Abstract categorizers were rare and looked smart

Thursday, April 28th, 2022

If James Flynn (of the Flynn Effect) is right, John Barnes suggests, standardized tests have improved our conceptual sorting skills and atrophied our common sense:

Back around 1900, when Terman, Binet and Spearman were pioneering the IQ concept, talented and developed abstract categorizers were rare and looked smart, so it was a natural mistake to assign the highest scores to people who thought like professors of rhetoric or philology.

As standardized tests became more important, our education system shifted toward emphasizing abstract thinking; as people became better at abstraction, they substituted it for applicational thinking.


  1. David Foster says:

    I’d suggest that the ability to fit things into abstract categories developed by someone else is not the same thing as the ability to develop a new category scheme to fit a particular situation.

    The writer Andre Maurois remarked that people who are *intelligent* but not *creative* tend to be eager adopters of conceptual systems created by others, and to hold to those system more rigidly than their originators would

  2. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    It is a tendency that has been noted by many authors, in many places, at many times. A perennially pernicious phenotype, indeed. By many names it has gone throughout history. Plotinus saw it in the gnostics; Augustine saw it in the manichaeans; Hippolyte Taine saw it in the ‘jacobin mind’; Revilo Oliver saw it in the ‘mattoid character’; and on it goes.

    Take Kant for instance (no please, take him!). Kant, of course, was a rather spergmatic fellow. Long on calculation, in a lexical sense (and thus an attraction to spheres of priestly endeavor), but sparing in capacity for world formation (and thus the frequently maladaptive products of such endeavor).

    A sense of disconnection with Being comes naturally to such sorts. A trouble with ‘getting a grip’ on it’s processions, whereas the systemizations of their own thoughts feel clear and present; feel like it comes much easier than any other practice they might concern themselves with.

    (His main aim of course was to, basically, justify his own private beliefs by scorching the earth behind him. ‘It is no more untenable than yours because… none of it is tenable!’)

    A mind that is so short on world-formation capacity – that is to say, congenitally solipsistic – is most especially prone to being suckered by naive systematization, where he receives and or by turns concatenates a sophistical system, which is labeled ‘reality’ in his mind, that proceeds algorithmically from an input to an output, which he follows mechanically.

    But of course, the way that can be written is not the true Way. Being is larger than any particular being within it, and a being that could hold all of Being within it’s hand, would be something that already transcends it.

    Monism and nominalism are both expressions of the same kind of reductive cognitive shortcutting endemic in this characteristic combination of lowly imaginative yet still highly verbal. It’s almost like having a lawnmower engine inside Koenigsegg frame; the product has been gussied up with more flash than you can shake a stick at; yet in the end, it still has no horsepower. He is attracted to the symbolic, to rules, to formulas, to ideologies; but he is less than capable of seeing beyond them, of seeing where they come from, where they are adaptive and where they go boink.

    It is, effect, a dependence on received values, lacking capacity for construing higher order values in his own right. Which is ultimately to say, deficiency in powers of self-direction, of Agency. The ‘NPC’ phenotype is also like this, the difference being a much more strongly attuned instinct for both sensing and conforming to the winds of validation, and much less notable in terms of calculative aptitude.

    (We must say, a very convenient instinct, at the least in terms of ensuring one’s genes survive to be passed on with a minimum of risk and or cognitive throughput required, which is why the majority of most humanoid species are approximations of this type. Sticking to your principles, come hell or high water, is characteristic of warrior or priestly types; which can get you killed if you’re not the winner of the power struggle(s); which is why such types tend to be rarer fractions; and also why it is always such types that are ruling, one way or another.)

    In such thinkers possessed by ghosts of 17th century modernism, like the logical positivists, there is a recurrent habit of trying to look for some perfect kernel of ‘thing’ that can be consistently applied to all things at all times in all places, when of course that is not what wisdom offers, and one will find no good in the attempt to look for such a thing.

    Naturally, rejecting the premise that one needs universal definitions to have knowledge does not, transitively, imply that one may then not be exploring or elaborating or elucidating things at greater length, if you will; such all or nothing thinking itself an expression of having not yet moved past the modernist mindtrap.

    You might take a slice at Being from one angle, and you might take another slice at it from another, and another, and so on; each instance is adaptive within it’s envelope, and a finer mind might divine higher orders of comensurateness between them, if it may.

    We do not say that there is no such thing as an encompassing order of things that we subside in, but that the eternal mattoid’s procrustean attempt to reduce it into forms that can fit wholly inside his own mind is, in general, a perennially recurrent source of most all intellectual sins throughout history; both the dismembering calumnies he produces in the attempt, and, in the inevitable failure of such attempts, his hubris in declaiming instead that there is no such order at all, lest the implications turn to himself, his narratives of himself, put to lie…

  3. Roo_ster says:

    Or maybe (over the decades) we have made an effort to teach test-taking skills (or take more standardized tests, giving more experience with them) and thus do better on standardized tests because we know better how to optimize results on standardized tests.

    For example:

    Back in the day, to maximize your score on the g-loaded pre-1994 SAT, required the test-taker to take the SAT three times. g remained the same, but the test-taker learned more about the SAT and how to do well through experience. Any test-taking after the third attempt brought diminishing returns.

    All in all, I am not so taken by the Flynn effect as others.

Leave a Reply