Creating Genius

Skepchick Stacey has taken a look at Richard Lynn’s claims, based on IQ testing, that male geniuses outnumber female geniuses 8 to 1. It’s a good post, worth reading in its entirety. I’m going to pull out just one piece of it briefly to talk about the simple math behind the test itself.

IQ tests are deliberately designed to eliminate disparities between demographics. Any questions that test with a statistically significant difference are discarded so that the score variation can only be attributed to differences in individual intelligence. The creators of the tests don’t allow questions in which one demographic scores significantly higher or lower than another. If women consistently scored lower than men on a particular test, that test would be unmarketable because its results would be viewed as biased and invalid.

This applies to both individual (or grouped) items and to overall tests. Tests and questions are created to produce the same mean in males and females in the groups used to develop the tests. However, this means we need to take a hard look at those groups.

Of particular concern is the fact that males far outnumber females among people with learning disabilities. (They’re kind of fragile that way, among others.) In fact, the people who like to tout the genius figures will happily point to the greater representation of males at the lowest end of IQ distributions as proving that their point is somehow “fair.” This is, of course, less impressive when you consider that they don’t expect to ever find themselves in this portion of the curve.

It’s even less impressive when you consider how unfair this higher representation of males with learning disabilities causes the test to be for females without learning disabilities. I mean that literally. A population with this gender imbalance in learning disabilities requires that the test be biased against females when you compare non-disabled groups. If it isn’t, it can’t produce the same mean for both sexes.

But don’t they exclude the learning disabled when creating IQ tests? Not for Weschler tests, at least. Given that one of the main uses of IQ testing is identifying the learning disabled, there are very good reasons to include them.

So as long as IQ tests are built this way, expect them to include the kind of bias that pushes more men into the genius range. And anyone who says that this means something more than that the test is doing what it’s supposed to do? Feel free to tell them just how dumb they’re being.

Reconstructing Criticism: Accuracy

I frequently call accuracy its own virtue, and I even generally mean it. Sure, it’s possible to overreach semantic agreement or shared perspective and descend into pedantry or get all persnickety. However, short of that point, accuracy conveys inherent advantages.

This is particularly true when it comes to making criticism constructive. Structuring your message with an eye to accuracy helps you meet several goals. It keeps you focused on what you know, rather than what you surmise, which helps restrict the conversation to behavior. It keeps you from generalizing, helping you to focus on specifics. And a solid check of your statements to verify that you’re not overstating your case helps you keep your response proportional.

Beyond all that, accuracy helps build your credibility. Remember, when you’re giving criticism, you are, baldly speaking, telling another person or group of people that you know better than they do how something should be done. That requires a fair store of credibility. Getting other things right demonstrates your qualifications directly.

Being accurate also demonstrates that you are putting effort into the relationship with the recipient of your criticism. Like most of the aspects of constructive criticism I’ve described, accuracy takes work, which may well inspire a similar level of effort on the part of the person being criticized. Do not underestimate the power of reciprocity.

So, strictly speaking, accuracy may or may not be a virtue, but it can certainly help you make your criticisms constructive.

Lighter Fare

I have some longer pieces to write, so I’m taking a break from the Reconstructing Criticism series for a couple of days. Besides, it’s sunny out, and no one wants to spend their weekend reading about how much work it is to make criticism work.

In the meantime, here are a couple of interesting posts you won’t read just anywhere. From my boy, Carrying a Gun Is the Privilege of the Rich:

In order to get a permit, Minnesota State Statute 624.714 requires that you take a class from a certified firearms training instructor. This class can cost anywhere from $75 to $150, depending on where you take the course and what services are offered with it. The class also includes a live-fire qualification test. For that test, you’ll need a gun ($15 to rent), ammunition ($8-20), a target ($2), and a place to shoot ($15-30).

And from Causabon’s Book, an interesting look at the realities of food production, even on a small scale, Rabbit-fed Pork and Farmers as Teachers:

But the part that set me rolling on my Mothers’ couch was not that unappetizing bit, but Perry’s meditation on the possibilities of this food source. After all, he observes, in summer he has a nearly unlimited supply of cottontails roaming his property and eating his lettuces. This free food then could be set to supply protein to his pigs, which could then be marketed as fed on truly local, home produced feed.

Perry observes, however, that he anticipates trouble at the farmer’s market. While “grass fed beef” offers up an unmistakable visual image of green pastures and bovine contentment, the same does not arise from the image of “rabbit-fed pork.” It was his suggestions of possible marketing slogans that sent me into hysterics.

Reconstructing Criticism: Behavior

This post will be a bit of a departure. To date, I’ve tried to talk about constructive criticism in positive terms, to focus on what to do rather than what to avoid. That gets more difficult the more misunderstood a concept is, and keeping the focus of criticism on behavior is one of the more misunderstood pieces of constructive criticism, at least in practice. I can say that behavior is specific, overt actions taken directly by an individual (including omissions of behavior). This is still likely to result in misunderstandings, so let me tell you what behavior is not.

Behavior is not motivations or intentions. It is not:

  • You wanted X.
  • You tried to do X.
  • You meant X.

Behavior is not effects. It is not:

  • You made me feel X.
  • You made me think X.
  • You made someone else do X.

Behavior is not associations. It is not:

  • Your friend did X.
  • Someone with whom you have something in common did X.

What do all of the above have in common? These are things that the person receiving criticism can’t control. Behavior, at least in the realm of constructive criticism, is something that is under the control of the person being criticized. Note that this is a stricter definition of behavior than is used in the social sciences, and that the actual degree of control a person has over behavior is a matter of some scientific scrutiny (although the belief in our own control over our actions appears to be very useful, illusion or no). However, remember that this series is focused quite narrowly on being effective. Criticism can’t result in change unless the person hearing it has the power, the control, to make a change.

Does this mean that goals, effects and associations aren’t subject to discussion? Of course not. It simply means that the focus needs to stay on the things that can be changed, the behavior.

Reconstructing Criticism: Specifics

A couple of weeks ago, someone criticized a post of mine, highlighting the problem of women’s sexuality being treated differently than men’s, for not being specific with regards to who was talking about whose sexuality. Now, there was a little problem in that this person was reacting to a repost with all the links (providing the information he was looking for) stripped out, but aside from that, he had a point. If the criticism leveled at me had been accurate (hold that thought; it will come up later), it would have been quite important for me to take note.

Being specific, like so many of the other elements of constructive criticism, serves multiple purposes. The first, and most obvious, is that someone who can’t determine quite what you want them to change isn’t likely to try guessing on their own. Specific goals can be met. Trying to meet vague goals is a recipe for getting things wrong again. If they are motivated enough to try, they’re unlikely to get it right. If they were thinking about the problem exactly the way you are, there’d be no need for the criticism.

Another advantage is that being specific aids in separating out what someone is doing right. It keeps the recipient of criticism from feeling that the change requested is too big, either to be accomplished or to be worthwhile doing for someone else’s sake. And, as previously mentioned, highlighting what someone is doing right has its own rewards.

Being specific applies both to the behavior you find problematic and to the behavior you want to see in its place. Sunny Skeptic commented that she requests that people who bring her problems at work also bring suggestions for solutions. As I noted in response, this helps the person offering criticism look at the problem from a different perspective, to fully think through other possibilities before the criticism is given. This may even result in deciding that the current course of action is correct, or correct enough, but if it doesn’t, it can still help the recipient of the criticism to understand that the current behavior isn’t the only option. Specific, detailed descriptions of the desired behavior make the new behavior easier to imagine and, thus, make it feel more attainable.

By doing the work to drill down to just the behavior to which you object and to come up with a more detailed plan than “Change that,” you make the task of change simpler. And a simpler task is more likely to get done.

Reconstructing Criticism: Praise

Praise might seem like an incongruous topic for a discussion about criticism, but for constructive criticism, praise is hugely useful. One of the big differences between constructive and destructive criticism is the idea that the person being criticized is worth building up instead of tearing down. There isn’t a better way to reinforce that idea than to celebrate that person’s contributions.

Offering praise performs a couple of other functions as well. The first is that it provides a sense of perspective. When you start by listing the things that someone is doing right, it gets harder to overreact to something that is wrong. The second is that praise, particularly praise you don’t much feel like giving, requires an attention to detail that will help focus your criticism. I’ll discuss proportionality and specificity in other posts, but trust me for right now that they’re important.

Praise should come before criticism. Not only does it establish a friendly atmosphere for the delivery of unhappy news, but it also establishes common ground, important for persuasion. As someone gets into the habit of nodding along with you over the good stuff, they come to trust your judgment, at least to a degree. This makes them more likely to keep listening when you hit a point of disagreement. Ending with praise can also buy you more goodwill.

Praise should be unstinting and unironic, however much snark has hold in your heart. Praise that feels forced is a worse background for criticism than no praise at all. Someone who doesn’t appear to want to praise you is unlikely to be someone who genuinely wants to help and may, in fact, be someone with an undisclosed bias against you. They will not be someone you want to listen to.

Praise is one of the fundamentals of constructive criticism that we learn even as schoolchildren. That we don’t see it used and used well more often is more of a testament to the work involved than it is to its importance. Don’t forget praise.

Reconstructing Criticism: Timing

You may recall from the introduction to this series that constructive criticism offers positive recommendations for the future. This has implications for the timing of offering criticism. Criticizing an event in progress is often futile, both because it’s frequently difficult to stop or redirect a process in motion and because ongoing events will distract from your message. If the recipient of your criticism is busy, you’re not going to be heard. Wait for a better time.

As with any feedback, the sooner after the behavior criticism is offered, the more effective the criticism is likely to be. One caveat, of course, is that the aftereffects of an ongoing event can be as distracting as the event itself, which has to be balanced against the the preference for delivering your message promptly.

Once the window of effective feedback narrows, additional criticism may be viewed as irrelevant, because the person receiving the criticism has already evaluated the event or behavior and drawn their own conclusions from it or because they have forgotten the details that make your criticism relevant. The greater the delay, the more likely criticism is to be viewed as blame, or even a grudge, since the behavior will appear to be maintaining a disproportionate degree of significance for the person offering criticism when compared the recipient.

Nor is there any good reason to stretch that window. Either the behavior in question will be repeated, offering a better opportunity to offer the criticism, or it won’t, meaning constructive criticism–criticism intended to effect a change–isn’t necessary.

In short, pick your timing wisely. Too soon or too late can hurt your message, but waiting when your timing isn’t ideal rarely loses you anything.

Reconstructing Criticism: Transparency

One of the hallmarks of constructive criticism is that it is presented in such a way that the recipient understands the criticism is about their behavior, that it isn’t personal. However, any group of people brought together by mutual concerns are going to develop personal history. Some things will be personal.

If you’re delivering criticism to someone with whom you have a history, you can’t pretend that history doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t affect your ongoing interactions. The same is true if you’re delivering criticism to someone who disagrees with your friends. And again when you’re criticizing someone who disagrees with you on an issue that elicits an emotional reaction in you.

None of us want to think that criticism is actually about our behavior. It’s much, much easier to dismiss it as the product of someone else’s biased thinking. It’s much easier to say, “This isn’t about what I do, because no matter what I do, this person is not going to like it or me.”

Does this mean you can’t criticize someone constructively under these conditions? No, but it does mean you have a bigger task ahead of you. You need to acknowledge your history and your biases before it occurs to someone else to ask why you haven’t, and you have to honestly and non-trivially analyze how that history and bias affects your position. With all that out of the way, your point at least stands a chance of being heard for what it is.

This isn’t easy, and it isn’t comfortable, but transparency is one of the requirements of effective, and thus constructive, criticism.

Reconstructing Criticism

How do you build up a movement with destructive criticism?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. But that doesn’t stop the makers of sites like You’re Not Helping from going flat-out negative, even when they’re offering “praise.” It doesn’t stop people from critiquing on Twitter, despite the sheer genius it would take to be both constructive and critical in 140 characters. (Note, not only are most of us not geniuses, but even those who may be geniuses are generally not the sort of genius required for effective short-form communication of difficult topics.) It doesn’t make bloggers reserve the shit-kicking boots for shit and not for imperfect allies.

Why? Oh, I don’t know. I’m not psychic. I have some theories, and if I were some pop psychologist trying to sell a book, I’d share them with you. I’m not. I’m just tired of seeing too many people and groups I care about waste their time and energy on hurting each other instead of defeating the common enemy.

Yes, I do mean waste. Destructive criticism breaks working relationships or makes them unlikely to form. It’s bad for the recipient, making them less effective and less ambitious. And it’s ineffective, leading to rejection of both the criticism and the person who delivered it. Unless your goal is mutually assured destruction, constructive criticism, when you must criticize, is the way to go.

So what does constructive criticism look like in the wild, particularly online? Essentially, it contains three elements: specificity, behavioral (rather than personal) orientation and positive recommendations for change. It sounds awfully simple for something that happens so rarely. Truth is, it is simple if you break it down far enough.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to work at breaking down constructive criticism in an online setting. I will attempt to keep it all in the realm of positive recommendations. Feel free to suggest topics you think I should cover, either up front or as the series goes on. I hope to end up with a fairly comprehensive how to, and I hope you find it useful.

The posts: