from the world's big
Three ways your environment affects your intelligence
You can be born with good genes and study hard and still not meet your potential. Your environment has a lot to do with how smart you are.
- Euthenics refers to the practice of improving humanity's environment in order to maximize its potential.
- Throughout history, we've tweaked our surroundings in such a way as to directly enhance our intelligence.
- These examples underscore the importance of environmental regulation and policies; otherwise, we might just be throwing away our potential.
Every few years, researchers administer IQ tests to a sample of test subjects, take the median score, and declare that to be the new "100," the score that means you're of perfectly average intelligence. This begs the question: Why do they need to update the average score? Simply put, we've been getting smarter. Every time the test is re-administered, the median score has almost always gone up. In fact, if we were to administer today's IQ tests to people from 100 years ago, they'd score somewhere around a 70; researchers estimate that our IQ scores jump about 3 points every decade. This is called the Flynn effect, named after the researcher who discovered it.
There are several proposed reasons for the Flynn effect. It could be that more people are attending school than they were before or that we do a better job of teaching students the skills directly related to IQ tests. These may be true, but there is one domain that has unquestionably increased our smarts: euthenics.
Where eugenics deals with improving humanity by selectively breeding allegedly "superior" groups of people — an idea that would ultimately sow considerable discord and decidedly not improve humanity's condition — euthenics focuses on improving humanity by improving our environment. Here are three examples of how tweaking our environment can make us smarter.
The US Government tinkers with salt
In the early 20th century, people living in the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest regions were particularly susceptible to acquiring goiters, which are swollen lumps in the neck associated with a dysfunctional thyroid gland. David Murray Cowie, a professor of pediatrics, knew that this was due to iodine deficiency, a critical micronutrient that the thyroid needs in order for it to function properly. Cowie also knew that the Swiss incorporated sodium iodide in table salt to prevent this condition, so he persuaded the US government to implement the practice as well.
In the fall of 1924, the Morton Salt Company began distributing iodized salt at a national level. As expected, the number of goiters dropped precipitously.
Nearly 100 years later, researchers discovered that introducing iodized salt had some significant ancillary benefits as well. In iodine-deficient regions, IQ scores jumped by 15 points, and they increased by 3 points nationally. What's more, incomes in those iodine-deficient regions grew by 11 percent. How did this happen?
Iodine is easiest to gain from seafood and seaweeds, but it can also be gained from plants and animals so long as those plants and animals were raised on soil rich in iodine. In the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest regions, floods and ancient glaciers had scrubbed all the iodine from the soil. This made goiters more common, but it also had a major impact on pregnant women. If a pregnant woman has an iodine deficiency (and therefore a dysfunctional thyroid gland), their child will be mentally impaired. A huge chunk of the US population had grown up with iodine-deficient mothers, negatively impacting their potential.
Making gasoline even more toxic
Photo: David Brodbeck via Flickr
In 1922, GM discovered that a chemical called tetraethyl lead worked fantastically as an anti-knock compound in automobiles — essentially, it prevented the early combustion of fuel. Ethanol would have worked just as well, but this substance could not be patented despite being considerably less toxic than lead. So, GM worked with oil companies to introduce lead into gasoline rather than the safer but less profitable ethanol. GM, Du Pont, and the general public were all aware that tetraethyl lead was poisonous. Rather than refer to this additive by its true name, they called it "ethyl."
Unfortunately, leaded gasoline remained a fact of life far after the public became aware of it. It was only in the mid-1970s with the passage of the Clean Air Act that its use was banned. And once we scrubbed the lead out of our gasoline, the terrible impact of this decades-long poisoning became clear.
The generation born after the Clean Air Act gained 6 points in their IQ scores. What's more, researchers argue that kids who grew up during the period between lead's introduction to gasoline in the 1920s and its elimination in the 1970s drove up to 90 percent of the variation in violent crime. Crime in cities like Los Angeles and New York reached dizzying heights in the '80s and '90s and then dropped continuously as the last leaded generation died, became incarcerated, or escaped their criminal lifestyle. Politicians were eager to attribute this to police practices, such as the "broken windows" theory of law enforcement, but some researchers assert that it had more to do with the smarter, healthier, and better-adjusted crop of citizens who grew up in a lead-free environment.
The link between smog and brain fog
While the previous items on this list discussed things that we have done, humanity still has a long way to go before pollution is significantly reduced. Every year, the State of Global Air project releases a report [PDF] assessing the severity of air pollution around the world. The most recent report found that 92 percent of the world's population is living in an area that exceeds healthy guidelines for small, particulate air pollution as set out by the World Health Organization. Not only is this bad for local ecosystems, climate change, and the human body, air pollution has been linked to major decrements in intelligence.
One study, for instance, analyzed a dataset of nearly 32,000 observations of standardized test scores and the daily air pollution index throughout China. The researchers found that the longer a study participant was exposed to high levels of pollution, the more their intelligence dropped. In particular, linguistic ability was affected the most, and men were more affected than women. Overall, the average effect of pollution reduced the study participants' intelligence to a similar degree as missing a year of school, roughly the equivalent of 5 IQ points.
Small particles from air pollution enter the body through the lungs, and from there, they travel throughout the body, including to the brain. The researchers from this study speculated that these particles were likely inflaming the brain and thereby damaging its white matter at an accelerated rate.
We like to think that our intellect is a resource we're born with, one that we can exercise or let go to waste. This isn't exactly true. Intelligence is a dynamic phenomenon that depends on the quality of our environment to a considerable degree. That's why smart regulations and policies are important. Without them, we might not get smart enough to implement them in the first place.
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Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Russian astrophysicists propose the Casimir Effect causes the universe's expansion to accelerate.
- Astrophysicists from Russia propose a theory that says dark energy doesn't exist.
- Instead, the scientists think the Casimir Effect creates repulsion.
- This effect causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
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