IQ: A caste system that gets personal

IQ meterJewgenics: Jewish intelligence, Jewish genes, and Jewish values is the latest by William Saletan in Slate. If you can, ignore the ethnic side of the story and concentrate on this excerpt: Entine laid out the data. The average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews is 107 to 115, well above the human average of 100.

Note the word “data”.

Saletan accepts it without question. So do most of us. Since the dawn of the Industrial Education Revolution, we have accepted the notion that our most distinctively human quality — our intelligence — is actually a quantity measurable on a single scale. We speak of a person’s IQ (“Intelligence Quotient”) as if it were a thing, like body fat or hemoglobin, that each of us possesses in differing amounts, and that IQ tests are no less precise and diagnostic than blood pressure gauges or engine dipsticks.

Yet IQ tests are puzzle-solving exercises that in fact say no more about you than whether or not you’re good at solving those puzzles, in a single setting on a single day.

Thus every Sudoku and crossword puzzle is also an IQ test, because you need to be smart to do well at them. The difference is that we don’t use Sudoko or crossword puzzle performance to tell schools, parents, children and entire races and ethnic groups what they’re worth.

But that’s exactly what we do with IQ tests. We do it as institutions, and we do it as individuals. The weight those test scores carry is huge and hard to deny.

For example, if I tell you I have an IQ of 125, can you forget that number? Can it not color what you think of me from then on, even if I tell you I just made that number up (which I did)?

In fact my known IQ scores have an eighty (80!) point range. A high score when I was five years old placed me in the “fast” kindergarten. And, even though I stayed in that group through 6th grade, I hated school. So, by junior high, my grades and test scores were so far behind the norm that the school placed me on the loser track, vectored toward a “vocational-technical” (aka “trade”) school, where I would at least earn a high school diploma. If my parents hadn’t believed in me (and if my mother hadn’t been a teacher in my school system) that would have been my fate. Fortunately, they sent me off to a boarding school where my grades still sucked but I learned a lot.

Today I’m sure I’d do much worse on an IQ test than I would have done in my teens or twenties. Does that make me dumber? Fact is, I’m a helluva lot smarter, and far better informed, even if my memory isn’t as good and I’ve been losing neurons steadily for decades, as do we all.

“I was never measured, and never will be measured”, Whitman said. “I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass.”

The measure of us all is what cannot be measured—and with it the ability to prove all measures wrong. We need to remember that.

19 responses to “IQ: A caste system that gets personal”

  1. Great post.

    It’s decades old now, but, if you haven’t done so already, you might like to check out Stephen Jay Gould’s book, ‘The Mismeasure of Man’. Read it, and you will never believe in intelligence tests again.

    Not that you do, by the sound of it.

  2. Not to mention that 107 to 115 doesn’t sound all that spectacular. Remember that the scale is normalized so that the average works out to 100 and is open ended, so the range
    is more than 100 points. So in percentage, 107 probably works out to about 4% above
    average. Not really earth shaking for a test that has a plus or minus 15 or so variation.

    As you said, each intelligence test only measures how well you do on taking that test. However, there has been a lot of people researching other types of intelligence. I believe that there are around 14 different measures now. Personally, I think it is all a load of hooey.
    You can’t classify things like this into neat little buckets. I was tested at over 160 IQ when I was a kid and I had a great memory then, but I never could remember the names or faces of people I meet to save my life.

  3. I’ve never investigated what my IQ scores are/were but like you Doc, I somewhat lost interest in high school. It was very much a caste system where the teachers focused on the “brightest” and there were programs for the “slow” but the great unwashed middle was on their own. I found I’ve learned more and have actively seek’d out knowledge/learning post the formal education system. I’ve always felt the education “system” held me back.
    My mother was an honors society type, my father was not. There was always a conflict at report card time. The best advice my father gave me was…”I’d rather have you get solid Cs and have a whole lot of common sense then get As and have none.
    In life, I’ve found common sense trumps grades and degrees. Makes me leery of the Googles and such that put so much emphasis on IQ, degrees, and grades. 🙂

  4. The day we got the “Jew note” to stay away from the WTC, we were told to report to an IQ-enhancement center. 😉

    I read the Saletan and Milbank articles, and yes, they were good for a few yuks.

    Yes, people have gone back-and-forth on the merits of IQ. But the data does bear some statistical correlation to other metrics, and our understanding of the world is based on that as science. Entering IQ correlation into my favorite search engine, and opening up the article from my favorite encyclopedia, I read: “IQ correlates with job performance and income, also with the social status of the parents” and it cites a journal which I believe is reputable; other readers may fact-check me here.

    You want data? Here’s the data I promised you and readers of this blog six weeks ago: The Blog Buzz Rankings of fifty political pundits, including 7 Times Op-Ed columnists. Are these measures 100% predictive? I’m not making that claim, but they are greater than 0%; my other research has shown that Google’s BlogSearch reference count correlates to Technorati and BlogPulse at greater than .95. By comparison, the final records of National League teams based on the first month’s worth of play this year had a .30 correlation.

    FYI, on a VRM note, I’ve been chatting with Rebecca Coates Nee of San Diego about how our fancy cybertools could be better engineered to help communicate emergency information to people. This is near and dear to your heart (not to mention your hearth), so I thought I’d pass it along.

  5. Let me just add a comment on topic while my above comment is awaiting moderation (I had the temerity to add two hyperlinks within it).

    There’s two types of reactions to statistics, particularly social ones: (1) They must be dubious, because I (or people I know, examples I am familiar with) am an outlier, and (2) one can aspire towards one axis by associating with other axis.

    Now, if you’re one of the folks in the second camp, converting to Judaism won’t help. You need to people to think you have Jewish parents if you want them to think (upon merely seeing your name in print, which is exceedingly common in the blogosphere) you have an extra 10 IQ points.

    But what could help is the advice suggested by Freakonomics: Dubner and Leavitt combed through the baby names in the state of California and found the correlation between baby names and parent’s incomes/education. So, the babies with the smartest parents turned out to have names that were either (a) historically biblical (David), (b) modern Israeli (Dov), or (c) Gaelic (Declan).

  6. Stephen Jay Gould eviscerated IQ tests (and phrenology, and the Bell Curve) and many other things in his book “The Mismeasure of Man” more than 25 years ago:

    Though not everyone agrees:

  7. Quick one… Just arrived in Denver from London and need sleep badly.

    I wrote this post in great haste, and simply ran out of time before I could mention Steven Jay Gould’s classic “The Mismeasure of Man.” What he said then still applies now. What’s remarkable is that, decades later, we still have this notion that people possess “an IQ.” Read a piece in Time recently on Birth Order — it showed up again on the plane today — that talks about how IQ descends with birth order. Not “IQ scores.” Just IQ. Arg.

    Jon, good stuff as usual. Dunno why your post would be held in moderation. I didn’t see it there, and I don’t think links would have anything to do with it, but hey, I dunno.

    Thanks, all.

  8. Is the problem measurement or telling people how they measure?

    “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” by Po Bronson

    “What if the best that I can be just isn’t good enough? Isn’t it better not to know?” — Jonathan Coulton

  9. Three points:

    1. I am an Ashkenazi Jew.

    2. The school have shown me the door after 10th grade. The next two years I have spent as an electricians apprentice were among the most enriching I had in my life.

    3. It’s a Good Thing that we don’t have this measurement system here in Israel.

  10. I.Q. does matter – except there isn’t a reliable and comprehensive way to measure the different kinds that matter!

    In his 1983 book, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences”, Howard Gardner described 8 domains of intelligence:

    – linguistic
    – logical-mathematical
    – spatial
    – musical
    – bodily-kinesthetic
    – intrapersonal
    – interpersonal
    – naturalistic

    More here:

    Conventional I.Q. tests (from where the data on Ashkenazi Jews were derived) do not measure all of them. I also seem to vaguely recall a factoid from med school – Ashkenazi Jews had brains that weighed 2% more than the non-AJ population, on average.

    Nice post, anyway 🙂

    All success

  11. Dr. Mani, what about those whose performance exceeds their measured ability at any of those many “intelligences”?

    Why does “IQ matter”, even if it has many forms?

    IQ is about categorization. That’s what it’s used for. And it’s an ‘-ism” no less bad than racism, sexism and the rest of them. And perhaps far worse, because it’s applied, individually, to all kids, in ways that have profound effects on their lives. That’s how it really matters.

  12. Categorization without connotation is a good (or at least useful) thing, isn’t it?

    If a task requires specific skills in an area, wouldn’t it help to have a ‘test’ or ‘measure’ to categorize prospects as suitable, ideal or completely unqualified for it?

    True, I don’t subscribe to the theory of ‘genius’ as measured by I.Q. test figures – but I do believe a measure of various things, including intelligence (in its many forms) matters in many ways, indeed may even be critical in certain areas.

    All success

  13. […] You Intelligent – Or Just Wise? November 6th, 2007 A comment I made on a thoughtful post at Doc Searls’ blog set off this line of […]

  14. […] As Doc Searls points out here, IQ tests do not actually measure intelligence. They measure how good you are at taking IQ tests. […]

  15. Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Doc, I doubt this will convince you, but, sadly, The Mismeasure of Man is one of Gould’s worst books. It’s filled with straw-man arguments, ignores the existing evidence, and picks & chooses who he will argue against. For example, Gould omits any mention of the eugenicists of the left, such as Margaret Sanger.

    I would recommend Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate instead.

    While the nonscientific reviews of The Mismeasure of Man were almost uniformly laudatory, the reviews in the scientific journals were almost all highly critical (Davis, Bernard D. (1983). Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press. The Public Interest, 74, 41-59).

    – Gould also makes some misleading comments about the early performance of Jewish migrants on psychometric tests. Goddard never found that Jews as a group did poorly, and there is no evidence the tests were used in passing the 1924 Immigration Act (see, Franz Samelson (1975, 1982), Snyderman & Herrnstein 1983).

    – Gould overlooks identical twin studies.

    – Gould’s factor analysis is incorrect (also see John Carroll’s review Intelligence 21, 121-134 (1995), (also, Jensen Contemporary Education Review Summer 1982, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 121- 135.) David J. Bartholomew, from London School of Economics, who has writtena textbook on factor analysis, also explains in “Measuring Intelligence: Facts and Fallacies” where Gould goes wrong in this area.

    -Gould states that Morton “doctored” his collection of results on cranial size, but J. S. Michael (1988) remeasured a random sample of the Morton collection he found that very few errors had been made, and that these were not in the direction that Gould had asserted.

    – The Army actually still uses IQ tests, and more generally, the tests have been shown to strongly predict academic performance.

    – Gould largely attacks old tests. Jensen responded to a large amount of Gould’s criticism in Contemporary Education Review
    Summer 1982, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 121- 135.) I don’t think Gould ever replied.

    -He attacks Cyril Burt for fabricating his twin studies, but books since Gould’s first edition came out have vindicated Burt (Joynson (1988) and the other by Ronald Fletcher (1991). Further, twin studies since show average heritability from these studies of 75%, almost the same as Burts supposedly ‘faked’ heritability of 77%.

  16. Ben, I’m not the one who brought up Gould. Never read that book, either.

    I don’t deny that we all have innate abilities, and that heredity accounts for many if not all of them. I do not, however, choose to frame my understanding of intelligence with test scores or the parts of our academic system that values them, and which together lead to generalized conclusions that include reduction of “intelligence” to a number.

    I have a weight, and a body temperature. There are instruments for measuring both as quotients. There is no way of measuring my intelligence, other than by the faith of others in it, and through its results in the world.

    By those measures I’m doing okay. But even there I’m with Whitman: “I was never measured, and never will be measured.”

    Whitman never took an IQ test. If he had, he might not come out as smart as many contemporaries. But he helped make civilization at its best, and that’s what matters.

    Oh, by the way, an old friend of mine once showed me his Army IQ and aptitude tests. They showed him to be a dummy, basically. His highest score was 118. Others were below 100. Long after his service he got into computer programming, and eventually made his bones running large programming teams for major banks. Make of that what you will.

  17. IQ does matter, but like any test they only measure a certain aspect. And they can be manipulated. People with certain talents will do better, while others with equally high IQ but not those talents won’t. Again, it comes down to a flawed management criteria

  18. Oops, meant flawed “measurement” criteria

  19. Morgan, IQ stands for “Intelligence Quotient.” It assumes from the start that intelligence, by whatever measure, is a quantity.

    Is it?

    And what does an IQ test “measure” beyond one’s having solved a few puzzles?

    Certainly anybody who solves a lot of those puzzles is smart. But how smart, and in what ways? And does doing poorly solving those puzzles mean the person taking the test is dumb?

    Schools that use IQ tests certainly think so. Trust me, I’ve been there. As a kid whose IQ tests had an 80 point range, I speak from experience at being put in both the smart and the dumb groups.

    Ask yourself: is what matters what one scores, or what one does?

    Intelligence is not a sum. It’s a human ability. Chief among one’s intellectual abilities is originality, which cannot be measured, except by achievement.

    The “measurement” of intelligence is an institutional conceit, and a shortcut that too often makes outcasts of fully capable human beings who just happen to do poorly on one test on one day.

    But, as long as we have institutions that need to declare some kids babies and others bathwater, IQ tests will be used to tell the difference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *