Sunday, May 15, 2005

Bogus science: television and video games improve IQ - Getting enough TV, video games in your diet?
Steven Johnson wants to do for popular culture what the Atkins diet did for red meat - make it OK to enjoy something that's supposed to be bad for you.

It's the "Don't eat your vegetables" approach to life: Watch The Sopranos and 24 on TV, play video games like "Grand Theft Auto," go see the new Star Wars movie and surf the Internet. Then watch your IQ rise!

Johnson is dead serious, however. His new book, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (Riverhead, $23.95), boasts not only a long title but also a provocative premise. Johnson argues that the complexity of modern culture provides a rigorous cognitive workout and develops skills that are useful in personal and professional settings.
This is ridiculous, but it gets so much press that I feel obliged to kvetch.

Even if IQ is indeed rising over the past 50 years in the nations monitored, let me introduce one equation: correction != causation.

If IQ were rising for whatever reason, one would expect a "smarter" audience to expect more sophisticated entertainment and play more complex games.


As to what might cause such an IQ rise (if is real), I can think easily of one far more persuasive explanation. Consider this sequence.
1. Nothing.
2. Mail.
3. Mail + phone.
4. Mail + phone + fax.
5. Mail + phone + fax + email.
6. Mail + phone + fax + email + cell phone.
7. Mail + phone + fax + email + cell phone + multiple email accounts.
8. Mail + phone + fax + email + cell phone + multiple email accounts + instant messaging.
9. 8. Mail + phone + fax + email + cell phone + multiple email accounts + instant messaging + VOIP/media phones.
And that's just person-person communication. Life is getting exponentially more complex for everyone in every way -- all the time. Just to get through the average day we're pushing old brains into overdrive, starting from birth onwards.

We live in a very high intensity environment. If we're looking for an explanation of why IQ is increasing, forget about the tube. Think about all the rest of life.

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