Arguably: Essays

 Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, is a book of Hitchen’s essays, that was published near the end of his life. It includes all the articles that he wrote for various publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate and The Atlantic, in addition to writing several books. The essays are well thought out and written. Hitchens was very sharp, thoughtful and a real intelligent critical thinker who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Although he is a self-avowed atheist to his death, the first article “The God of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment” discusses very eloquently about how religious beliefs played out with the Founders of the United States. The subject is one that addressing in a more thoughtful, nuanced way benefits.


Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)


I was watching the wonderful production of The Grinch who Stole Christmas  complete with Boris Karloff’s voice and the wonderful lyrics thinking about all the wonderful words Dr. Seuss created for us. I grew up in the 196os and read Dr. Seuss’s books with much joy. It’s been said the the word Nerd which gifted people are often accused of being was created by Dr. Seuss. If the word was created by Dr. Seuss, than I am glad to be one.

Theordor Seuss Geissel (1904-1991) grew up in  Springfield MA, and went to Dartmouth in NH. He was the editor of the school’s humor magazine. His father wanted him to become a professor, so he went to Oxford which he found boring and began a career as a cartoonist. Though too young to be a soldier he served in the signal core making training films, where he learned how to do animation.

The bo0k, The Cat in The Hat, came out of a illiteracy campaign, where he was given a list of 400 words, and asked to reduce it to 250 words, he used 220 words in the book. When he wrote Green Eggs and Ham, he was challenged to use 50 words, the book was written, but the bet never paid.

By the time of his death, he wrote and illustrated 44 books, that were read by millions. There is a museum in Springfield, MA.


Malcolm Gladwell: Arrogant and Insensitive.

First before I start, I want to say, before everyone jumps to his defense, Malcolm Gladwell is definitely gifted and I found his earlier books “The Tipping Point” and “What the Dog Saw” very interesting and though provoking, and this is not a full out attack on him or his writing. His books are often full of little interesting snippets of information.

His book “Outliers” is another story. I started reading it with interest, after reading the other books, but found myself turned off, not sure why but I knew something was wrong. I like his idea of the 10,000 hours needed to learn a skill and to get to a highly proficient level in any field, and there is something to say about it.

He writes a book, acting as an expert on education, though he has done no real research and has no advanced degree in education. It seems like his knowledge is more about sports, for example the time of year most hockey players were born. He wrote an interesting article in The New Yorker about the problem of professional football, which was excellent, but he is not an educator. I was listening to an interview by the radiolab guys.  Radiolab, a program produced by WNYC in New York, that is syndicated across public radio. I first heard them on The science show. They interviewed Gladwell talk about the interaction between destiny and determination. Robert Krulwich asked him whether he denied giftedness  or did he hate the gifted? I thought this was a good question and the book and his discussion does raise these questions. He argues that gifted education is about picking high achievers, which is most definitely not the case. Of course high achievers are among the gifted, but he totally dismisses the challenges that gifted children deal with, particularly those who are twice exceptional. I was a student before gifted education was established and I hated being in the wrong classes, being in boring classes, which were a torment. Maybe he also missed gifted education like myself and resents those who got it.

This book perpetuated and created idea that giftedness is a myth. For instance this article in New York Magazine, it’s all about testing and preparing your children for the test. But it ignores the reality of testing, and IQ and the New York system, where there are limited opportunities to get into the gifted system. Gifted children need to be engaged in school, and often don’t get those needs met in normal classes. This problem goes far beyond New York or any other location for that matter.

Another problem is that Gladwell references, old out of date material. Terman’s Termites was research done many years ago and is largely out-of-date with respect to current thinking about intelligence and giftedness. During its time, the research was good, but Terman started researching in 1929, many many years ago. He starts critiquing one of many intelligence tests. Many of the tests have issues, but he picks Raven’s Progressive Matrices  and not the more widely used Wescheler or Stanford Binet tests which are the standard, and most researched, used and understood tests. He misses what IQ measurement is about, i.e. mental processing power.

According to Eric Wargo, writer for The Observer, a publication of the association for psychological science, in an article  he wrote, Gladwell had a dream of becoming a gold medal runner, and suggests he was a Prodigy who didn’t wind up later going on to stardom. Clearly for him it’s about becoming a star, or observations, that graduates from gifted programs didn’t become superstars or become the next Einstein. The differences between those who become stars in sports and those who are purely amateurs is very different than about intelligence. Living with Being gifted and growing up gifted is not about stardom, but more trying to find your way in the world, trying to be able to fully use your abilities. Which I think goes to what Gladwell is more about Elitism, Stardom, how the few exceptions become who they are. Gifted people may become high achievers, but that’s not what it’s about. Just because you can’t  become a star don’t dump on us.

James Dyson: Inventor

I saw an interesting interview with James Dyson, an inventor who has revolutionized vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, fans and heaters, who’s company sells it’s product on  He said what inspires him to invent is his frustration with products that don’t do what they should. He studied design and engineering. Among with those inventors who he admires is Thomas Edison.   Edison it is said made 100 attempts before he got the electric light bulb right.  Dyson took over 5,000 attempts to get his improvements on the vacuum cleaner right, and then struggled to market it. He says with each try, they learned new things from each prototype. It reminds me that it’s okay to fail at first. One of the important things for me, is the process, the end goal not being what it’s real about. Taking a class is about how much you learn from it, not the grade you get. I am not saying one should not try to get good grades, but the learning is the point. For those of us who lean toward perfectionists, not getting top grades can be very hard, so that is not my point. Remember the saying: If at first you fail, try try again. He gives the following advice to inventors. In an article on CNN, he says that in order to compete, one must take risks, which is true for both individuals, companies, countries, etc. Without taking chances, one can never succeed. You might fail, that may be a necessary step to succeed.

Personal Stories–Small N Examples

Quantitative researchers will refer to small examples as annecdotal evidence, which often won’t hold up in quantitative research. In Qualitative research, which focuses on depth, individual experience, does not dismiss small N examples and see them as starting points for research, or look at them for deeper kinds of information than normally is tracked in Quantitative research. One might see from a Qualitative a possible pilot study that might explore an exception to the rull than may influence other research.

Research is pointing to more environmental influences, particularly shared environment variables which could argue against theories that substantial influences on intelligence are genetic. In my own family and my partner’s large extended family I see examples that show cases that break the rule.

My Family

My parents were gifted (both deceased), and all of my siblings. My mother was very accomplished and received an Ed.D in the ’70s in education. Her interest was in disabilities. She served on the State Board of Education. She devoured books. My father was an actor, writer, newspaper publisher and politician in New Hampshire politics involved in rather esoteric theories about land value taxation. My grandfather a sailor, detective working in early fingerprinting and photography, when these tools were very new in criminology. My mother however had problems with alcohol and never healed wounds from her childhood and didn’t know what to do with gifted children.

The picture at left is me at age 1, already very precocious. We lived in a very unstimulating factory town. If it were our school or neighbors, I can’t see how it would have influenced us. In many ways our parents were very limited and I think we became who we are in spite of them. they were challenging and I am sure this had an influence. I have to think genetics was the source of our intelligence. My brother’s children are gifted. His first son, devoured books when a small child. He has had to deal with Asberger’s, though a “chip off the old block,” interested in studying biochemical engineering. He is entering his first year of college.

My Partner’s Family

My partner was Mexican-American born in East-L.A. the youngest of ten. Though his father had only a seventh grade education, he read Shakespeare. The children were very accomplished.  My partner is a playwright and supporter of animal causes, and a real fascination with classic literature. The real story surfaces in his oldest sister’s children and their children. His sister who is disabled had two daughters J and L, both intelligent and have spent most of their time with their children, though I am sure they could do much more. Jennifer’s first son with a different man, than the rest is in the GATE Gifted programs in his local school. He is in advanced classes, and now has to chose a college. He hopes to be an anesthesiologist. The next two children of J are very average, and came from a different father. Later another child was born. From when she was an infant, it was clear she is gifted, seeing her at one and one-half, she seems like three. She has had a tremendous curiosity, taking apart everything in the house. Their father is unemployed and has substance issues. If there isn’t a genetic factor going on, it is hard to say how she surfaced, her oldest brother is also gifted. Her cousin, L’s daughter has the most infectious laugh and smile, she is very  bright and it is clear she is very smart.

Brain: The Inside Story

The American Museum of Natural History in New York is running an exhibit “Brain: The Inside Story” until August 15th 2011. It presents a lot of informatation about the human brain, including neuroanatomy, from a neuroscience perspective talking about the brain from different perspectives.

The Sensing Brain is about how the brain records and processes information from our senses. The Emotional Brain is about how we process emotions in the limbic system of our brains based on information by our senses. The Thinking Brain is about our cognitive processes. The Changing Brain discusses how our brain changes from when we are babies growing through adulthood to decline when we age. The 21st Century Brain talks about the challenges facing the brain in our current world.

The exhibit is interesting and worth seeing. Those who have studied the brain and neuroscience might not find it as interesting as it doesn’t really cover new information just being discovered, but for the rest there is plenty of great information to learn from. The exhibit is great for children and teens with things like games, demonstrations that can engage them as they learn. 

More Recent Contributions to the Nature Vs Nurture debate

In more recent discussions, Daniel Shenk’s book “The Genius in All of Us” suggests that we all can be geniuses if we nurture children and have an optimum environment. This is an interesting argument and it’s become understood that environment influences  many outcomes including culture, behavior and intelligence. It’s an interesting response to the Bell Curve. One can clearly support the idea that children should be given a positive environment to grow up in. Lead and other toxins can lead to lowered intelligence and learning disorders, and nutrition is very important, lack of certain vitamins can lead to birth defects. I have seen many exceptions to this, people from questionable, and even problematical backgrounds who show brilliance. Why does this happen. I have also seen in this within large families, numbers of people with giftedness in those families. I doubt gifted people grow up in families with normal or sub-normal intelligence like the television show “Family Guy” would suggest. There may be many cases where giftedness is masked by other problems and one may hide their giftedness from others for fear of ostracism and rejection. I suspect that one’s ability can be enhanced by an enriched environment, but the real differences between gifted and non gifted people are unlikely to be the result of environment solely.

In another book by Steven Pinker, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” he reminds us how John Locke’s (1632-1704) idea Tabula Rasa, which suggests we are born a blank slate has permeated social science research and every day beliefs about what contributes to human development and behavior and the world in general. He suggests that we deny human nature. I doubt that we want to see this as an either/or type of situation, but we need to consider how influential Locke’s theory was.

Nature or Nuture: What Contributes to Giftedness

For centuries, theorists have debated what contributes to human behavior, is it how we are born or is it what we learn. John Locke (1632-1704) had a theory called Tabula Rasa or blank slate, which argued that nothing was innate and it was all learned. This perspective influenced social sciences for many years going forward. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) associated with the development of  genetics as a theory, spawned significant amount of research and theorizing about how genetics influenced human development, however it would be many years before human DNA was sequenced. During the Third Reich, Nazis murdered those with disabilities, those who were different, gay, Jewish, gypsies and communists thanks to beliefs in eugenics. The Nazis thought they were superior and many of the others were inferior racially. This is an example of how science can go terribly wrong.

Twins Studies have been considered the gold standard for considering if traits are genetically predetermined. Monozygotic (MZ) or identical twins share 100% of their DNA as they were from the same egg. Dizygotic (DZ) twins share less common DNA. Comparing identical twins living together and who were raised apart and the differences between MZ and DZ twins, helped develop estimates of heredity. In an article in a professional psychological journal Wendy Johnson, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, and Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. authored “Beyond Heritability–Twin Studies in Behavioral Research” in which they suggested that time has come for abandoning twin studies in research into genetic influences. It has become clearer and clearer that environment poses many confounding variables in proving causation. As one would hear in a research class, “Correlation does not mean causation” that just because there is a relationship between two factors, does not mean that one causes the other. There can be many variables that could interfere or confound or cloud research into the relationship. Instead of arguing that A causes B, B could cause A or perhaps they interact. One of the realities that many of us are such a large mixture of various genes and influences that it is hard to know who’s who, and what I got from whom.

After much research, the current state of research suggests estimates of the heredity of Intelligence are in the vicinity of 50 to 80%. Current thinking suggests that genetics interacts with environment in terms of Genes x Environment rather than Genes + Environment. The interaction leads to genetic expression in terms of proteins and amino acids and others, which influence the outcome.

In another example of how science can go wrong (there are many examples), the book published in 1995, the Bell Curve by Harvard Psychologist Richard J. Hernstein and American Enterprise Institute political science researcher Henry Murray suggested that genetics contribute to far more than one would expect. Including African Americans are less intelligent than white people because of genetic differences. This smells a lot like Eugenics to me. This generated a lot of controversy and seems rather questionable. Another book from other scientists was published to refute those findings “Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to THE BELL CURVE (Statistics for Social Science and Public Policy)” Edited By: Bernie Devlin, Stephen E. Fienberg, Daniel P. Resnick, and Kathryn Roeder. The American Psychological Association formed a task force and developed their official statement on the matter arguing that race, gender are  not correlated to intelligence, but intelligence is related to many factors and influences.