Are we getting better at handling abstraction? – Radiolab podcast on Killing Babies, Saving the World

March 11, 2014 at 1:10 am 8 comments

I’m a fan of Radiolab podcasts.  The one referenced below talks about the Flynn effect. Comparison of various tests of IQ over decades suggest that we’ve been getting smarter over the last 100 years.  Josh Greene argues that we (as humans in the developing world) may be developing greater ability to handle abstract thinking.  Abstraction isn’t everything in computer science (as Bennedsen and Caspersen showed us in 2008), but it is important.  Could our problems with computing education resolve over time, because we’re all getting better at abstraction?  Might it become easier to teach computer science in future decades, as we develop better cognitive abilities?  Given that performance on the Rainfall Problem has not improved over the last thirty years, I doubt it, but it’s an intriguing hypothesis.

Robert talks to Josh Greene, the Harvard professor we had on our Morality show. They revisit some ideas from that show in the context of the big, complicated problems of today (think global warming and nuclear war). Josh argues that to deal with those problems, we’re going to have to learn how to make better use of that tiny part of our brain that handles abstract thinking. Not a simple proposition, but, despite the odds, Josh has hope.

via Killing Babies, Saving the World – Radiolab.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  March 11, 2014 at 1:42 am

    I thought the Flynn effect was attributable mainly to the reduction in incidence of sever mental retardation, due mainly to better nutrition during pregnancy, but also to amniocentesis and early detection of major chromosomal abnormalities.

    That is—the middle of the pack isn’t moving up much, we’re just trimming more off the low end.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  March 11, 2014 at 8:45 am

      One of the cited studies in the Wikipedia article did find that the effect was greatest at the lower IQ levels (as you suggest), but the comparison of army recruits over decades wouldn’t be effected by that.

      • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  March 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm

        Why not? If army recruits are randomly sampled, then censoring one end of the distribution would have an effect. If we are looking at volunteers, then sociological effects on who volunteers (like job availability) are going to have a much larger effect than changes in the underlying population.

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  March 11, 2014 at 9:53 pm

          I see your point. I haven’t read Josh Greene’s papers yet where he makes the argument that we may be getting better at abstraction, so I don’t know how he gets around this issue.

  • 5. Raymond Lister  |  March 11, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    The question “are we getting better at abstraction” would seem to imply that there is one sort of “abstraction”. I’m inclined to the view there are many forms of abstraction, and skill at any one of those forms is learnt. My understanding of the Flynn effect is that we are increasingly exposed to the types of abstract reasoning tested in IQ tests, especially in our schooling. Bennedsen and Caspersen tested for one form of abstract reasoning, but didn’t find a correlation to grade in programming for two not mutually exclusive reasons: 1) programming uses a different form of abstract reasoning to the one B&C tested for, and 2) the tests used to assign grades in programming may not have been a valid test of programming ability.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  March 12, 2014 at 9:29 am

      You’re likely right. I know that we make similar sweeping generalizations when we talk about spatial intelligence. The Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center has identified several kinds. We typically test for the ability to rotate 3-D objects. SILC has new tests for other kinds of spatial abilities, e.g., I hand you a map of campus and a picture. Where was the picture taken on campus? That requires spatial reasoning, but a different kind than 3-D rotations.

  • 7. Raymond Lister  |  March 12, 2014 at 4:41 am

    “Josh argues that to deal with [global warming, nuclear war and other] problems, we’re going to have to learn how to make better use of that tiny part of our brain that handles abstract thinking”.

    On that issue, perhaps an article from the LA times might be of interest …,0,1622098.column#axzz2vW06Eprh

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  March 12, 2014 at 9:27 am

      What a fascinating and deeply distressing article!


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