June 30, 2008

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2008

James R. Flynn, What Is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect
A full review will be forthcoming in a magazine, so I don't want to spoil that, but will just hit a few key notes.
(1) This is mostly about explaining the large, long-term, world-wide rise in IQ, a.k.a. the Flynn Effect (not so named by Flynn!), and especially the fact that parts of IQ tests show different rates of gain, or none at all, with no particular reference to their correlation with the (IMSAO mythical) "general factor of intelligence" g.
(2) Flynn's preferred explanation is much closer to mine than I would have guessed before reading this: it has to do with the cultural diffusion of new habits of thinking, what he calls "putting on scientific spectacles". I do not think he follows this argument as far as he could, or should. (I will elaborate on that in the full review.)
(3) A reasonable chunk of this already short book consists of Flynn's animadversions on ethical relativism, postmodernism, etc. I like seeing these bashed as much as anyone else who thought "Transgressing the Boundaries" was the funniest thing ever, but here it's a tangent on a tangent, and Flynn doesn't even bash them especially well; his editor shouldn't have let him indulge himself to this extent.
(4) Flynn is clearly trying to write for a general audience, but I am not sure that someone who reads, e.g., his account of the model he and Dickens devised of "social amplification" would understand it, unless they had read and grasped the relevant papers first.
— On re-reading this seems more negative than my actual opinion. It's definitely worth reading if you care at all about the IQ controversy; it's probably not so helful as a first exposure to that subject.
Update: the review is out.
Roger Th. A. J. Leenders, Structure and Influence: Statistical Models for the Dynamics of Actor Attributes, Network Structure and Their Interdependence
(In lieu of a full review): Two extremely important phenomena in social networks are that (1) people don't make social ties randomly, but tend to link up with others who are either similar to them in some salient way, or to whom they are complemntary; and (2) people learn from and imitate each other. This creates a very serious inferential problem: when we observe that neighbors in a social network are more similar than random members of the population, is that because being linked made them similar, or did they link because of pre-existing similarities? (In the jargon, there is confounding between homophily and contagion.) Leenders's book, a revision of his dissertation, is a first attempt at prising this appart, by using models which represent both how people might influence each other and how they might decide on who to interact with. It is straightforward but worthy stuff, and I can think of a number of high-profile recent papers whose authors — or, better yet, referees — should be whacked over the head with this. (It's only a 250 pp. paperback so that's not that bad.)
The writing is exactly as bad as you'd expect from a doctoral dissertation in mathematical sociology. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend it for the collection of anyone seriously interested in social networks or dynamic network analysis.
C. J. Sansom, Dark Fire
Historical mystery, sequel to Dissolution. This time our hero has the misfortune to get mixed up in a complicated plot involving alchemists, royal marital dissatisfaction, and politico-theological disputes. Manages to mater-of-factly convey the awfulness and alienness of Tudor England, without slipping into the trap of making the narrator a modern man on the inside.
Jane Haddam, Cheating at Solitaire
Haddam takes on Martha's Vineyard Margaret's Harbor and the culture of celebrity, with special reference to pop tarts. It would have been easy, in the interest of entertainment, to make many of the characters completely unsympathetic; she doesn't. And the mystery was baffling, at any rate to me.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Commit a Social Science; Enigmas of Chance; IQ; Networks

Posted at June 30, 2008 23:59 | permanent link

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