IQ tests continue to flourish, in spite of inherent biases, because we so badly want to feel special Wendy M. Grossman The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 3, Issue 5, from 1989.

Mensa hit the news in August when they launched a search for Britain’s 1,000 brightest children in the Sunday Times. Later, they admitted this was a ‘stunt’ to attract media attention. They may have gotten more than they wanted: on 14 August the Independent reported that educational psychologists said the tests Mensa was administering were “culturally biased towards white, middle-class children” and pointed out that “the test assumes that intelligence is based on the ability to read, write, spell, and do arithmetic. Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the greatest brains to ever have lived, both suffered from dyslexia.”

This is neither the first time Mensa has searched for so-called ‘gifted’ children, nor the first time IQ tests have been criticized. And yet, we continue to believe, paranoiacally, in IQ test scores, and a society based on them continues to exist. This is not sour grapes on my part: I was trawled in just such a child-testing exercise when I was 14. This is, by the way, a matter of deep embarrassment on my part, so I do hope you won’t tell anyone…

Same routine: Mensa supplied a test to be taken at home, supervised by parents. Those who passed went on to some sort of central testing place where the tests were supervised by Mensa’s flunkies. It’s hard to see why people think testing at home encourages cheating. Since you have to take a supervised test afterwards, where would cheating get you? Certainly in my parents’ house these things were taken very seriously, and no trickery went on. I found the test ridiculously easy, and was sent on for the supervised tests.

I remember my mother posted my final score and my letter of acceptance from Mensa on the refrigerator, proudly. I was enrolled, and I began getting Mensa newsletters. I think I went to one meeting. It was all adults: Mensa had no idea what to do with the 14-year-olds they had recruited. When I was 17, a new friend said rather forcibly that the idea of Mensa was snobbish and, worse at that time, ‘straight’. I resigned, over my father’s protests: “I like reading the newsletters!” I told him he should join himself. I guess he thought he wouldn’t qualify even though he always used to say, “you got it from somewhere, you know.”

A student taking a test writes their answers with a pencil

People talk in the British press about the damage that being labelled ‘not clever’ could cause. I had the opposite problem: I was an ‘underachiever’. I could think quickly and score well on standardized tests, so why wasn’t I an ‘A’ student? My IQ test scores pursued me like an animated yardstick in a cartoon. Of course, the school would never tell me what they were. I’m not sure why, but I gather asking what your own IQ score is, is about like asking someone else what their age or income is. I guess they figure, if you know, you might tell someone. Such is the power of the IQ score.

Mensa should acquire two books for its library: Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man and David Owen’s None of the Above: Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude. Both are classics of critical thinking about the science of intelligence. Both call into question some of the basic assumptions we make about intelligence, aptitude, and education.

Gould’s book traces the history of science’s attempts to measure intelligence, from measuring skulls, to weighing brains, to test scores. Over and over, white, middle-class male scientists found that white, middle-class male brains were biggest, strongest, quickest. And regularly, a little while later, along came someone else who proved that their work was faulty, biased, and sometimes even fraudulent.

Into the fray came Binet, the grandfather of IQ testing. His assignment was to devise a test which would identify children with learning disabilities so they could be helped. That was all. He specifically said, according to Gould:

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.

Gould, p. 151

Binet foresaw the potential difficulties for children if his system were used to rank them, as it is now. He worried about self-fulfilling prophecies:

It is really too easy to discover signs of backwardness in an individual when one is forewarned.

Binet refused to label the results of his tests as inborn intelligence. His successors in America, however, seized on mass intelligence testing as a way of life, and abused the results in exactly the ways Binet had foreseen. And a few he had not: the results of the first mass intelligence tests, conducted by the US Army in World War I, were used as evidence in favour of limiting immigration in 1924 Congressional debates.

David Owen’s book concentrates on a later outgrowth: the SATs. These ‘Scholastic Aptitude Tests’ are taken by all American teenagers who want to go to college. The idea behind them sounds all right: America is huge, State curricula differ, and colleges need some way of comparing the many applicants from different areas and different schools. So far, so good.

Owen, however, shows – often hilariously – that what the SATs really test is your ability to think like the people who designed the test. He explains how the questions work, how to identify the correct answers without doing the arithmetic, and even gives a short course in how to answer questions about the content of the provided paragraphs without actually reading them.

The SATs are administered by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ. Most students assume a connection with Princeton University; there is none. The ETS is an independent, secretive organization which has parlayed tests into a fortune (tax-free) and which administers more tests every year.

ETS now supplies tests for licensing teachers, hairdressers, golfers, among many others, and for admitting graduate students, law students, and medical students. It’s quite an empire. ETS reacts a bit like the British government when challenged: they claim superior knowledge, refuse to give information, and lose inquiries in red tape. They also accuse critics of wanting to destroy the fabric of society. A bit excessive, perhaps.

Fortunately, America has a legal system which allows challenges even to its major institutions. Recently, a court ruled that New York State’s use of SAT scores to award state scholarships discriminates against girls. This was the first time a court has ever confirmed the SATs sex bias. Result: New York State is designing a new test. Oh, well…

The criticisms these books raise are biting, legitimate, and undoubtedly right on the money. And yet… it’s very hard to shake the nervous feeling that there must be something in it: it’s so accepted. What would I rather believe? That I think exactly like the unoriginal, conservative, middle-class white men who design the tests? Or that I really am smarter than 99% of the rest of the population?

When I was a kid, I had a button which was an advertising gimmick for General Electric: “Be nice to me, I’m going to be a GEnius someday.” I guess I’m still working on it.

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From the archives in 1989, Wendy Grossman looks at a recent stunt by Mensa to identify Britain’s brightest children, and why intelligence tests favour the demographic of their authors
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