Monday, 30th October 2017

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Calypso wisdom

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  • Published 28.08.05

Harry Belafonte was no statistics whiz or gender studies expert, but he may have been on to something when he sang: “I say let us put man and a woman together/ To find out which one is smarter/ Some say man but I say no/ The woman got the man so dey should know?”

The examples in that calypso are corroborations of the research done by Matt Ridley on the female biological imperative towards seeking the best parental candidate while retaining a mate who is better partner material, but has less suitable “father” genes.

If Ulster University’s Richard Lynn only had to debunk calypso wisdom, he would do better having his controversial new research accepted. In a paper co-authored with Paul Irwing, Lynn contends that more men become chess grandmasters or win Nobel Prizes because there are more men with high IQs than women.

Lynn’s previous work includes research that “proves” white people are more intelligent than black people, and that light-skinned Africans are more intelligent than darker-skinned Africans. Now, Lynn is examining gender differences in intelligence, with equally controversial results.

The problem with Lynn’s research is not that he’s attempting to quantify whether intelligence levels are different across race and gender barriers. This is fraught but interesting territory, as authors like Simon Baron-Cohen have discovered. Baron-Cohen drew flak when he suggested that the critical difference between men and women lay in the capacity for empathy: men were more likely to systematise, women were more likely to empathise. He suggested that autism was an “extreme version” of the male brain, caused perhaps by overdoses of testosterone.

His research is debatable, but Baron-Cohen cannot be faulted in his analysis of men as being more likely to fall into the extreme ends of the spectrum. Both in terms of mental disorders, a higher tendency to autism ? and possibly to higher IQ levels ? men show up at the extreme ends of the scale.

Unlike Richard Lynn, Baron-Cohen is dispassionate about presenting both ends of the extreme when it comes to male cognition. Lynn’s findings about higher male IQ may be derided, but in one respect they match the facts. IQ test-takers have long since known that men score more at the extremes of IQ test scoring ? both high and low.

Lynn could have argued, using the same statistics, that there are more men of low IQ than women. (There tend to be more women of middle and slightly higher than average IQ than men.) What’s really disappointing about Lynn’s research is not that it’s pointlessly controversial. But he has paid no attention to the really interesting research about gender and the brain, which also comes from measuring IQ scores of men and women in the same range. Researchers found that women use their frontal lobes more; men use their frontal and parietal lobes equally. But though they used different paths to problem-solving, they got there just the same. Now that is fascinating, but it's not going to make the headlines in the same way "Woman Smart, Man Smarter" does.