Thursday, March 17, 2022

This Might Explain Some Things

It's been clear for some time that IQs are dropping across the Western world.  Now, at least in America, we have a hint about one of the culprits.

If you're at all like Thee Optimist, you're about as dumb as a bag of rocks.  

That's okay.  Most people you interact with are equally dumb, if not more so.  In fact, you, your friends, your co-workers, and your family members are probably all so dumb that you can't even recognize how dumb you actually are.

Ouch!  The truth hurts.  

Now, a study from Florida State University and Duke University, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains why this might be so. 

It has been well understood for a long time that lead exposure in childhood lowers the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of the children affected, a deficit that impacts them for most or all of their lives. 

The Florida State/Duke study suggests that up to half the children in America were exposed to IQ reducing amounts of lead poisoning during the 1960s and 1970s.  

The 1960s and 1970s was a time when lead was added to gasoline to help engine performance, and most households in America were acquiring cars, often for the first time.  

Before 1950, few American households owned a car, and most people took public transportation.  In the 1950s, car ownership began to ramp up, but reached a frenzy in the 1960s and '70s.

Because lead damages catalytic converters (which first became widespread in the 1975 new car models), lead use in gasoline dropped off during the 1980s, but wasn't officially banned until 1996. 

According to the study, lead exposure from gasoline during the era from 1960 to 1996 cost Americans an estimated (and staggering) loss of 824 million IQ points.  That equals about 2.6 IQ points per person.  

People born in the 1960s and 1970s however, the height of the leaded gas era (talking about my generation) are thought to have lost between 6 and 7 IQ points per person, on average.  

Of course, a question leaps to mind: does it even matter?

The infamous IQ Bell Curve.  About 70% of people fall between a score of 85 and 115.  This is what they mean by "average intelligence," and the vast majority of people fall within it.  

Yes, It Matters

People don't like IQ.  

It's not hard to guess why.  Once a person's IQ is set, generally in childhood, it's very difficult to move the needle on it.  

IQ is widely understood as a measure of how smart you are.  Everyone would like to be smart.  No one wants to be dumb, or even average.  And IQ is a very deterministic thing.

There are places you can go online (and I do NOT recommend going to them) that will tell you which jobs are appropriate, or even possible, for what range of IQs. 

No one wants to feel like they are determined or pigeon-holed.  We want to believe that we (and our loved ones) are capable of doing whatever we set our minds to. 

And there is good reason to believe this.  A whole host of things besides IQ goes into life outcomes - from when, where and what social class you're born into, to the nurturing (or lack thereof) of your parents, to your persistence, your optimism or pessimism, what you look like, blind luck, and what is known as your emotional intelligence

Moreover, because the vast majority of people are of average intelligence, the world is built to accommodate their needs and desires.  People of very high IQ often have a hard time being here among the rest of us slavering idiots. 

Ted Kaczynski, the so-called "Unabomber," is thought to be one of the smartest people on Earth.  He spent much of his adult life as a hermit alone in the Montana wilderness, and will likely finish his life in permanent isolation as a prisoner in the ADX Florence "Supermax" penitentiary.

All of that said, in a general way, it is more favorable to have a higher IQ than a lower IQ.

High IQ is closely correlated with desirable traits like openness to experience, intellectual engagement, creativity, mental quickness, independent thinking, reasoning, ingenuity, and imagination.  It is less closely, but still correlated with leadership ability, organization, emotional stability and moderation.  

People with high IQs also tend to live longer

In contrast, lower IQs are closely correlated with receiving welfare payments, psychopathology, lack of impulse control, inattention, boredom, substance abuse and poverty.  

Lower IQs are very closely correlated with being in prison.  Individuals who find themselves in prison again and again tend to have even lower IQs than the prison population as a whole.  This may have less to do with a propensity for crime, and more to do with a propensity for poor planning.  

How might we see lower IQs play out across a society as vast as the United States?

The United States is a gigantic, incredibly complex web of interlocking systems.

Things Fall Apart

On an individual level, we can see how higher IQ can play a role (and often a significant role) in the outcomes a person experiences.  

But individuals don't live in a vacuum, all by themselves.  They live in a society.  And that society can be seen as the sum total of the interactions of all these individuals, and the systems and organizations they create, or which are created for them.

In a society-wide context, if 824 million IQ points really were shaved off, what sort of changes might we expect to see?

Well, poor planning and organization might be one.  Have we seen anything like this in recent decades?

Like, maybe the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan?

Or maybe the disastrous response to the Covid pandemic?

We might expect to see a failure of reasoning, and an inability to respond to changing circumstances. 

We might expect to see more people in prison, and a lack of recognition that widespread incarceration is harmful to the overall society. 

We might expect to see the faltering or failure of large systems, like healthcare or the public schools.

We might expect to see widespread civil unrest, or an increase in violent extremism.

We might expect to see a decrease in life expectancy.  We indeed seem to have lost a year and a half per person during the Covid crisis.  But the truth is life expectancy was headed downwards in the United States years before Covid reared its ugly head. 

A decline in reasoning ability might also suggest we'd become more vulnerable to conmen, or to outlandish theories with no evidence to back them up.  

What's incredible is that we see evidence of all of these things happening, at the same time.  

Bad decisions by government.  Failing healthcare and public education systems.  Lost trust in institutions.  Giant military blunders, an enormous prison population, civil unrest, and people dying younger and younger. 

No wonder that in a poll taken right after the attack on the Capitol Building, roughly 80% of respondents said that the United States was falling apart.

Could it be that all the lead we sucked in over three and half decades made us dumber?

Words of Wisdom

"We are conducting a massive toxicological experiment in the world today, and our children and grandchildren are the unknowing, unconsenting subjects."

- Herbert Needleman, MD, 1970s pioneer on the study of lead poisoning in children

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