Not too long ago I participated in a discussion about IQ and it opened my eyes to the different relationships people have with it. Several people knew their scores, although many raised doubts as to the validity of this number that is theoretically supposed to tell you how intelligent you are. Others were understandably distraught at the conflation of IQ with intellect. The discussion raised several valuable, albeit sensitive, questions and ideas. Is intelligence something that can really be quantified at all, and if so, why do we place so much importance on it? Should we completely disregard the concept of IQ or does it have a role?
Although attempting to measure and quantify intelligence is not a new exercise, the basis for our modern IQ, or intelligence quotient, came from French psychologist Alfred Binet who developed the Binet-Simon test along with two colleagues as a means to determine what was then known as “mental retardation” (a term that has recently fallen out of favor) in school children. Binet himself cautioned against placing too much significance on the test, stating that “the scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.”
Unfortunately, the eugenics movement co-opted his test in order to forcibly sterilize thousands of American women, many of whom were poor African-Americans. Scientific racism used IQ as a means to lend credence to their deplorable claims about race and intelligence, a debate that unfortunately still continues to this day. The team of psychologists who later revised the test into the well-known Stanford-Binet supported the forced sterilization of people they termed “feeble-minded” for the good of American society.
Needless to say, the history of IQ is fraught with prejudice and I could write a whole book on the history of IQ and societal treatment of those with disabilities. But even to this day IQ still remains a loaded topic and those prejudices still prevail. How many of us have heard, or even used, the phrase “that’s so retarded” as a substitute for stupid? There is even an OkCupid question that asks, “Should people of lower intelligence be allowed to reproduce” and many people answer “no.”
Which brings us around to the conflation of intelligence with IQ and the limitations of the test. One story my mom likes to tell is my first experience with an IQ test. The proctor asked me a fairly simple question, “Where does the sun set?” Being something of a show-off, I decided to go into a long-winded description of the solar system and how all the planets revolve around the sun. Since that wasn’t the answer she was looking for, although it was technically correct, I was cut-off at that point in the test. Although my mom told this story more to demonstrate my stubbornness more than anything, it does reveal some of the flaws inherent in IQ testing. Cases similar to mine played a part in spurring the theory of multiple intelligences and inspired debate around what intelligence really is, which I will focus on in another installment. In the meantime, what are your feelings on the “intelligence quotient”? Is there any place for it in modern society or is it too often used as a tool to reinforce prejudices?