And are IQ tests a load of crap? (Spoiler: yes)
So interesting. I can't even tell you how much I was harmed by the idea that "intelligent" was the most important thing one could be and that intelligence was some sort of raw material I was blessed with and duty-bound to refine and express.
One part of this topic I've been coming back to frequently recently is the idea of effective or functional intelligence (a term I invented, idk if there's a real or better one). But I've made significant progress dealing with my ADHD, depression, and anxiety in the past few years and I've had the startling sense that I'm MUCH smarter now.
Of course, I don't know more things than I used to (now that I'm outside the college life, I probably know less) but I feel smarter because I'm better able to manage my energy and distribute my work.
Like, I've always written. But only recently have I been able to consistently organize myself and finish actual pieces and then feel comfortable publishing them. Who's smarter, the me who maybe knew more and thought more complexly but who never published and never affected anyone? Or the me who actually articulates and affects people?
I don't even know how much I care either. I'd rather be effective than intelligent.
I remember those Mensa ads in some magazine or other my grandmother always had around the house when I was a kid.
Reading this, I'm thinking about the great section on the culture of "smart" in Karen Ho's Wall Street ethnography Liquidated, and how the idea of smartness has such power in certain circles, in this "we're so smart we don't need to actually be experts on anything" kind of way. I feel like you really, really see that in certain kinds of media figures (Nate Silver, Matt Yglesias, to a certain extent Emily Oster) whose belief in their own raw intelligence makes them think themselves qualified to comment on literally anything after only the most shallow investigation of what's going on -- and that they get taken seriously in doing that!
This is utterly amazing. I have long thought of IQ as BS, primarily because I have witnessed so many other qualities as being far more important. Persistence is HUGE, for example in being a successful human. Kindness makes our world go around. My highly intelligent son was never able to get more than average marks in his uber-competitive high school because he was crippled by anxiety and depression, and yet he was and is one of the most empathetic people I know. (He is now a teacher, and tells me he wants to be the kind of educator that kids can turn to when they feel the stress he did in high school). Thank you for shedding light on this important subject and society’s hypocrisy.
I absolutely want to read this book as a 1) former gifted/definitely neurodiverse kid whose school did not have the resources to support me as such and so just had me skip a grade and then basically be all unmoored on my own K-12 and 2) currently a teacher IN a gifted/accelerated learners program that I swear is trying our best to do right by our students. We are constantly fighting ingrained notions of intelligence, tell teachers and counselors to not just send us the kids they think are "bright," and craft curricula that is not just shoving more and more into our students' faces. I teach English and humanities in this program, too, and when I tell you it is a constant fight to even have the SUBJECT MATTER recognized as valuable for quote-unquote gifted kids who are always having STEM and capitalism shoved in their faces...I could go on.
This is a thing that really happened. I am in eighth grade, and the teacher is calling each of us up to her desk, one by one, to quietly tell us our IQ scores. I remember the slope of the shoulders of one of my classmates as he passed me and the blank expression on his face. I don’t know why our teacher did this. Apparently she had decided it was important to share this information with us. But it felt like some kind of life sentence. You could be dumb, smart, or average. Those were the only choices. And even if you didn’t want to know, you were going to be told anyway. I am in my 60s now, so that was a long time ago but I know a lot of damage was done during that class on that particular day. Great newsletter today, thank you.
Excellent piece and read. Thank you!
I agree that intelligence as we understand it, i.e. as a direct correlate to worth/productivity/future potential/whatever, is ableist, harmful, and bullshit. At the same time--and I am sure my own training bias comes into play here--we (psychologists) use a variety of intelligence testing to rule out or rule in a series of mental health diagnoses, including AD(H)D. These tests are absolutely biased toward English speakers and folks who have significant exposure to standardized testing (notably, there are tests that do not rely on language or that have been adapted for people whose primary language is not English.) Those reasons are why, in my opinion, any testing psychologist who deserves to be recognized as such (strong wording, I know) *must* administer, interpret, and score intelligence tests in context. By context, I mean not only the person's background and clinical history, but also with the results of other tests. I could speak about this topic forever, since we are required to take a brutally rigorous, yearlong course on psychological assessments and because I then TA'd that same course for three years. The tl;dr is yes, IQ testing is harmful and, in popular culture especially, completely meaningless AND that IQ testing is supremely helpful with a variety of caveats and with appropriate context and countermeasures.
Edit: I speak from the biased lens of someone who just received their PhD in counseling psychology.
Second edit: IQ tests today--at least those that are used for psychological assessment--measure different aspects of intelligence, such as processing speed, crystallized intelligence, fluid intelligence, and working memory.
I wasn't graded in school until high school (although this was partially because I passed a gifted assessment and was put in a local gifted program that was less competitive and more humanities focused than most in the US) and I really think that experience gave me a base level of confidence and comfort that most of my peers don't have. my friends with developmental disabilities grew up being overlooked or punished by teachers that didn't have the time to connect with them, and given explicitly ranking that said they were worse than the rest of the class. I would have failed math class in elementary school most years, but I didn't know that because we didn't have failing or classes, so I was able to work through my struggles at my own pace. it was a rough adjustment to a normal high school and I did break down crying the first time I got a C but now that I'm an adult I can feel the lack of shame and trauma that my weird schooling gave me, lending me the resilience to graduate college despite experiencing abuse and physical disability on the way. I wish everyone could have this.
Looking forward to reading the book! Apologies for my super long response, but I have been thinking *a lot* about this question lately, and I honestly have felt very conflicted. It seems like there are 3 camps when it comes to intelligence testing:
1) the eugenic white supremacist Charles Murray "Bell curve" camp that uses IQ testing to "prove" white supremacy; (let's just discount this one entirely, shall we?)
2) the "gifted education/IQ testing is a complete sham" camp, that makes the argument that gifted programs are really just ways of reifying white privilege and should be abolished;
3) the "giftedness = neurodivergence" camp, which argues that those who are two or more standard deviations on the intelligence tests (so >130) are actually people with unique academic and SEL needs, who are currently being *underserved* by school systems, and where "universal screening" needs to occur so that *more* students of color and low income kids are being identified and included in gifted programs.
I personally feel torn between camps 2-3. As someone who was identified early in schooling as "gifted" and accelerated a grade (skipped kindergarten), I do feel like school systems are not well set up to support students whose intellectual (academic? not sure the word here) interests/skills are not in step with the rest of the group -- including *both* those who are "behind" and "ahead." There are, in theory, IEPs and other accommodations set up to support students who read as "behind" (although they are woefully inadequate and often egregiously steeped in racism/abelism), but for those who are "ahead," there's been no real national consensus or support. Gifted education differs wildly by state and district. Differentiated instruction can only go so far in a classroom where a single teacher is expected to provide personalized learning and different activities/assessments for 30+ kids at a time.
On my local mom's facebook page, a mother asked about what to do about her prospective kindergartner, who was already reading at a 4th grade level and performing multiplication/division. This mom was careful to note she wasn't a "tiger mom" -- her child's intellectual abilities unnerved her, as he seemingly learned most of it with very little guidance/explicit instruction. The overwhelming response, which included some teachers, was that kindergarten was about "leveling," and that kindergarten was not about learning academics but social skills, and that the student should remain in kindergarten to pick up those skills. I really wonder about that. If the child isn't feeling intellectually engaged/nourished, how will they thrive socially? Seems to me that the child in that environment will learn really quickly that they are "different," that they should mask their intellectual interests, and that school is not going to be a place where they go to learn new things. Is that child being served?
Further, while there is a history of IQ = white supremacy, we all know there's also a correspondingly long history of American anti-intellectualism, where "being smart" (i.e. interested in academic pursuits/knowledge gain) is worthy of contempt and derision.
I guess my question is this: is there a space to acknowledge the racist/sexist/eugenic history of IQ tests, acknowledge the inadequacy of using any single measurement to determine "intelligence" as fixed, *while also* acknowledging that there are people who have geniunely different brain-based/cognitive needs across the "intellectual" spectrum?
All of my worst bullies growing up were "gifted" kids (aka early readers) who were (implicitly) taught that I was less than because I had learning disabilities. As I've grown up, I see that they've never even realized they were bullies because they were praised and beloved by the adults around them.
I have found that gifted programs, IQs, testing, etc., are such a devaluation of what intelligence really is--to be mechanical, linguistic, visual, mathmatical, intuitive, analytic, musical... All of these qualities are about how we perceive and process the world around us. I think awareness is a really good way of being able to talk about this, and it helps us take responsibility for our environments. There are so many people in my life who have tremendous intelligence, but it's not easily quantified by culture, and they don't know how to celebrate it in themselves. And this...cultural devaluation of intelligence-diversity scares the crap out of me when thinking about CRISPR. Biodiversity is always more stable.
For another take on this subject, Franz de Waal, a primatologist, wrote a book called 'Are we smart enough to know how smart animals really are?' It is well written and includes how fallible the tests have typically been that purport to measure intelligence in animals.
I don't know whether the IQ tests are a lot of crap (oh, probably), but let me tell you how they benefitted me.
I was born and raised at Hanford in the post-war era. By then, most of the Hanford construction workers had departed, leaving a population of white scientists and engineers and their families. My dad was somewhat of a "savant", on the spectrum and brilliant in physics. Mother was a nasty, violent narcissist who also was quite smart and expected her children to be smart. One of the sisters took after her; the other sister and I are truly our father's daughters. All three of us were always at the top of our classes and aced most of the aptitude and intelligence tests. We all graduated within the top 3 of our high school's large graduating classes. I was #3 in a class of 650; the fellow ahead of me had gotten perfect scores on his SATs. Okay, skipping through university and early work life (nothing related to my bachelor's degree) .........at 26 I married nasty, violent, drug-addled narcissist. A women I worked with at the time kept introducing me to others as the Genius of the place and that I should join Mensa. One night I joked about it at dinner and, as I should have expected, the spouse was dismissive and nasty. Being at just about the lowest place of my life, I dismissed the idea. Then, a few months later I signed up for the test. I sailed through the first part of the test but grew increasingly panicky as time was running out and I had two items left. I didn't finish them, and I could barely drive the 2 hours home. I had ostensibly been shopping and entered the house with shopping bags and tried to act normal. (I still have test anxiety, even for a urinalysis.)
Several weeks later the Mensa envelope arrived and I had scored 99.8%, just missing the Triple-Nine Club (damn). I erupted in joy and flashed the acceptance letter in Nasty's face. He immediately ran down to the storage room to retrieve his SAT scores and other items to show that he was still smarter than I was, and inwardly I laughed and raged. Not much later than that, we were relocated to the southern part of the state and, instead of looking for a job, I enrolled in the local university to complete a second degree in a subject far away from the science degrees of parents and older sister. Within a few months I moved out to be on my own. (Eliding over the ecstatsy of living alone in peace, graduating, and moving to be close to my other sister, and beginning a 25-year career from which I retired in 2015.)
That Mensa qualification saved me. It reminded me I was smarter than the average bear (Yogi, you know, of 60s television) and I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. Here I am today, living my spectrum life with almost 3800 books on my kindle and hundreds more on the shelves, because am interested in too many things and my now-husband is damn proud of my *cough* brilliance and totally supportive of my whims and fancies. My gaudily-framed Mensa Life Membership Certificate is there on my home office wall, and every day I remind myself that I am smart and capable. Nobody told me that except a few high school teachers and my Mensa test.
For me, Mensa was worth it. It's still probably a crap test, but it saved my life.
Sorry. This is driving me crazy. The photo of the young man being tested at the top of your post. You say the photo is from 1948. His shirt says something else. Like maybe 1978?
Great interview and looking forward to reading the book! I think about intelligence as a concept/construction a lot because 1) I'm in academia, so I am surrounded by people who are mostly read as "gifted" and many whom tout their high-IQs, 2) because I now have a PhD, I feel like I can say that intelligence is fundamentally overrated in terms of measuring success, satisfaction, etc.
IQ is only good at measuring legible and conforming intelligence, and it is used as a disciplinary tool. Being interpreted as "smart" or "intelligent" doesn't mean much if you cannot collaborate, cannot articulate your knowledge situationally, or even teach what you know (one of the smartest and kindest professors I ever had was also the worst teacher I ever had). I'll stop because I could go on, but yeah, IQ is bullshit and it always has been, but it is bullshit with real world consequences.
Super interesting read. I'm thinking about how we measure intelligence as a parent. My kid is only 16 months but conversations around schools and test scores have already seeped in. It's crazy how much we value this understanding of what intelligence is.
On another note, Blake Crouch's latest sci-fi book Upgrade touches on this topic in a scary dystopian way. What happens to our emotions when we upgrade our IQ? It's not my favorite book of his, but he always gets me thinking!
I find the French have an interesting way of talking about "gifted" and have reverted to the phrase "high potential", which I think is helping move away from the basic intelligence measured through IQ tests. It really takes into account more ways to b intelligent. But I really came here to say that y'all would probably enjoy listening to this Onbeing podcast: https://onbeing.org/programs/james-bridle-the-intelligence-singing-all-around-us/ which I found absolutely amazing in how it shifted my approach to intelligence (and so many other things). I have not read James Bridle's book but I am looking forward to and maybe @AHP you might want to interview them?
I've got an admission. I cling to the persistent notion that smart is better. Correlates include necessary productivity of the bright ones, i.e. if you're smart, you better be contributing to society. Your moral compass will vary. I know why I value the concept so: Intelligence was "my ticket out" of poverty and all its discontents. It's not like I'm uncritical of my stance. I mean, I take steps - like reading the article at the subject of this post - to challenge my bias. But, really, I don't see a way to throw a bone to all the people who'll be left adrift when we overthrow the power that 'intelligence' has to shape lives. I'll admit, there's gotta be improvement. Look at what a crap job we do now and at least since the childhoods of the people in this forum with supporting the smarties in the school system. Loads of intelligent people are traumatized, corralled, under served, and disengaged. Guess I'll need to read that book.