Monday, November 21, 2011

Talent matters

A NY Times op-ed says:
HOW do people acquire high levels of skill in science, business, music, the arts and sports? This has long been a topic of intense debate in psychology.

...what seems to separate the great from the merely good is hard work, not intellectual ability...Malcolm Gladwell observes that...snip “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120,” he writes, “having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.”snip..

But this isn’t quite the story that science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.
You would think that would be obvious, but apparently not. In the same paper, columnist Thomas L. Friedman writes:
To better understand why some students thrive taking the PISA tests and others do not, Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the exams for the O.E.C.D., was encouraged by the O.E.C.D. countries to look beyond the classrooms. So starting with four countries in 2006, and then adding 14 more in 2009, the PISA team went to the parents of 5,000 students and interviewed them “about how they raised their kids and then compared that with the test results” for each of those years, Schleicher explained to me. Two weeks ago, the PISA team published the three main findings of its study:

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all. The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background. Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA.”
No mention of the talent of either the parents or the kids.

People are a product of nature and nurture. That has been understood since ancient times. Any attempt to understand success in school or science or sports or anything else by just looking at teachers or practices times is doomed. Some people have more talent.

I doubt that parents reading to their kids does any good at all. Maybe smarter kids or parents like to do that, but a study like this does not show that it helps. It may be just a way of selecting the smarter kids.

Update: New research claims to show that IQ is hereditary in roundworms. It appears that they learn to avoid bacteria better if they have the HECW1 gene. Yes, some worms are more talented than others.

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