The New York Times recently covered the latest paper from the Benbow-Lubinski group at Vanderbilt about factors measurable in youth that correlate with adult achievement. I always enjoy reading these studies because, as a person who scored well on the math SAT at a young age, I’m in their dataset somewhere.
The new paper finds a small but detectable (positive) effect of spatial ability in children on adult measures like patents granted and papers published in STEM. I hope I didn’t mess up their z-score too badly, because I stink at spatial ability. I recently revealed to Dr. Mrs. Q., who was horrified, that when we’re inside the house I can’t tell what direction the wall I’m facing corresponds to in the outside world. Moreover, if I’m on the ground floor, I can’t tell you what’s directly above me on the top floor, or directly below me in the basement. This is presumably related to my inability to correctly swipe a credit card at the gas pump.
Interesting fact about spatial ability: it can be trained by sufficient exposure to first-person shooters.
As for the new paper (full author list: Kell, Lubinski, Benbow, and Steiger) I have some quarrels with it. Their way of measuring “creativity and innovation” is to split the subjects into
- those who have obtained a patent but have not published a paper
- those who have published a paper in natural science, math, or engineering (aka STEM)
- those who have published a paper in biology in medicine
- those who have publications in the arts, law, the humanities, or social science
- everybody else
I think the binary variable “has published a paper in science” vs. “has not published a paper in science” is a pretty bad proxy for creativity. It is a much better proxy for “pursued an academic career for at least some point in their life.”
What’s more: from the New York Times lede
A gift for spatial reasoning — the kind that may inspire an imaginative child to dismantle a clock or the family refrigerator — may be a greater predictor of future creativity or innovation than math or verbal skills, particularly in math, science and related fields, according to a study published Monday in the journal Psychological Science.
you might think having high spatial ability is good for creativity. But the results are more complicated than that. People who’d published at least one STEM paper had higher spatial reasoning scores than those who didn’t. But people with an artistic, literary, legal, or social-scientific publication had lower spatial reasoning scores than the mean. What the Times ought to have said is that spatial reasoning may have an effect on what kind of creative tasks a kid grows up to undertake.