22 January 2011


Pet peeve of the day: IQ tests. These are the wife-beaters of the intellectual world: they've been telling people they're stupid for so long, that people believe it. But have you ever noticed that the type of intelligence they test just HAPPENS to be the kind of intelligence possessed by the very inventors and promoters of these tests? And they have been so thoroughly successful in conning people into believing that this type of intelligence is the 'true' intelligence, that we design whole systems of advancement and learning around their tests.

So what is intelligence, then? If real intelligence were truly just about the type of intelligence tested on these exams, I would be rated fairly highly, since I always score very well on traditional IQ tests. (Please don’t ask me my IQ. I believe telling one’s IQ to be as vulgar as telling people how much money one makes.) That's no coincidence: I have always had good 'book smarts', the very same type of intelligence of those who make the tests. But my question is, is that really a useful gauge of how well people use their minds to navigate the world around them? Isn't that the real definition of intelligence: how well do people use their mental faculties to adapt to (and excel in) the world around them? And if that is the true definition, aren't IQ tests woefully inadequate, even misleading?

I can think of at least two areas that are completely ignored by IQ tests. The first is the ability to understand people based on their reactions. For example, some people know how to 'read' other people exceptionally well. Some people can see a slightly raised eyebrow and the smallest of grimaces, and glean a book of information about that person from those facial expressions. How is this less important a survival skill than, say, knowing the square root of 256 without the aid of a calculator? That person skilled at reading faces can always whip out his iPhone and get that square root. There is no app to help me read other people. But if we both take an IQ test, I appear to be the smart one.

Another mental skill ignored - one seemingly minor in the modern world with our GPS and smart phones, but in my view still important - is a sense of direction. I lack it utterly. I couldn't navigate my way out of a paper bag. But I know people you could lead into an unknown field at night, and then watch them head due north. I have lived in the same neighborhood for five years and still have no idea which way is north (unless I look at my iPhone compass). Maybe this doesn't much matter to an urban person in the 21st century, but I can tell you from experience that it is still a skill you very much miss when you lack it.

I can hear the objections from proponents of these tests: "we never claimed they were holistic measures of all types of intelligence and anyway, those skills you cite are instinctual, not mental."* I reject both arguments. The first is disingenuous: proponents may have softened their stance on the value of the tests in recent decades, in light of studies exposing things like cultural bias and education v. supposed 'innate' intelligence, but even today, they clearly (and quite smugly) believe that those of us who have high IQ test scores are somehow superior. I reject the second argument because this division of 'conscious' v 'subconscious' (i.e. 'instinctual') mental ability is completely arbitrary and irrelevant. Moreover, it is a false one: when answering some of the toughest questions on IQ tests I took in my youth, I did not perform any conscious calculations.

Speaking of subconscious, my pet theory (which I posit only half in jest) is that all the geeks who came up with and continue to support IQ tests, designed them with a (hopefully subconscious) goal of setting themselves above all those kids who made fun of them in grade school. The popular kid who had charisma and could read people so well? His skills won't count as intelligence! That kid in boy scouts who could never get lost and could lead the troop out of the woods? Doesn't count! In fact, every kind of meaningful intelligence besides their own kind...doesn't count!

So do we reject all IQ tests? Not necessarily. But we need to go back to the drawing board and redesign them, or at any rate supplement them.


*Yes, this is a straw-man argument; but it is one that I could reasonably expect from an IQ-test proponent. And if you don't buy that, then, well...it's my blog, so shut it!


  1. I'm ready for you to tackle plural vs possessive next...
    Nothing annoys me more than things like a sign advertising "pastas, pizza's, and sandwiches"

  2. Believe it or not, that's in the next posting!