concentration.

Yet the psychologists also found that skilled springboard diving--another sport that involves impact to the head--has relatively little impact on mental agility.

"The water actually presents the perfect medium to slow the diver down," Mr. Zillmer said.

As for soccer, Ms. Witol warned that the findings are preliminary.

"We don't yet know if these effects are permanent or whether they go away when the season is over," she said. Nonetheless, she added, coaches may want to emphasize teaching safe heading techniques.

Learning to count in English puts American students at a disadvantage when it comes to learning basic mathematics, according to another researcher who spoke at the conference.

Kevin Miller, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studied hundreds of young children in China and the United States. As preschoolers learning to count, he noted, both groups start out pretty much on par. But Chinese students' performance zooms ahead around ages 3 and 4. Mr. Miller says that happens because American children run into problems about that time as they learn to count past 10. The Chinese word for 11, for example, is translated literally to mean "10-one." The number 12 is "10-two." But the English words for 11 and 12 make the base-10 relationships less clear.

American students' math performance lags again when they reach kindergarten and begin to learn the Arabic numeral system, Mr. Miller said.

"They have to map between, say, 14 and the number that you write," he said. "A lot of kids write 41."

"But in Chinese you write '10-four,"' he said. "This is a strike against American children, but it's something that education can overcome."

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 15, Issue 01

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