Athletic Quotient

I began writing this post last week, and since then, Scott Alexander has also posted about IQ using athletic ability as an analogy. Not only of course did he do it first, but he did it better as well.

Imagine if somebody came up with a physical measurement corresponding to intelligence. Let’s call it Athletic Quotient (AQ). We can come up with some sort of list of tests, perhaps the 100 meter dash, the high jump, the max amount one can bench press, some sort of measure of reflexes, etc. Furthermore, it, like IQ, had an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 10.

And i think its fair to imagine, just using people from your own life, that people who are good at one aspect of physicality are good at others. People who run fast can generally lift more weights, etc. Let’s compare me to Lebron James: I’m sure that he is better than me at probably every athletic endeavor (speed, strength, reflexes coordination). Unless there’s some really weird skill that Lebron James doesn’t have, (for instance, if he cannot swim at all or never learned how to ride a bike, both of which are possibilities so remote as to be laughable), there probably isn’t a single Olympic Sport that I (or, unless you are a very peculiar individual, you) could beat him in. This doesn’t just apply to the greats however, remembering back to school it was always the same people who got picked first, almost no matter the sport. Or think of the stereotypical big man on campus, who was quarterback in football, point guard in basketball, and shortstop in baseball. At the reverse end of the spectrum, you have the stereotypical nerds, of course who not only lacked in physical strength but in coordination as well. People who are above average along one physical dimension are, generally speaking, good along most others.

But at the extremes it breaks down. Think of defensive linemen (yay! another football blog post!), they are incredibly strong yet very slow. At the other end of the spectrum would be female Olympic gymnasts, who probably have the highest flexibility and dexterity of anybody on the planet, yet wouldn’t exactly break any weight lifting records. This is exasperated by the fact that a large amount of athletic success is learned, not inborn, and its very difficult to become very skilled in more than one athletic endeavor. Think of how few two sport athletes there have been, the complete list is here, and like everything else in Wikipedia, it has more information that you can possibly image. If you examine it, you’ll find that the vast majority of examples are of the “drafted by such as such.” Perhaps the best evidence is that Michael Jordans (ie transcendent athlete) are more common than Bo Jacksons.
I think we can safely say the following about AQ:

1: Its real, some people are more athletic than others.
2: It breaks down as a predictor of success at sufficiently high levels (ie, an AQ of 170 would beat an AQ of 100 at most every sport, but when comparing an AQ 170 person to an AQ 150 person, other characteristics (body type, skill level, etc) would be much more valuable to know).
3: People can be very good at one aspect of AQ and bad at another; this can be more pronounced the higher the AQ (especially raw strength – in order to build strength you need body mass, which at a certain point is detrimental to most other physical characteristics).
4: Although natural AQ is important, almost every aspect of athletic success is more responsive to training than natural talent.

I don’t think that this is at all controversial, and I doubt that too many people would disagree with any of the 4 above points.

I think the same 4 points hold for IQ.

1: IQ is real, and is important and explains a lot about one’s ability in intellectual pursuits (and therefore one’s place in society as a whole).
2: IQ breaks down as a predictor of success at high levels; most every standardized test (such as SAT, GMAT, etc) tend to break down intelligence into math and verbal sections.
3: People can be good at one aspect of intelligence and bad at another, and this can be most pronounced at the highest values. There have been people who are incredible writers and have been not too good at math. And of course, there’s the not untrue stereotype of people who are incredible at math yet horrible in social situations.
4: While high IQ can be predictive of success, it is not as important as practice for almost any endeavor. There have been quite a few people who are brilliant at chess, current world champion Magnus Carlsen became a grand master at the age of 13, clearly he has an enormous talent for chess. However, he still studies chess an incredible amount.
We don’t have AQ, and really for good reasons, while it contains information, we don’t use it as a gauge of athletic ability because for almost every athletic endeavor there is a better set of measurements for that endeavor . Vertical reach may be useful to baseball players, but it is paramount to basketball players. Nobody has ever tried to take the average importance of the two, weigh them against the averages of other scores in order to get a general measure of how a person would do as a baseball or basketball player. The reason nobody has ever done this is obvious, it would be a huge waste of time.

Yet that appears to be what we are doing with IQ. We have a measure which definitely conveys information (we can say that some people are smarter than others), and perhaps this is a useful tool to use in the social sciences (there is nothing wrong with using imperfect measures in a model so long as there aren’t more perfect measures available), but I have a feeling that people give way too much credit to this one measure, and often when thinking of the general, we can be lost to the specifics. Yes, general intelligence is important, but it can be overshadowed by any number of factors; hard work, dedication, wisdom, or even a specific intelligence for a matter. Richard Feynman (Nobel winning physicist who worked on the Manhattan project and developed the idea of Quantum Electrodynamics) once had his IQ measured at 125, so while his intelligence may have been only above average at the specific tasks which IQ measures, it was incredible when pointed towards theoretical physics. We should be cognizant of this lesson; not only that attitude is more important than aptitude, but that aptitude is more nuanced then we may first think it.

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