IQ study is dubious, and it doesn't take a high IQ to know

How this story got to be a front page, above-the-fold New York Times piece is beyond me. But I could rip it apart in a hundred ways with my eyes closed and my hands tied.

Lucky for someone, it’s been an exhausting week and I’ll spare myself and everyone else a royal fisking. Here are the basic problems with the article and the study and extrapolations/insinuations made by both:

The study itself isn’t named or described until ten paragraphs down, AND after the jump. AFTER THE JUMP. You have to read to the sixth paragraph just to learn which publications are reporting on the study (Science and Intelligence, a magazine for which the only link I can find indicates that it’s a magazine that targets people interested in technological advancements; journal citations are at the end of this article). Then, you have to read a total of TEN paragraphs before learning that oh, lookee here – the demographic totally doesn’t apply unless you decide that all people everywhere are comparable:

In the study, Norwegian epidemiologists analyzed data on birth order, health status and I.Q. scores of 241,310 18- and 19-year-old men born from 1967 to 1976, using military records. After correcting for factors that may affect scores, including parents’ education level, maternal age at birth and family size, the researchers found that eldest children scored an average of 103.2, about 3 percent higher than second children (100.3) and 4 percent higher than thirdborns (99.0).

The difference was an average, meaning that it varied by family and showed up in most families but not all.

The scientists then looked at I.Q. scores in 63,951 pairs of brothers, and found the same results. Differences in household environments did not explain elder siblings’ higher scores.

Because sex has little effect on I.Q. scores, the results almost certainly apply to females as well, said Dr. Petter Kristensen, an epidemiologist at the University of Oslo and the lead author of the Science study. His co-author was Dr. Tor Bjerkedal, an epidemiologist at the Norwegian Armed Forces Medical Services.

Now, I confess, I need to read the study myself to really be sure I can say it’s inapplicable, but still, my first reaction is: You have got to be kidding me.

Does the article talk to a single expert who has worked with children and families of children with high and not as high IQs? How about parents of such kids? Nope. Just academics, as opposed to looking to see if real life in America resembles what the study proposes.

No. It cites, on the front page, above-the-fold, before the jump, a Berkeley visiting prof., Frank Sulloway, of the UC Berkeley Institute of Personality & Social Research, who didn’t have a thing to do with the study but, according to the Times, wrote an editorial about the study that was published in one of the publications. You can visit his website here and read his CV (Harvard and Harvard). And read this exchange with someone who challenged his enthusiasm for his ideas.

(This is the part where I say that if it wasn’t Friday afternoon already I’d be picking up the phone to call Prof. Sulloway. As it is, he’ll get an email like the Times.)

The Times’ editors are completely irresponsible.

Anyone notice, after reading the article, that not once does anyone suggest that maybe the test (which by the way is never named, and there are many, many different IQ tests) is the issue?

Before I get too carried away here – because I am tired and likely to just completely freak out all over the NYT, let me explain why I know a few things about this issue:

I’m the very proud parent of a child whose IQ is probably DOUBLE George Bush’s (now while some of you may say that that wouldn’t hard to do, just save it). And my parenting doesn’t have a thing to do with it. His brightness was apparent from before he was one, and that observation didn’t come from me. It came from the pediatricians.

I also know what was going on in my home then, I know where he went to school and what we’ve been through in tinkering with his education. And on and on and on. Then, I had two more kids. And, from birth, they weren’t the same (though equally awe-inspiring) as the first, but rather showed uniqueness and superiority in other areas, very early.

Can environment help, can it hurt? Sure, absolutely.

But to have the New York Times’ editors front page a story on journal articles that are coming out and that report on a study that focused on Norwegian MALE conscripts’ IQ scores (scores which were possibly measured during their adulthood rather than during their childhood, which again raises the issue of which test they used, but isn’t mentioned at all in the NYT article), and imply that we now know that first-borns have higher IQs because of nurture not nature, is to completely pander and sensationalize, in favor of someone somewhere who wants to promote IQ as being something you can alter with the right parents, the right school, the right sports, the right this that and everything.

Frankly, when I speculate as to why the NYT of all papers would put an article like this on the front page, and report it the way the writer has done, I can only say that it’s a prime example as to why I love Ohio: because articles like this one totally help anxiety-ridden parents buy into more anxiety.

Don’t believe that the Mommy Wars are a media fabrication? Just read the article I’m destroying in this very blog post and watch trends of how parents respond to it.

Lastly, I’ve read a lot of studies in my time – that social work undergrad thing and that perfect 4.0 masters in social science administration thing. And I’ve performed a few and I’ve written about a few. This article is poor for many reasons and, again, I would love to know, from the front page NYT editor – how on Earth did you let this one get there?

How there are all these MSM citations to this nearly pointless information, and NONE (except from the Israel papers) not even in the NEW YORK paper of record about Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with the NEW YORK STATE controller to get him to support pension fund divestiture from companies with ties to Iran is beyond me. Completely.

2 thoughts on “IQ study is dubious, and it doesn't take a high IQ to know

  1. I’ve read your comment twice, carefully, now and for sure, I agree with your final sentence about the difference between statistical significance and clinical significance. Absolutely true. Thanks for pointing it out.I also appreciate your pointing out for what circumstances the study’s results “work.” I see that as consistent with my concern for how the Times has plastered it to the front and center of today’s paper: I feel that such placement is completely unwarranted given precisely the kinds of comments you’ve made (much more rational sounding too than my rant about the media making something out of not nothing, but out of something that, as you allude to, is probably deserving of a front placement in the paper’s Science Times section – but they didn’t do that).And, again, as a parent of not one but two gifted kids, one profoundly so and the other also above the standard deviation attributed to regularly gifted kids, who has worked with many, many gifted and talented resource professionals, the point of the test results always must be: what are you going to do with it?And in this case, what the Times article emphasizes, as far as what people should do with these results, including Prof. Sulloway’s implications, is to see how much better a school kids can get into and so on.To me, I’m not sure how different this is than genetic engineering. I’m not saying I believe it ISN’T different. I’m just saying that parents have enough and kids have enough to think about. Why is there always this focus on how to do more, be more, make more etc.?So – that’s my bent when I see articles like this one.I guess you could say I’m biased against such stuff, but my bias is at least sincerely based on my experience: my kids were in fact born with their gifts. I just try to keep up with them. 😉

  2. Jill,The study of intelligence has a long and sordid history, and quite honestly, I’m pretty leery of anyone who chooses to study it. Additionally, intelligence has pretty much come to be defined as the thing that is reliably measured by IQ tests. Furthermore, the Times write-up contains at least one screamingly incorrect statement. Having said this…This is one of the best and cleanest designs ever, and I’m biting hook line and sinker. The upshot is that for a birth order effect to be real, you would need to be able to measure it in a sample of first and second born children from the same family. In this case, you would want to hold to one gender, because sex differences are going to add noise and would have to be controlled for anyway.So now that you’ve got a huge sample of first born children who are males, and their younger brothers who are the next born, and you determine that in fact the 1st born have slightly higher IQs (3 points is between 1/5 and 1/3 of a standard deviation, depending on your sample), you need a way to distinguish pre-natal from post-natal effects. The way the Norwegians did this was to find a large number of second-born males whose older brothers died early in childhood. In the womb, all second born brothers are in the same boat. After they are born, some second-born males are put into the slot of oldest male by circumstance. Those males have IQs that look like 1st borns, and are three points higher than second borns who started off the same, but didn’t lose an older brother.Now, this study does not prove that family interactions are responsible. What it does is deliver a KO to the alternative hypothesis that the difference exists before birth. That’s why it’s in Science, the most respected academic journal in the world.Going back to the screamingly wrong statement… Just because an average difference exists, you cannot claim that the difference exists in all, most, or even some of the families. An example I use in explaining ways in which people misunderstand statistics is actually based on one of these birth order/IQ studies. The results showed a clear effect such that 1st borns had higher IQs than 2nd borns, who had higher IQs than 3rds, who were higher than 4ths, who were higher than 5ths. In the sample of more than 100 families, however, there wasn’t a single family that showed that exact order, with birth rank matching IQ rank. In that case, the average finding is not present in ANY family.And one final caveat. If your son has an IQ that is 100 points above W’s, this study would predict a difference of 97 points in the presence of an older brother. Any sane person talking about your son would be more interested in where 97 points came from than in where 3 came from. A big problem that people have when they get a hold of research (even PhD level clinicians), is that they mistake statistical significance for clinical significance.

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