With Donald Trump’s blathering about his IQ, it’s now a news-worthy topic. Oh, boy – fake news about fake science.
Whenever discussions of IQ tests crop up, it’s mandatory that someone says “the only thing IQ tests measure is how well you do on IQ tests” which is pithy and true, but somehow IQ tests remain a going concern. Like many other bits of psychological pseudo-science, mainstream psychology has distanced from it, but it was promoted and publicized enough that it immediately was adopted into the popular culture (“pop psychology”) – personally, I don’t give psychology a pass for its propagation of a technique that was immediately known to be wrong yet was attractive and plausible enough to serve as a tool in the arsenal of racists that were trying to justify their a priori beliefs.
Elsewhere, I have pointed out that I consider psychology to have discredited itself as a field, up until the 1980s and the advent of neuroscience. [stderr] [stderr] It’s important to note that the inventors and early promoters of IQ testing were all psychologists – Binet, Terman, Goddard – and the pseudoscience was published and promoted using the prestige of the new field: Psychological Review, Psychological Bulletin. This is not an old problem – eugenicists, who were at the point of barely understanding evolution, leapt headlong to the conclusion that psychometry could be used to demonstrate differences between the various races. It is not hyperbole to say that psychology practically invented ‘scientific racism’ and I’ll go so far as to say that psychology probably would never have gotten the popular air-play it did, if it hadn’t been servicing racism. And, as usual, where psychological pseudo-science led, psychiatry followed – it was psychiatrists that were secretly sterilizing the “mentally retarded” (many of whom were merely uneducated, or deaf) or applying the standards psychologists developed to select immigrants.
The problem rather clearly has not ended; it actually got worse.
Alfred Binet, the inventor of IQ testing, was one of the first psychologists to acknowledge that there was a problem – in fact he was the first psychologist who framed the problem as “the only thing IQ tests measure is how well you do on IQ tests” – what he was doing was looking for a specific correlation between the test results, and a student’s performance in school. He was not, specifically, claiming to measure intelligence – but, rather, to produce some kind of predictive metric. But let’s not whitewash Binet: he had earned his psychology chops working after Broca’s craniometry – searching for a connection between skull (and presumably brain) size and intelligence. He was a pseudoscientist through and through, but he was self-aware enough to identify his own cognitive biases toward confirming what he already believed.
As quoted in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man [amazon] which is a must-read if you are interested in the topic of scientific racism:
Binet also fueled his own doubts with an extraordinary study of his own suggestibility, an experiment in the primary theme of this book – the tenacity of unconscious bias and the surprising malleability of “objective,” quantitative data in the interest of a preconceived idea. “I feared,” Binet wrote (1900, P323) “that in making measurements on heads with the intention of finding a difference in volume between an intelligent and a less intelligent head, I would be led to increase, unconsciously and in good faith, the cephalic volume of intelligent heads and to decrease that of unintelligent heads.”
Yet, Binet, ever the pseudoscientist, still was seeking to quantify intelligence – even though he did not know what it was. By the way, one of Binet’s other innovations was cooking his data: in order to amplify any measured differences in his collected data, he threw away all the results except for the 5 largest skulls and the 5 smallest – it still didn’t give him the correlation he was looking for. Binet was a hack, but IQ testing exploded across the field as soon as the idea reached the United States – an apartheid society that was eager to grasp at any life-line for its foundational racism. By the time Binet started to walk back his test, to re-frame it as merely a tool for teaching, it was already becoming a winnowing-tool for racist public policy.
Scientific racists continued to use IQ tests, because they remain ignorant about the scientific basis for their racism. For example, William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and co-inventor of microprocessors, stepped forward and argued that IQ tests justified eugenics – that was 1965. As usual for scientific racists, Shockley weaponized a partial understanding of evolution and genetics, by completely omitting cultural effects. [wik]
In 1965 William Shockley, Nobel laureate in physics and professor at Stanford University, made a public statement at the Nobel conference on “Genetics and the Future of Man” about the problems of “genetic deterioration” in humans caused by “evolution in reverse”. He claimed social support systems designed to help the disadvantaged had a regressive effect. Shockley subsequently claimed the most competent American population group were the descendants of original European settlers, because of the extreme selective pressures imposed by the harsh conditions of early colonialism.
Shockley is a physicist, not a psychologist, and that’s the problem: psychologists like Binet, Terman, and Goddard promoted this pseudoscience and psychology has hardly debunked it. In fact, psychology has tried to repair a fundamentally bad idea, by attempting to identify sub-components of “intelligence” that can be measured individually, i.e.: experiential intelligence, practical intelligence, etc. Yet there is still no model of what “intelligence” is other than that it’s what’s measured by IQ tests. To me, one of the most interesting giveaways in IQ testing is that it’s only somewhat recently factored in an ability to learn. That was almost certainly because of another problem with IQ tests: it turns out that if a subject takes an IQ test multiple times (different questions, same structure) they will successively do better. That indicates that whatever the test is measuring can’t be purely innate in the subject: if test-takers demonstrate learning, IQ has to incorporate the subject’s experience. But that shoots holes below the waterline of the entire enterprise: if what we are measuring is in whole or part learning and experience, then we can’t pretend that social factors, which affect experience, do not affect the test results. The eugenicists and scientific racists want to argue that there’s something innately inferior about certain people, but if their test results are influenced by the education they had growing up, then maybe we’d learn that a child who was raised with a private tutor because of it’s parents’ money, scores as “higher IQ” than an economically disadvantaged child who attended a public school that was “separate” but not equal.
Another notorious example of IQ test failure is James Damore, the sexist and racist software engineer who was fired from Google for publishing a manifesto asserting a bunch of eugenics-based mistakes. Damore wrote: [gizmodo]
[T]he Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences). Thankfully, climate scientists and evolutionary biologists generally aren’t on the right. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of humanities and social scientists learn left (about 95%), which creates enormous confirmation bias, changes what’s being studied, and maintains myths like social constructionism and the gender wage gap.
Critical to Damore’s argument is that there are differences that are a result of gender or race, which have a greater impact on individuals’ abilities than cultural differences. Damore tries to dismiss those cultural differences as “myths like social constructionism” which is kind of ironic since asshats like Damore are part of the landscape of social constructs that affect people’s outcomes based on their sex.
The president of The United States appears to be under the impression that his intelligence is a genetic gift; and the coverage surrounding IQ remains wrong – we still lack a model for what it is that IQ tests measure; we still don’t know what “intelligence” is other than increasingly fine slices of results on tests that test for our ability to generate those results. We can measure our individual results against our past results: if I score a 105 today and a 115 next week, you can tell that I scored 10 better on my test than before. It certainly does not allow us to conclude that I have gotten 10 somethings smarter in a week.
We should be quite willing to believe that Trump scores more somethings than average; why wouldn’t he – he has a fairly good education – a BS in economics from an ivy league university: one would expect him to perform better than someone who had attended, say, Trump university, or had only a high school education. In fact, if I paid good money for an education from Trump university and it didn’t budge my IQ score at all, I’d want my money back.Trump could probably raise his IQ further, right now, by spending more time doing logic-puzzles and less time playing golf. But every point you gain by studying is a point that indicates that your IQ score is about learning and cultural influences (what Damore calls “social constructivism”) – aspects of society that are probably more controlled by wealth and privilege than by DNA. I threw “probably” in there because I don’t know and neither does anyone else, at this time.
I consider the whole concept of IQ to be a weird mixture of a tautology (it measures what it measures!) and self-refutation (it isn’t measuring something innate about you, if it’s something you can train yourself to do). The whole self-congratulatory mess depends on the premise that there is something special about me and if it’s something that you can learn, also, I’m not so special after all.
What’s odd to me is that people like Trump, or MENSA members, feel special because they are smart – they are born that way. But it’s pretty obvious that that’s wrong – take a look at the data [here] and [here]. If there are correlations like “if a child is in a head start program, their IQ score will be about 15 points higher, on average” it ought to be clear that IQ is more influenced by cultural influences than DNA.
Someone wants to pat their own back for being “intelligent” (still undefined) yet they want to study so that they can deliberately distort their score: they cannot simultaneously believe there is something special about their intelligence, and that they can increase it.
Back to the original Binet sketch, in which a subject’s IQ was measured based on their understanding of contemporary social standards of beauty: here we see a great example of a question from a modern IQ test:
Question #38 is a question about culture, specifically vocabulary. Vocabulary is learned and is not innate; it can’t be (we don’t grow up speaking a language that’s coded into our DNA) “Work clockwise round the circles to spell out two eight-letter words that are antonyms.” If the person reading that question is well-educated in English, they’re less more likely to know what an “Antonym” is. This is why people with more/better education score higher on IQ tests – it’s not because they are smarter; there is nothing inherent about them.
In other words, IQ tests don’t measure your intelligence, they measure whether or not you’re completely clueless about culture, wealth, and leisure time and how important those are for a person’s development.
If you haven’t read The Mismeasure of Man you probably should. It’s very good, and Gould’s research and examples are thorough and detailed. It’s also excruciatingly embarrassing for someone like myself, who has a degree in psychology – seeing the endless waves of nonsense that the field threw up, again, and again, is physically painful. If you read The Mismeasure of Man and you don’t simultaneously facepalm and cringe whenever someone talks about IQ tests, you’ve got a tougher stomach than you should.
Somewhere in here it’s probably worth mentioning Ramanujan. We don’t have any IQ tests for him, but his probably started fairly normal, since he grew up impoverished and badly educated, then rocketed off the chart. If that’s what happened (and it seems likely) that would indicate that perhaps one is born with some innate abilities that are operated on by society. That would pretty neatly torpedo the eugenicists’ position, which we’d expect to show exactly the opposite. Of course, there’s also von Neumann (see below)
One of the questions that I have long enjoyed is “why were there so many brilliant Hungarian physicists in the 1930s?” There were Szilard, Von Neumann, Teller, Gabor, Wigner – probably more; the answer appears to be that the Hungarian educational system of the time was very good at helping genius blossom.
Von Neumann was a child prodigy. As a 6 year old, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head, and could converse in Ancient Greek. When he once caught his mother staring aimlessly, the 6-year-old von Neumann asked her: “What are you calculating?”
Formal schooling did not start in Hungary until the age of ten. Instead, governesses taught von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins. Max believed that knowledge of languages other than Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history, reading his way through Wilhelm Oncken’s 46-volume Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstellungen. A copy was contained in a private library Max purchased. One of the rooms in the apartment was converted into a library and reading room, with bookshelves from ceiling to floor.
Von Neumann entered the Lutheran Fasori Evangelikus Gimnázium in 1911. This was one of the best schools in Budapest, part of a brilliant education system designed for the elite. Under the Hungarian system, children received all their education at the one gymnasium. Despite being run by the Lutheran Church, the majority of its pupils were Jewish. The school system produced a generation noted for intellectual achievement, that included Theodore von Kármán (b. 1881), George de Hevesy (b. 1885), Leó Szilárd (b. 1898), Dennis Gabor (b. 1900), Eugene Wigner (b. 1902), Edward Teller (b. 1908), and Paul Erdős (b. 1913). Collectively, they were sometimes known as Martians. Wigner was a year ahead of von Neumann at the Lutheran School. When asked why the Hungary of his generation had produced so many geniuses, Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, replied that von Neumann was the only genius.
Sure, geniuses are born, and they probably would score very high on IQ tests. But, we’re still left hanging with the question “what is ‘intelligence’?” I know what it’s not – it’s not what IQ tests measure.
I could have written this whole piece as: Trump may have high IQ scores but he’s still a moron.
With regard to Damore’s using labels like “Left” and “Right” to categorize American political views: look, another moron. [stderr] I hardly need to remind you that the left/right divide in French politics (depending on which revolution we’re talking about) was between monarchists and republicans/imperialists – when someone nowadays talks about left/right non-ironically, they are simply hoisting the clueless roger.