Tag Archives: cognitive capability

Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts

During the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have taken to telling us that their decisions are based on the advice of their experts while the news media have bombarded us with predictions from experts.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, with the benefit of hindsight, many of these decisions and predictions appear to be have been ill-advised or inaccurate which is likely to lead to a loss of trust in both politicians and experts.  However, this is unsurprising and the reliability of experts, particularly those willing to make public pronouncements, is well-known to be dubious.  Professor Philip E. Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania has assessed the accuracy of forecasts made by purported experts over two decades and found that they were little better than a chimpanzee throwing darts.  However, the more well-known experts seemed to be worse at forecasting [Tetlock & Gardner, 2016].  In other words, we should assign less credibility to those experts whose advice is more frequently sought by politicians or quoted in the media.  Tetlock’s research has found that the best forecasters are better at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness [Mellers et al, 2015]. People with these attributes will tend not to express unambiguous opinions but instead will attempt to balance all factors in reaching a view that embraces many uncertainties.  Politicians and the media believe that we want to hear a simple message unadorned by the complications of describing reality; and, hence they avoid the best forecasters and prefer those that provide the clear but usually inaccurate message.  Perhaps that’s why engineers are rarely interviewed by the media or quoted in the press because they tend to be good at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and are open-minded [see ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018].  Of course, this was well-known to the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu who is reported to have said: ‘Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.’


Mellers, B., Stone, E., Atanasov, P., Rohrbaugh, N., Metz, S.E., Ungar, L., Bishop, M.M., Horowitz, M., Merkle, E. and Tetlock, P., 2015. The psychology of intelligence analysis: Drivers of prediction accuracy in world politics. Journal of experimental psychology: applied, 21(1):1-14.

Tetlock, P.E. and Gardner, D., 2016. Superforecasting: The art and science of prediction. London: Penguin Random House.

Why playing the piano might enhance our intelligence?

By National Institutes of Health [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Students and lecturers leave all sorts of things in lecture theatres, including lecture notes, pens and water bottles, that accumulate around the edges like flotsam on the beach because no one wants to throw away something for which the owner might return.  A few weeks ago, I found the front page of a letter published in Nature which roused my curiosity. Its title was ‘Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain’.  My memories of my teenage years are almost uniformly bad; in part because I was unable to reproduce the academic promise that I had shown when I was younger and the pressure to do so was unrelenting.  I suspect that my experience is not uncommon and the research described in this letter offers a potential explanation for my inability to ace examinations regardless of how hard I tried.

The conventional understanding of human intellectual capacity is that it is constant during our life. However, the authors of this article have shown that the statistics, upon which this understanding is based, hide a variation in our teenage years; because some teenagers experience a reduction and some an increase in intellectual capacity, which leaves the population’s average unchanged.

In addition, using structural and functional imaging, they were able to correlate changes in verbal IQ with changes in grey matter density in a region of the brain activated by speech (the left motor cortex), and changes in non-verbal IQ with changes in grey matter density in regions activated by finger movements (the anterior cerebellum).

The timeline of the reported research does not extend far enough to establish whether or not the changes seen in teenagers is temporary; however, my anecdotal evidence suggests that might be the case.  I would conclude that the effort used to apply psychological pressure on teenagers to ace examinations might be better expended on piano lessons and piano practice to enhance sensorimotor skills which are strongly correlated to cognitive intelligence – but I suspect many parents have already worked that one out!


Ramsden S, Richardson FM, Josse G, Thomas MSC, Ellis C, Shakeshaft C, Seghier ML & Price CJ, Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain, Nature, 479:113-116, 2011.