Intelligence, Failure and Fault

The Loch

So the TV show The Loch, a sort of Scottish version of Broadchurch type crime drama, is being met with fairly mixed reviews as many are not enjoying the many glaring faults the show’s writing is riddled with, particularly reliance on so many cliches and tropes. But in general I was enjoying watching it, the cheesiness being a welcome break to my current chaotic workload. That was until one episode when one particular cliche appeared that was, well, the straw that broke the camel’s back and brought my mind right back to all the problems and work I was hoping to escape for that hour and a half.

A throwaway comment was made that I would like to invite you to examine with me.

It was just a little moment, when Blake Albrighton, the forensic psychologist brought on to help the local police find the serial killer at large, is giving his professional opinion for the case against the local secondary school teacher under suspicion, Craig Petrie.

“He’s got an IQ of 140 and a First from Cambridge, what’s he doing teaching in a God-forsaken school? He’s looking for a challenge!”

Firstly, this is yet again that annoying trope of using a number to give a measure of IQ without naming the corresponding test it was derived from (the value of the number given in IQ measurement are largely meaningless without the scale that it corresponds to, rather like saying a speed of ’40 per hour’ without saying if that means 40 miles or kilometres). An irritation, and perhaps simply matching the vagueness of the degree reference – a First in what subject?

Secondly though, and far more importantly, is the underlying implications of this whole statement. That suspicion of him is raised because he is demonstrating abnormal behaviour by his action of choosing a career in teaching when he is clearly “too clever” for it. That there must be a further explanation and information missing, perhaps intentionally hidden from the police, as to why he is behaving so. That it is not obvious and requires justification.

There are three parts to this problem that I want to address:

  • Intelligence and Minorities
  • Defining Failure
  • Finding Fault

Intelligence and Minorities

Way back, a while ago, I wrote a piece on my Facebook page about an ongoing debate within the British Mensa society about public perceptions of high IQ. A survey had been done showing that very few Mensa members, that is those that have been assessed to have a high IQ relative to the general population using standardised tests, were proud of their intelligence, and in fact most with high IQ were embarrassed or so scared of the social judgement for it that they even kept the fact hidden from others, even those closest to them. Discussions followed trying to look at what exactly this meant.

One member claiming that discrimination against high IQ was the most socially acceptable form of discrimination and practically encouraged by the same people seeking to reduce other forms such as racism or sexism. People came forward with confession of the lengths gone to to keep their IQ hidden, and the backlash endured when publicly shared.

High IQ as measured by Mensa standards is typically considered to define a high analytical capability and so, the elephant in the room now acceptably under scrutiny, of course the crowd set about trying to find the answer to the big question of why does this discrimination happen? 

Some pointed to studies suggesting that this has its origins with a “valid” innate judgement of threat – that the higher IQ population could have a higher probability of autism (which could result in higher miscommunication) or the higher prevalence of psychopathy in analytical careers like business that may suit the qualities of higher IQ.

Others pointed to other studies that showed that whilst IQ may truly correlate to some features, it certainly does not correlate with others that also contribute to the perceived threat that is used to justify discrimination. For example, your IQ bares no relation to levels of happiness, life satisfaction, career success as measured by wages, or relationship success, except that those suffering from clinically low IQ (the other extreme, often a result of other mental health conditions) showing an inverse correlation. But comparing normal to high IQ? No difference. Those with high IQ were slightly more likely to pursue certain industries where analytical ability might help, but this was still weak.

High IQ does show statistically higher likelihood of suffering anxiety and being superstitious, believed to be a result of that pattern spotting ability going too far and creating more problems that solving them.

The unconscious and conscious biases that evolve into discrimination are generally a result of perceived threat, and perceived threat can generally have two origins – association with known threats, and the unknown.

Whilst a lot of fuss was being made about proving and disproving the threats of high IQ through associations with known threats, I think what was being underplayed was the huge part that comes from the unknown. High IQ is defined relative to the population i.e. you have a higher IQ than the majority, and so by definition is classing you as a minority. Being a minority means that people are less likely to meet people with those features, and so less likely to know and understand about people in that group, and the less they know and understand, the more likely you are to perceive threat. Because the less you know about a situation or person, the harder it is to predict danger and brains like us to err on the side of caution and assume the worst case – that all that unknown conceals information about known dangers.

So lots of people are going to judge you a threat for having a high IQ just because they do not know what that actually means and will assume that it implies extra threat.

So when The Loch suggests that a man can be validly judged to be a serial killer on the basis of having high IQ, they reinforce an unfounded cultural stereotype that high IQ really does imply threat.

They fail to mention that the studies, the greater evidence, suggest that this intelligence actually makes him a less likely suspect but that their “gut” judgements, especially in a smaller, more isolated population like the village setting of the show, are likely to assume the opposite. That his behaviour is “not normal” but if they believe that that suggests psychopathy that would validly increase his chances of being a serial killer, then they should distinguish that, and not act as if intelligence so completely implies psychopathy that it can be used synonymously with high intelligence.

Defining Failure

From the studies on intelligence, it can be justifiably said that high intelligence, particularly analytically, has little relationship to the choice and success of career. So why is Petrie’s career choice as a teacher with his intelligence so suspicious?

Albrighton’s argument appears to be that it shows that he is “looking for a challenge” but surely that is true of many teachers, irrespective of intelligence? If the suspicion was based on the nature of the killings bearing relevance to his job as a teacher, then why is it necessary to bring IQ into the matter? What relevance is it supposed to have?

I think (although I am happy to be corrected) that the implication is that teaching is not sufficiently challenging, hence resorting to the greater challenge of serial killing. That his intelligence requires something “greater” than teaching. This is an implication of an insufficiency i.e. a failing.

This is suggesting that a career “failure” like Petrie’s supposed frustration and mismatch with his choice of teaching could result in either actually developing serial killing habits, or at least enough social judgement to be believed capable of doing so.

Last summer I read the fantastic book on failure, Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, in which failures are classified by scales, from individual to systemic, and the various measures and implications are of failure, in addition towards the cultural attitudes towards it. Amongst other things, the book studies the evidence suggesting that the greater the scale of acceptance of acknowledging failure in order to investigate it, and identify the lessons to be learned to prevent future ones, the less frequently failures occur and often with smaller impacts.

Well the audience of The Loch may not be as large as I’m the creators would have liked, but as hyped primetime mainstream television goes, its audience is still fairly large. The scale of the failure culture it influences is pretty big, and the implication that such a career failure unquestionably means such dramatic consequences, is not helpful.

Finding Fault

The essence of a crime drama like this is to find fault – to find the serial killer – in order to ensure that they do not kill again. The justice system relies on this notion that identifying blame is necessary to the identification of failure in order to prevent further.

However, many have of course questioned this over the years, through many arguments more informed and better structured than I feel capable of reproducing effectively here. The essence of these arguments though is questioning where the boundaries lie – at what point does the pursuit of identifying and allocating blame become helpful and justify the resources necessary, and at what point does it go too far and cause more damage than good?

Too little pursuit of allocating fault leaves people unaccountable and likely to repeat the failures without the necessary feedback.

Too much encourages too much risk aversion for fear of the consequences of failure, which results in a reduction of the diversity of thought that increases the chances of finding solutions to problems (so less problems solved).

One good example is the work done discussed at the UK International Robotics Showcase earlier this year. There was talk about the danger of investing too many resources in trying to find blame in situations where AI, or machine learning algorithms, generate failures in safety critical situations. For example if a self driving car makes a mistake and unjustifiably injures or kills someone, the priority for resources should be compensating the victim and finding fault within the AI, algorithm or data to prevent it happening further, not trying to allocate responsibility to humans for the sake of punishment that is not necessarily conducive to improvement.

If you arrest and punish the programmer who could fix the code that developed unpredictably and independently through the AI, what is gained? Although AI can be unpredictable it is often far more predictable and far less risky than actual humans, so more people are probably saved than hurt by using those self driving cars but as they are lacking emotions it is unaffected by our conventional punishment system, and so we want to punish actual humans. We instinctively feel that this lack of punishment pushes the boundary too low and encourages too much unaccounted for failure that will repeat.

Albrighton’s suggestion that Petrie must be the serial killer based upon unvalidated judgements are unproductive both in terms of higher risk of lack of accuracy in the character’s aim of identifying the killer, but also more importantly damaging in perpetuating a terrible failure culture not just amongst the fictional characters but also the audience too.


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