Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Everything Bad is Not Really Good For You

Another recent read: Steven Berlin Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You. This is just the type of non-fiction that I enjoy reading now and again: Full of thought-provoking ideas, well-written, etc. That said, I think that the overall thesis is pretty much bunk.

Johnson argues that far from dumbing us down, the rise of modern video games, movies, and television is making us smarter. This review by Malcolm Gladwell gives a good summary:
Twenty years ago, a political philosopher named James Flynn uncovered a curious fact. Americans—at least, as measured by I.Q. tests—were getting smarter. This fact had been obscured for years, because the people who give I.Q. tests continually recalibrate the scoring system to keep the average at 100. But if you took out the recalibration, Flynn found, I.Q. scores showed a steady upward trajectory, rising by about three points per decade, which means that a person whose I.Q. placed him in the top ten per cent of the American population in 1920 would today fall in the bottom third. Some of that effect, no doubt, is a simple by-product of economic progress: in the surge of prosperity during the middle part of the last century, people in the West became better fed, better educated, and more familiar with things like I.Q. tests. But, even as that wave of change has subsided, test scores have continued to rise—not just in America but all over the developed world. What’s more, the increases have not been confined to children who go to enriched day-care centers and private schools. The middle part of the curve—the people who have supposedly been suffering from a deteriorating public-school system and a steady diet of lowest-common-denominator television and mindless pop music—has increased just as much. What on earth is happening? In the wonderfully entertaining “Everything Bad Is Good for You” (Riverhead; $23.95), Steven Johnson proposes that what is making us smarter is precisely what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture.

Johnson is the former editor of the online magazine Feed and the author of a number of books on science and technology. There is a pleasing eclecticism to his thinking. He is as happy analyzing “Finding Nemo” as he is dissecting the intricacies of a piece of software, and he’s perfectly capable of using Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence to discuss the new creative rules of television shows. Johnson wants to understand popular culture—not in the postmodern, academic sense of wondering what “The Dukes of Hazzard” tells us about Southern male alienation but in the very practical sense of wondering what watching something like “The Dukes of Hazzard” does to the way our minds work.

As Johnson points out, television is very different now from what it was thirty years ago. It’s harder. A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture.
I agree that modern video games typically require more intellectual work than Pong, and that The Sopranos (which I've never seen) is more complicated than Starsky and Hutch. But I don't at all agree that this increasing complexity of electronic entertainment could cause the Flynn effect. The timing is all wrong.

First, take a close look at the title of the article in which Flynn announced that IQs had been increasing: James Flynn, "The Mean IQ of Americans: Massive Gains 1932 to 1978," Psychological Bulletin 95(1): 29-51. Now take a look at the recent evidence that the Flynn effect may have stopped, at least in some Western countries, somewhere between the 1970s and the 1990s.

In other words, the Flynn effect began decades before commercial television or video games even existed. This fact alone means that TV and video games couldn't have been the cause. Moreover, the Flynn effect may have stopped or slowed at about the same time as video games and television were finally becoming more complicated.

Another thing that makes me skeptical of Johnson's theory is that task-specific skills are not necessarily transferable:
De Groot also had his subjects examine a position for a limited period and then try to reconstruct it from memory. Performance at this task tracked game-playing strength all the way from novice to grandmaster. Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 30 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds. This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.

* * *
In the 1960s Herbert A. Simon and William Chase, both at Carnegie Mellon University, tried to get a better understand-ing of expert memory by studying its limitations. Picking up where de Groot left off, they asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been artificially devised--that is, with the pieces placed randomly on the board--rather than reached as the result of master play. The correlation between game-playing strength and the accuracy of the players' recall was much weak-er with the random positions than with the authentic ones.

Chess memory was thus shown to be even more specific than it had seemed, being tuned not merely to the game itself but to typical chess positions. These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.



Blogger Don said...

Many in the past have commented on how much larger kids are today (not just weight mind you, but height). We note how tiny those suits of armor are in the museums. Relating to the size issue of kids, it is most striking amongst immigrant families. The most common explanation is diet and nutrition. It makes sense to me.

So can the increase, on average, of IQ also be traced to diet and nutrition? I have not read the book, so this point may have been addressed, but it seems like a possibility. Malnutrition must wreak havoc on a young growing body (and mind).

12:59 PM  
Blogger Toom said...

I think don's point is pretty logical. Also, you have an increase in size, strength, etc. and shouldn't that lead to an overall increase in brain size and theoretically, processing ability? Funny though you do hear on the one about increased nutrition yet you hear how generally obese the "Supersized" culture is. Throw in the question I often hear about food that is steroid-riddled and that is the cause for bigger people and you have an interesting debate. SB, I know the girls at UGA were not this endowed when I was there, were they?

Orthodox opinion is that these stimuli are bad - foster poor attention span and an ADD culture. Yet the argument's premise is intriguing. Overlooked are the benefits of developing fine dexterity and (some) problem solving. A case study on the development of video games to new and complex offerings from the more rote and mind-numbing Pacman where you learned simple patterns (memorization) would hold my interest.

TV can be what one makes of it. Though I like mental exercise, I choose to watch mostly sitcoms and programs that are certainly NOT mentally engaging. But you still have PBS and a variety of Discovery Channel type choices that support the idea that TV is smarter. I might add too that the old sitcoms and dramas, when I go back and watch, are almost unbearably bad. We require a certain high brow-ness in comedy today and at least the perception that our dramas are 'smart'.

One could conclude that the TV/Video game culture of today has chosen easier ways to learn and there is a price to pay, surely. An example that comes to mind is the current woeful grammar in speech and in writing that is developed through reading. Watching TV, the average American can only communicate in the vernacular. A choice that shows perhaps, we have come to think such antiquated emphases are no longer a part of our core values. Also, think education that focuses more on specialization rather than developing broad thought patterns. Not good in my opinion, but not totally devoid of holding a critical thinking element, albeit limited in scope.

All told, anything Gladwell finds interesting is interesting to me.

10:43 AM  

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