April 11th, 2012


Minicon brunch and Intelligence panel and onwards

Right then, so, Minicon.

I had a good time, and there were good people, and good things happened, yay Minicon, I will go back next year. This is a surprise? This is not a surprise. Next year I get a dinosaur sticker. So at this point, not going back would be a surprise.

A thing of potential utility for Minicon-goers who want a nearbyish brunch: Parma 8200 does a $25/person "family-style" set menu, which would be vastly unsatisfying for the vegetarian audience, but they did a lovely job with all but one of the things they served us (the fresh fruit was merely mediocre), and it was all handled in a timely fashion, and people who are wanting to make reservations for a brunch and yet are not sure that $50/person at the Sofitel is quite the thing for them might want to consider this. They brought us cinnamon muffins, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs with herbs and mascarpone, frittata with fresh ricotta and vegetables, penne with Bolognese ragu, ham, house salad, smashed potatoes with arugula and onions, lovely smoked bacon, English muffins, and cannoli. You could get more of any of it included in the price, but really unless you didn't like something, you would have to have failed to eat for the entire weekend or be in training for a marathon or some other reason to have a really really large appetite to have needed more of any of it. It was quite generous. Kids $8, and they had a smoothly run kids' area for making the whole experience happy.

I was on two panels, as I said I would be. The SF and Mystery crossover panel bopped along pretty happily--our general position was that we were for it. The What is Intelligence panel was a little rockier. Frankly I think that if you are going to show up half an hour late and then answer most of the questions that are in the panel description with, "I dunno, I got nothing," you might as well stay home, and hearing reports that you have engaged in the same behavior for the rest of the con is not impressive in the least. Thankfully that was just one panelist, and of course not the guest of honor, who was gracious in every instance I observed or heard of.

As for the rest of the panel, Ted Chiang said in the closing statements he wished we'd gotten to the question of whether greater intelligence necessarily means greater morality. On further elaboration he seemed to indicate that what he meant was greater moral responsibility, which is good, because as moderator I hadn't brought up the panel description question of whether greater intelligence necessarily means greater morality up on the panel because, um, I thought it was a stupid question. (No. There. Next question. I mean, seriously, we all know smart people who are completely reprehensible, right? If not, I can introduce you. And we all know people who are a bit dim and extremely good people? Yes? Because if not, again with the introductions. Okay, good.)

And to me, the question of whether increased power in whatever direction--intelligence, charisma, wealth, political power, whatever--confers greater moral responsibility is also fairly trivial: sure, of course it does. "Do your best" means do your best, with the full force of your resources, not the full force of someone who has far fewer resources than you do--whatever those resources are, whether they're intellect or physical strength or what. But this is not something we are, as a species or as a set of societies, very good at enforcing. We have tried various methods. None of them are highly effective. Sometimes being smart means being able to see implications of something that looks really good on a simplistic level, and other times it means the ability to get ourselves into really really complicated problems even at the non-enhanced levels of intelligence.

One of the things we touched on incredibly briefly since this only came up in closing remarks is that Ted said that we expect less of children and the mentally handicapped because they're less intelligent, and that got my back up. And we talked about it after the panel a bit, and I don't have any idea whether Ted would phrase this differently after that conversation or whether he understands my position but would keep his own, so just keep this in mind as my thoughts sparked by that conversation, not as a Statement On Ted Chiang's Thoughts Of Whatever. Anyway. Among other things, all the panelists had solemnly agreed that intelligence was a multi-dimensional thing, not just one linear measure--and then promptly had difficulty behaving as though it were true. And I think one of the ways in which this difficulty behaving as though it's true that intelligence is multi-dimensional comes out is in dealing with children. (Another is probably in dealing with mentally handicapped or developmentally delayed people. My experience here is extremely limited, so I will leave this part to people who know more than I do except to say that I really don't think we understand what is going on in the human brain very well at all in the hypothetical general case, much less when we have someone with a condition like Down's Syndrome, and that people with Down's vary, like people without Down's vary, dammit; they are people, some more musical than others, some better at language, etc.)

But anyway, back to kids, since I know more kids. Modeling children as less intelligent than adults is--no. Just plain no. Intelligence is lots of things. One of the things we tend to use as shorthand is speed of learning, and you do not want to get into that kind of race with a 4-year-old, because I don't care how smart you think you are, you will lose. The only way you win a speed of learning race with a 4-year-old is by starting much, much closer to the finish line. This is like saying, "I ran a 500 yards and the 4-year-old ran a marathon. I finished thirty seconds ahead. Clearly I am smarter than the 4-year-old." Kids are currently in the process of learning every single thing about the world that they will ever know, all at once. The reason little kids say such crazy things is that they are learning too many things for adults to keep track of, and we take it all for granted, and we can't keep track of which bits they have and don't have yet. And if you look at a 4-year-old and go, "All right, she can barely read Skippyjon Jones, I will approximate her intelligence as that of a 40-year-old who can also barely read Skippyjon Jones," you will be severely underestimating her and making things unpleasant for the both of you.

This is something our culture does all the time, and it's not free of consequences. Teaching someone who is as smart as you but doesn't happen to know the subject comes with very different subconscious assumptions than teaching someone who just isn't as smart as you. And then we assume that either people who want to teach the very young must be rather dim because they want to spend time around such stupid little people (uh, wrong!) or that it's okay to let the rather dim do it because it can't do any harm to squash the questions of little kids because they're dumb questions anyway (wrong again, argh!), and...oh, the swirling maelstrom of social suckitude that comes from assuming that less experienced and less knowledgeable maps to less intelligent. It's yet another example where "brain working differently" and "brain working wrong" are not the same.

When I'm teaching somebody something--and despite not doing it formally for 13 years now, I'm teaching somebody something a lot--one of my principles is to assume that they will be able to understand stuff if we both work at it and do it right. Period. So they don't speak the same language as me; maybe there are cognates, maybe we will use pictures or gestures or whatever. So maybe it'll take awhile. So maybe they will get bored and wander off or ask different questions. But it's not on me to indicate to them that they won't be able to understand. "This is too hard for you," and, "You are not smart enough for this," are not productive things for me to tell other people, no matter how old they are. ("You will have no interesting insights or questions for me" is another one I try to avoid.) And when they're implicit in the dealings of people with an entire other category of people, that gets to be toxic and unpleasant.

We already have too much of it built in. We already have different kinds of children's museums than when I was a kid--children's museums that assume that kids are dumb, that kids can't figure out not to do things, not to eat the paint, not to throw stuff at their sister's head, whatever. We've done studies that show how much worse girls and black kids do on math tests if you tell them, "Hey, GIRLS AND BLACK KIDS SUCK AT THIS STUFF, now go do your math test!" If you treat people like they are incapable, they will oblige you. Now think about what we get if you do that with a group that touches every single member of the species for part of their lives. If instead of, "This might take some time and hard work," we tell kids, "You're not smart enough," we help them live down to expectations. That's not what we want. That's not going to help anybody's hopes of enhancing intelligence--not in any of its multi-faceted directions.