Tag Archives: Intelligence

It’s Dwarfism Awareness Month and I’m Aware that Most of Us Don’t Understand Genetics and Medicine

8 Oct

Bones(Image by Gema used under CC 2.0 via)
 
 
“Hey, I had a test question about achondroplasia today!” an old roommate of mine reported to me a few years back. He was a medical student and had been studying for his licensing exam.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked. “What was the question?”

“Whether or not achondroplasia affects intelligence.”

“And the answer was…?” I smiled.

“The answer was no,” he replied, returning the smile.

That this was a test question implies a necessity for teaching this fact. Indeed, for a good part of modern history, children with achondroplasia and other types of dwarfism were too often assumed to be intellectually disabled and placed in institutions or special ed classes for life. Hence a meme from Little People of America that’s been floating around the Internet in honor of Dwarfism Awareness Month: “A common misconception about people with dwarfism is that they are cognitively delayed or mentally impaired. This is NOT true.” Activism will remain crucial until this misconception is no longer common.

What are the chances that it ever will be? Equality and empathy are the heart of every human rights movement, but these ideas alone did not disprove the idea that lower than average height is indicative of lower than average intelligence. Science did that. The scientific method uncovers the facts. Political activism spreads the word.

Despite what some extremist conservatives claim, science doesn’t have a liberal bias. It often reveals facts upsetting to many. For example, contrary to some Dwarfism Awareness campaigns, people with achondroplasia cannot be anything they want to be. They cannot be construction workers, gymnasts, military combatants, weight lifters, or participate in most contact sports because the achondroplastic spinal column is compressed, rendering these activities more life-threatening for us than for most people. That’s a scientific fact.

It need not be a cause for regret. I don’t consider a life without the ability to participate in contact sports or construction work any less enriching than a life without the ability to sing on key or identify bird calls or cut hair or write without spellcheck. (When I’m feeling snarky, I steal a line from this movie: “Dear White People on Instagram: You own an iPhone and you go on hikes. We get it.”) Competitive and aggressive feats of strength can be a way to be a stronger person, but they are not the only way. You can tell me a million times that I cannot safely lift anything heavier than a small child over my head and I will never take it as an insult.

What is insulting is to tout broad assumptions about conditions and bodies as facts when they have not been corroborated by several studies. Someone with dyslexia is unlikely to master a word scramble, but that does not mean she cannot be a skilled writer. Someone with Down Syndrome cannot practice medicine, but that does not mean he cannot get a job. If you hear that people with dwarfism cannot have a high IQ, teach, drive, play tennis, perform surgery, give birth, or take care of children, these are not facts. They are assumptions. Yet they have been dispersed far and wide, terrifying far too many people with dwarfism and their parents.

Having a rare genetic mutation has taught me that teaching science to the masses is hard. Most of us who are not scientists develop our understanding of medicine based on doctor’s visits, pop science news articles, and hearsay, as opposed to peer-reviewed research published in medical journals or textbooks. This is to be expected—when was the last time I read a medical journal straight through?—but it results in all sorts of inaccurate and potentially dangerous assumptions.

When I recently tried to explain to some new friends that the gene for achondroplasia is dominant, one insisted, “Achondroplasia can’t be dominant because then most people would be dwarfs!” Wrong.

When my parents visited one of their first Little People of America meetings shortly after I was born back in the early Eighties, one volunteer said, “Dwarfs don’t live as long as average-sized people do because they have to walk twice as many steps in their lifetime.” Also wrong. The most common cause of lower life expectancy among dwarfs throughout history has been a lack of access to appropriate health care due to social marginalization.

When a journalist asked the owner of a Hollywood freak show last year why one of his main performers had died at the age of 32, he replied, “A lot of them don’t have long life spans. Little hearts and the whole thing.” The reporter revealed in his excellent exposé of the depressing freak show business that the performer in question died of alcoholism.

My career as a writer has helped me see how much we love stories that are both out of the ordinary and easy to understand. My dwarfism has caused me to be confronted with the ubiquity of scientific misinformation in these stories and has helped me see how xenophobia facilitates the lazy thinking perpetuating scientific myths about minorities. Black Americans can’t swim? More like they were barred from learning how. Half of gay male teens have AIDS? File that one next to the Victorian belief that masturbation causes blindness. Women don’t have the skills to be Silicon Valley programmers? In Western cultures where men are expected to be bread-winners, women have been dissuaded from pursuing the highest-earning jobs, whether we’re talking about doctors and nurses, professors and school teachers, or milk men and milk maids.

This is why I approach most scientific and medical “facts” uttered to me with a heavy dose of skepticism. This can be draining. Some days I would like to simply trust Google or a Facebook Group for dwarfs instead of having to track down out-of-print medical textbooks or wait months for my orthopedist to have a free appointment in order to find it out if I should be concerned about osteoporosis or fibroids. But doubt is the fuel of innovation and vigorous research ultimately harms no one.

And when facing complex disabilities and learning about what certain bodies absolutely can and cannot do, we should not confuse being talented with being good. Just as it is hard for us to resist a fascinating story, it is hard for us to resist the idea that strength of body and mind also indicates strength of character. But acing any sort of competition says little about your ability to be brave, honest, generous or humble. Need proof? Celebrity scandals are but a Google search away.
 
 

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There’s More Than One Way To Make A Nerd

19 Jun

buch-und-baum-copyright-emily-sullivan-sanford

From the Archives

Can we stop using the words “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably? Forgive me if this doesn’t sound like the most pressing social justice issue of our time, but hear me out. I think the distinction is subtle but significant. 

Geeks are a subculture. They like science fiction usually because it’s built around ideas posed by math and the natural sciences, just as literature is built around ideas posed by the humanities. If you don’t have a big appetite for Star Trek, the Hitchhiker’s Guides, or video games, you’re probably not a geek. Just like if you don’t enjoy nature, long hair, or folk rock music, you’re probably not a hippie.

Nerds, in contrast, simply share one trait: wanting to learn almost everything there is to know about a subject at the expense of their cool factor. And it seems to me that there’s a little nerd in all of us. From trivia and statistics to random factoids, a nerd examines a topic down to what Slate calls “the granularity that would glaze the eyes of a normal, well-adjusted human.” Sometimes the eye-rolling this brings on is fueled by inane rules for style that value keeping the lowest common denominator very low. But anyone with social intelligence knows that it’s also unfair to demand everyone share your love for a subject, no matter what it is. 

I try not to look bored when friends expound upon existentialism, or when my dad gets excited about weather statistics, but I can likewise put them to sleep with monologues about typography or Russian grammar. I have a hard time looking thrilled when my husband analyzes the meal he cooked for us in too much detail, or when my uncle gets out his car magazines, but I get the same looks from outsiders whenever I discover a fellow classic rock fanatic. An obsession with trivia—in any area—will forever be the opposite of a social lubricant. Saying, “I’m such a nerd” with a sheepish grin usually means, “I love something to a degree that might ruin the evening if you ask me about it.”

But traditionally, the nerd word is used much more specifically. Nerd hobbies are thought to be geeky. Nerd intelligence almost always means “book smart.” The Urban Dictionary says a nerd is “one whose IQ exceeds his weight.” A gardener and a mechanic can be skilled, but only botanists and engineers can be nerds. Why? 

One summer in my early teens, I was sunbathing at a friend’s house and talking about the new atlas I had bought. “I’m hoping that someday I can identify all the flags of the world,” I smiled, with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm.   

My friend’s mother frowned and asked, “Why?! Just to be better than everyone else?”

She knew how to repair a motorcycle. I knew the names of the world’s nations. Why was my knowledge automatically seen as a pretension? (I was too embarrassed and too young to dare to ask her, but I wish I had.)

A lot of it has to do with social status, however ridiculous that is. We tend to see bookish people as the inventors of ideas and therefore the brains. People working in production and maintenance are the realizers of the ideas and therefore the salt of the earth. Artists are classified depending on which of these two groups they appeal to: Classical composers and jazz musicians make high art for the “elite,” while rappers and country singers make soul for “the people.” (Artists who appeal to both are gods and everyone wants to sleep with them.)    

Self-proclaimed nerds sometimes defend these rigid categories, reassuring themselves that the only reason anyone would malign their expertise is meat-headed jealousy. This is certainly true in many cases. The stereotypical anti-intellectual will lash out when someone’s way of life threatens to highlight his weaknesses. But the stereotypical ivory tower snob will sneer when someone’s way of life threatens to highlight his weaknesses.  Both the belligerent athlete and the arrogant mathlete lack the emotional intelligence to recognize that both trigonometry and football require brains. Both topics can be obsessed over in nauseating detail. But Western society—which places an inordinate emphasis on IQ—has yet to be convinced of this. IQ tests define “intelligence” as strong mathematic and/or verbal skills, and so do most of us when we describe someone as “smart.” This is wildly inaccurate and unhelpful.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences turns 30 this year, but we have yet to adopt the concept into our common parlance. The theory currently identifies seven forms of intelligence:

1) Logical-Mathematical Intelligence – useful to chemists, accountants, physicists  

2) Linguistic Intelligence – useful to writers, speech therapists, managers

3) Kinesthetic Intelligence –  useful to athletes, surgeons, carpenters

4) Visual/Spatial Intelligence – useful to photographers, architects, engineers

5) Musical Intelligence – useful to composers, dancers, poets

6) Interpersonal Intelligence – useful to counselors, salespeople, politicians

7) Intrapersonal/Introspective Intelligence – useful to philosophers, artists, parents

(Some groups have promulgated a theory of Culinary Intelligence, as well as Sexual Intelligence.) 

So there are more than two ways to be “smart.” It seems logical to conclude that people choose their jobs based on combinations of intelligences. A speech therapist needs both linguistic and interpersonal intelligence, whereas a songwriter needs linguistic and musical intelligence. A dancer needs musical and kinesthetic intelligence, while a soldier needs kinesthetic and spatial intelligence. Take that, IQ tests.

But this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Every one of us knows someone who’s read a hundred books but can’t fill out a tax form. Or who can identify every bit of green in your backyard but can’t analyze news stories in a historical context. Or who can counsel people with all sorts of problems but can’t dance for the life of them. Or who can sew the coolest costumes but can’t make strangers feel comfortable. We should all be big enough to take pride in our talents and to be teased for our weaknesses. Especially if we’re going to start fully accepting people with certain disabilities.

The theory of multiple intelligences does not claim that everyone is a genius in their own way. Everyone knows a good guitarist isn’t as smart as a great guitarist. But the theory asserts that a great guitarist is no smarter than a great nurse or a great ballerina or a great chemist. So why then do we call the chemist “smart” and the others “talented”? 

And why isn’t the soccer nut who won’t stop analyzing the semi-final games called a nerd? Why isn’t the housewife who goes on and on about how to master pie crust recipes called a nerd? Maybe it’s because these activities are socially condoned: A guy is expected to love sports and a housewife is expected to love baking. Maybe by choosing less socially accepted hobbies, people of high IQ monopolize the term “smart” as a consolation prize.  Maybe the term “nerd” still carries too much stigma for socialites to desire it. Maybe if we broaden the use of these words, maybe if everyone recognizes their inner nerd, then maybe some social barriers will be knocked down along the way.

I’m not expecting utopian results. We’re all doomed to clash over our passions because no one can be expected to obsess over the intricacies of every subject on earth. Whenever I get together with a friend who works as a computer programmer, it’s a fight over whether we play games that reward strategy (like Monopoly), or games that reward vocabulary (like Scattergories). He’s geekier than I am, but he’s not nerdier. In any case, I always get my way because I’m bossier.

Originally published January 13, 2013