Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Jun 6, 2006

Everything Bad Is Good for You

This little book by Steven Johnson posts an interesting hypothesis: is it possible that modern popular culture is actually making us smarter? According to Johnson, there's a very good chance that it is.

In a world where prophetic warnings against the dumbing effects of popular culture are rampant, Johnson's view seems more than a little crazy. However, he points to a number of trends that seem to support his viewpoint, trends he refers to as the "sleeper curve". One of the most intriguing is his mention of the Flynn Effect: an unusual and unexplained rise in IQ scores over the past 30 years.

Across the board, irrespective of class or race or education, Americans were getting smarter. Flynn was able to quantify the shift: in forty-six years, the American people had gained 13.8 IQ points on average.

The trend had gone unnoticed for so long because th eIQ establishment routinely normalized the exams to ensure that a person of average intelligence scored 100 on the test. So, every few years, they'd review the numbers and tweak the test to ensure that the median score was 100. Without realizing it, they were slowly but reliably increasing the difficulty of the test, as though they were ramping up the speed of a treadmill. If you looked exclusively at the history of the scores themselves, IQ seemed to be running in place, unchanged over the past century. But if you factored in the mounting challenge presented by the tests themselves, the picture changed dramatically: the test-takers were getting smarter.

What in popular culture could possibly be responsible for this shift in intelligence? Why attribute it to popular culture at all?

The real problem is that the Flynn Effect doesn't correlate to anything else. After all, during the same period educational performance has been very obviously decreasing, as evidenced studies of SAT scores and other performance indicators too numerous to mention. If Americans are performing less well as students, (and, in my opinion, being taught increasingly poorly at the same time) how on earth are we getting smarter?

Johnson's answer: video games. Well, not just video games, but a number of forms of popular entertainment: television, movies, even Dungeons and Dragons. As a gamer, I found this section particularly amusing (bold emphasis mine):

Once you released your Dwarven fighter into the world, the calculations involved in determining the effects of his actions--attacking a specific creature with a specific weapon under specific circumstances with a specific squad of comrades fighting alongside you--would leave most kids weeping if you put the same charts on a math quiz.

Which gets to the ultimate question of why a ten-year-old found any of this fun. For me, the embarrassing truth of the matter is that I did ultimately grow frustrated with my baseball simulation, but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn't that arcane language wore me down, or that I grew tired of switching columns on the Bases Empty chart, or that I decided that six hours was too long ot spend alone in my room on a Saturday afternoon in July.

No, I moved on from [the baseball simulation] because it wasn't realistic enough.

Does that seem bizarre? Most of the gamers I know have gone through precisely this experience, and decided to design their own system to fix what they perceived as the problems with the existing ones! Remember, also, that we're talking about ultra-complicated hobbies that once only ultra-geeks pursued at all . . . D&D is now huge!

The trend towards more complicated, and thus more intelligence-raising entertainment can be found everywhere. Yes, appalling junk still exists, but as he says, "even the crap is getting better."

The book is an interesting read, although Johnson doesn't prove that pop culture is making Americans smarter. He says that a lot more research needs to be done, a fact that only adds to his presentation. How often does some pseudo-scientist notice a correlation between two facts and immediately announce that this necessarily indicates causation as well? Here, at least, we have someone that is willing to say "I have two facts that run roughly parallel, maybe they're related?"

As for me, I'm hoping this means that, in the future, there will be some TV shows I might actually want to watch.

Rating: 3.5

Cross-posted to the Objectivism Metablog


Anonymous said...

just remember that MOST of humanity wanted to kill people with ideas so radical that the common man could not understand them.. i guess the posters here represent most of humanity ;-)

Inspector said...

I knew it!

The Christians had it one letter off: The [i]G[/i]eek will inherit the earth.