Why intelligence-testing is a dumb ideaThe Globe and Mail, September 15, 2007
A Smart History of a Failed Idea
IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea
By Stephen Murdoch
Wiley, 269 pages, $29.99
you're like me, you don't like IQ tests. For one thing, you find it
objectionable that someone thinks they can quantify your smarts that
way, especially with the kinds of inane questions typically found on
these exams. For another, the tests never seem to yield a score quite
high enough, the way a cheap set of bathroom scales never produce a
weight quite low enough, so you don't want to put too much faith in it.
And according to U.S. writer Stephen Murdoch's intelligent new book on
the subject, you're right to be skeptical.
IQ: A Smart History
of a Failed Idea explores how we've become obsessed with trying to
measure innate intelligence, and all the many ways that quest has gone
wrong. The history kicks off with Francis Galton, the famous British
eugenicist. He put together a booth for the London International Health
Exhibition of 1884, where he measured people's physical attributes,
things like height, hearing and the speed of your punch. He believed
that physical superiorities were linked to mental ones (the latter
revealed by a person's place in society) and he wanted to prove it. No
correlation was ever found, but the enthusiasm for measuring mental
acuity caught on.
The first tests were used to try to
distinguish between different grades of mental retardation in French
and U.S. institutions. It was important to know, because people
increasingly believed that there was a single gene for
"feeble-mindedness," and if you could prevent the stupidest people from
reproducing, they argued, the world would be a better place.
1912 bestseller, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of
Feeble-mindedness, which centred on one supposedly feeble-minded woman
and her family, provided compelling support. That is, until you
consider how the evidence was gathered: Author Henry Herbert Goddard
"based his research for the book largely on the work of a zealous and
imaginative fieldworker he employed for years named Elizabeth Kite, a
woman who rather dubiously managed to ascertain the intelligence of 480
of the girl's relatives, most of whom were dead.
were indirect in the extreme: She often couldn't administer IQ tests to
Kallikak's relations directly, so she ascertained and defined
intelligence by their behaviour. If even this were not possible, she
relied on mere reputation for behaviour and ability. To gather this
information, Kite zigzagged across New Jersey interviewing living
Kallikaks and, to gauge the intelligence of the dead, she relied on
families' memories, written records of occupation, marital status,
health and even, in one instance, on the condition of heirloom
Despite the lack of rigour in the field,
intelligence tests became popular. They were used to help decide not
just whom to sterilize, but also who among the immigrants arriving at
Ellis Island to send home. It was the First World War, however, that
catapulted intelligence testing into the mainstream. Psychologists
persuaded the army that it needed a way to assess incoming recruits and
to decide which ones should become officers.
Almost overnight, a
test meant for individuals was transformed into a test for a large
groups. Since so many recruits couldn't read, there was both an
"alpha," or written test, and a "beta," or picture-based version.
that's all beginning to sound a little familiar - all those weird
pictures, of rabbits missing ears that you're supposed to draw in, and
forms that need to be matched up - yes, you're right, they hail from
the day when illiterate conscripts had to be graded as they entered the
The truth is, the IQ test hasn't changed very much since
it was first invented way back when by the eugenicists. In fact, one of
the most popular IQ tests these days, the WAIS-III (for Wechsler Adult
Intelligence Scale III; David Wechsler was a young test administrator
during the First World War), comes almost entirely from that era. Of
its seven verbal subtests, Murdoch tells us, no fewer than six are
derived from either a 1916 test or one developed during the war. Four
of seven non-verbal tests are from wartime. Jigsaw puzzles, picture
arrangements, picture completions, you name it - all from long, long
We all know what happened next: The tests made their way
into schools. They have been - and continue to be - used to funnel kids
into or away from Ivy League universities, private schools and even
elite kindergartens. But despite the fact that one psychologist
proclaimed that "the limits of a child's educability can be accurately
predicted by mental tests in the first year," there appears to be no
evidence that such is the case.
If you were to suggest that foot
size at the age of three predicts height at adulthood, you'd have a way
to confirm that. But how do we verify if IQ tests accurately predict
anything? Because, although psychologists believe they're measuring
"intelligence," there's never been any real consensus on what that is.
None of the original formulators of the tests even had a clear theory
about it. Historically, IQ tests have been pronounced accurate simply
by turning up the same results as other IQ tests, or having matched up
with teacher assessments or with "officer opinion." There are other
reasons to be suspicious. For one thing, it seems that our "innate"
intelligence is growing by leaps and bounds with each generation. Could
it be that IQ tests aren't, as psychologists claim, measuring some
basic brain power, but rather learned knowledge? Hmm. And then there's
the fact that a person's own score can change quite dramatically,
depending on everything from your socioeconomic situation to how much
you slept the night before.
This becomes especially egregious
when you consider how these tests are used by the law. Murdoch details
the case of a man convicted of murder and who, with a low enough score,
could be spared the death penalty. As the man learns more about the
workings of the legal system, however, in order to defend himself, his
IQ improves, rendering him eligible to die.
Murdoch relays the
history artfully, with relevant case studies and details. I do wish he
had included an appendix with entire tests as examples, though. And
there was a chapter missing that would have explained what scores
But read this book, and when you're done, mail
it to someone who needs it more than you: a local registrar, a school
administrator or anyone who's ever boasted about an IQ test score.