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Intelligent Isn't Smart

Reporters read too much into a new study linking birth order and IQ.



Picasso, a firstborn, and Schiller, a kid brother, both quipped that there are no accidents. They were smart as whips so I'm sure they're right, just as I'm sure it wasn't an accident that the 1,100-word story on birth order and IQs in the New York Times on June 22 never once used the word "smart" in any of its forms--particularly the comparative phrase "smarter than."

Let me give you an idea what restraint this took. Here's how the Tribune headlined its coverage of the same story: "Study finds firstborn kids smarter." The Los Angeles Times story began, "Wading into an age-old debate, researchers have found that firstborn children are smarter than their siblings." Here's the Washington Post: "Researchers have debated for a century whether, as IQ scores suggest, firstborn and only children are really smarter than those who come along later, but a study from Norway now indicates that what matters is not so much being born first as growing up the senior child--at least for boys." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was at least aware that the study had a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. It published a properly cautious AP report under the headline "Firstborns are smarter--or are they?"

The New York Times story, by science reporter Benedict Carey, has a whiplash finale worthy of The Sixth Sense. Its subject is a large Norwegian study that looked at the IQs of 241,310 young men who were tested when they reached draft age. The research found a "slight" but "significant" difference in the scores of firstborn sons and second sons: three points. That "may not sound like much," Carey reports, "but experts say it can be a tipping point for some people--the difference between a high B average and a low A," or an education at a public university instead of "an elite private liberal arts college." A comparison of 63,951 pairs of brothers produced the same results.

Carey points to other studies that have shown, among children under 12, younger siblings outscoring the eldest on IQ tests. Evidently as time goes on the older kids gain or regain the upper hand. How and why? Carey offers the conjecture of psychologists: that while younger children benefit at first from older siblings' tutoring, in the end older siblings get more out of the experience, and that kids eventually settle into predictable family niches. Earlier studies, according to the article, have found firstborns to be "more disciplined, responsible, high-achieving," while younger siblings "develop other skills, like social charm, a good curveball, mastery of the electric bass, acting skills." They tend to think less conventionally and live more adventurously.

Firstborns have won more Nobel Prizes in science than younger siblings, Carey allows, "but often by advancing current understanding, rather than overturning it." Among the great over-turners, he reports that Darwin was the fifth of six kids, Copernicus the youngest of four, and Descartes the youngest of three.

This is the article's surprise end-ing, the revelation that throws everything that came before into doubt. "I don't want to be a disciplined, high-achieving stiff," the careful reader is now thinking. "I want to be the next Darwin--or at least master the electric bass." If older siblings get to claim a few stray extra IQ points while younger siblings provide the world with paradigm-shifting genius, why would the Times report the Norwegian study as proof that firstborns are smarter?

We go back over the article and discover it didn't. We thought "smarter" when Carey wrote "higher I.Q." Our second time through we spot the psychologist in the story who applauds the study but observes that younger siblings respond to their place in the family by "developing diverse interests and expertise that the I.Q. tests do not measure."

Carey's long follow-up article on June 25, written in response to a tor-rent of reader mail, also entirely avoids the word "smart." The word "intelligence" does creep in, but always neutrally, as in, "What are the family dynamics that enhance intelligence?"

"Intelligence" simply denotes the thing IQ tests measure, the thing that can mean the difference between an A- or B+ average, grades determined by other tests. "Smart," "smarter," and "smarter than," the unscientific lingo of the real world, signifies a quality we know when we read it, or hear it, or see it overhaul an engine.

It was smart of Benedict Carey to leave "smart" out of his stories. I asked him if it was intentional and he said, "I wasn't aware of that." But that doesn't mean his word choice was an accident. Other papers translated the research into the vernacular, but Carey says he stuck to the language of the study, which dealt with birth order and IQ points. He says he made a case for younger siblings because "anyone who's lived in the world realizes later-born kids often have all sorts of skills that may sweep them past firstborns."

Were you championing your own skills? I asked. No, he said. Turns out he's an oldest child.

Repackaging Roger

The Sun-Times plays to its strengths, and one of them is packaging. The paper has turned its Friday movie coverage into a separate broadsheet section and ballyhooed it shamelessly. "Blockbuster New Section Starts Tomorrow" announced the front page of the June 21 Sun-Times, and when the sun rose on the big day itself the front page was shouting, "Brilliant New Movie Section Starts Today."

The good news is that the Sun-Times would never dare boast like that if it couldn't count on Roger Ebert to do some heavy lifting. Ebert transforms the Sun-Times whenever he's in it, which due to ill health has been only occasionally in recent weeks and virtually never for months before. I hope Ebert doesn't try to do too much. If he writes a story or two each week and presides over the section, making the other critics the Sun-Times has rounded up sound smarter by sheer propinquity, he'll be doing as much as any one writer can to keep the ship afloat.

Zen and the Art of Newspaper Editing

A reader writes: "You may have noticed the recent Sunday Tribune where the first page detailed the alarming increase in motorcycle accidents for riders over 40 and the Tribune Sunday magazine romanticizing motorcycles in a profile on a man who teaches others how to build motorcycles from the ground up. Do the two sections not talk to each other?"

"Lawyers, bankers and auto mechanics have taken the classes," wrote Rick Kogan in the magazine article on June 17. He quoted Robert Pirsig--"A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself"--and then he quoted the catalog from a Guggenheim exhibit in New York a few years ago: "The motorcycle is an immortal cultural icon that changes with the times. More than speed, it embodies the abstract themes of rebellion, progress, freedom, sex, and danger."

The front-page story by Rick Popely in the same edition said motorcycle fatalities have more than doubled in the past ten years, and "one obvious reason for the spike is that U.S. motorcycle sales more than tripled in the last 10 years, topping 1.1 million last year. That has brought thousands of new riders into the sport and thousands more Baby Boomers back into the saddle, most with little or no training."

To answer the reader's question, no, they don't talk much, and why should they? A newspaper like the Sunday Tribune is a big, messy thing, much like the world itself, and the truth hangs in the contradictions.

Poor Deer

"No animals were harmed in the making of this picture." You can't say that about the picture the Tribune ran June 24 to accompany a story about the love Russian men have for the blood of maral deer, in their eyes the tonic for every ill that aging throws at them. It's a photo of a wide-eyed deer with a bloody stump on its head, an antler having just been sawed away.

The photo's riveting and troubling, but the caption doesn't acknowledge this. It merely says, "Herdsmen saw the antlers off a maral deer in Siberia's Altai region, where spas provide treatments using a substance boiled from the antlers--and clients down deer-blood shots."

Buried in reporter Alex Rodriguez's story is this detail: "Farmworkers say the deer feels pain." If you have the normal level of empathy for dumb, noble, suffering beasts, as you confront the picture you'll feel pain yourself. A better caption would have assured us that the Tribune felt it too.

For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

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