Sunday 10 February 2013

The Wisdom of Crowds or Single Authors?

It is hard to recommend one single book which gives a balanced overview of intelligence research. Although there is much to enjoy in Sternberg’s Handbook of Intelligence, you will see (review below) that I feel that readers should not rely on it for an even-handed review of the field. I found its emphasis on multiple intelligences out of line with the total body of research findings, and its chapters on race and intelligence unsatisfactory.

So, what can I recommend? The answer raises a generic issue: is multiple or single authorship the best approach? Multiple authors, as in a handbook, give a wide range of views, high levels of expertise in each topic, and high topicality, as each expert mentions their latest findings and ideas. Of course, some of the contributors will be more expert than others. If the editor makes a particular selection (and it would be hard not to, if one was human) this would distort the reader’s perception of received wisdom. The deck would have been stacked. Single authors, on the other hand, bring their expertise and judgment to the whole field, and assess it with more uniform standards. If they can establish trust in the early chapters one might be willing to be led by them through all intelligence topics, like Dante relying on Virgil to guide him through the underworld of the inferno. A tall order. A single author may also stack the deck. Yet, if a guide has been particularly reliable in the early phases of a journey, why change horse in mid-stream?

In my experience of joining colleagues for an after-conference dinner, the probability of finding somewhere to eat is inversely proportional to the number of participants. Once one factors in vegetarians, gluten intolerants, people who have already agreed to meet other delegates whose names they cannot remember, and those who have very clear, but competing, notions of the best place to go, much of the evening is wasted. On that basis, I would like to simplify matters by choosing single author volumes. I will start with two, and may add more later.

A good recommendation for beginners is “Intelligence: A very short introduction” by Ian J. Deary, Oxford University Press, 2001.  (Contents: g, ageing and intelligence, genes and environments, does intelligence matter, rising IQs, consensus views on intelligence). In its favour, Ian Deary is one of the field’s most prominent researchers, and thus a highly dependable guide. Against it, 2001 is now a long time ago, as far as intelligence research goes. Time for an updated volume?

How about the equivalent of a handbook, in the form of a single author volume? Earl Hunt is a veteran intelligence researcher. When I was teaching psycholinguistics in the 1970’s I knew him (probably from reading Resnick’s 1976 The Nature of Intelligence) only as E.B.Hunt, who published on cognition and memory. Unusually for an intelligence researcher he was primarily an experimentalist, at ease with mathematics and interested in computer and mathematical simulations of intellectual abilities. He taught Physics for a while, generally a reassuring accomplishment.

His approach to intelligence is notably balanced. Human Intelligence, by Earl Hunt,  Cambridge University Press 2011 (Contents: Tests, theories, taking intelligence beyond psychometrics, the mechanics of intelligence, intelligence and the brain, the genetic and environmental bases of intelligence, the use and demography of intelligence). He commonly concludes that in the big debates the main protagonists have gone well beyond what can safely be concluded from the data. He is quick to pounce on authors who show selective attention to data, quietly suggesting that they are acting as attorneys rather than scientists. Helpfully, he explains key concepts in tutorial fashion, and is willing to spend time clarifying arguments, signalling where the methodological pitfalls lie before jumping in with an opinion, though he does not evade a final judgment. His section on race and intelligence is very balanced, and pays due regard to what we do not know. Some readers will find him too cautious, and no-one can command agreement on their coverage of all topics, but readers will be informed without being misled, and will be wisely guided into a complex and fascinating subject. 


  1. My own rule of thumb is do not write a paper with so many authors that one of your co-authors misspells your name on the published version.

  2. Or that the author list is longer than the abstract