The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

7 May 2005

It's only a number

Doc Searls introduces the premise:

A friend of mine, a Ph.D. with specialties in psychology and statistics, once sat on a plane next to an older woman who had achieved a great deal — and spoke proudly of her five grown children, who were all achievers on their own, holding advanced degrees and honored positions in their professions. The woman credited their success to home schooling.

My friend challenged her on that, saying that heredity must also have something to do with their success. "Yes," the woman replied. "It would if they hadn't all been adopted."

We expect so much from "intelligence," despite the fact that our very definitions of it are inconsistent, and even though the tools we have to "measure" it are questionable at best.

[M]ost people are born smart and ... we use the likes of IQ tests to pound populations of uniquely gifted individuals into bell curves.

IQ is a head trip. There's something misleading, even delusional, about it.

No doubt those who score well are smart. But average or low IQ scores are often meaningless, except to the degree that they fortify our belief that intelligence is a fixed value, like height or weight, and as easy to measure. The whole culture we've built around IQ tests serves to legitimize a creepy form of elitism. Worse, it substantiates our need to treat individuals always as members of populations. As typicalities. Nowhere is this more apparent, and obsolete, than in corporate org charts. Yes, hierachies are useful. But so are human beings that like working, and advancing, in companies that value their unique gifts.

And, of course, fitting people into those corporate org charts was the primary motivation for this sort of number-crunching in the first place: find suitably-elevated positions for the ostensibly "gifted," and provide subtle discouragement for those who didn't test well and whose dreams would inevitably be crushed.

This is not any kind of an argument for the abandonment of testing: in an era where no child is supposed to be left behind, there exists a perfectly-legitimate need for the evaluation of students. What we don't need: the compulsion to express those evaluations on a single scale, and the blithe assumption that the scale itself is anything more than a statistical abstraction.

Posted at 10:03 AM to Almost Yogurt


Searls must be joking. IQ scores have been shown to be excellent predictors of later-demonstrated ability in many fields, most notably those that require dealing with abstractions. Moreover, this has been confirmed with double-blind tests.

The old chestnut about the schoolteacher who mistook a list of her students' locker numbers for their IQ scores, and who then "found" that her students performed in accordance with those numbers, is apocryphal -- an invention of the anti-IQ-testing movement.

Searls's problem -- and his dudgeon -- stems from a simple mistake:

"Intelligence is complicated, conditional and hard to measure. The belief that people have "an IQ," however, comes easy. Too easy."

The error of which he accuses those of us who believe in the value of intelligence testing is actually his own error.

IQ is a measure: the measure of how well one does on tests of one's ability to manipulate acontextual abstractions. For most persons, that measure remains relatively stable over one's lifetime. That the I stands for "intelligence" reflects the original definition of intelligence, which is...drum roll, please...one's ability to manipulate acontextual abstractions. Perhaps we should call this "testable intelligence" to avert further quibbling -- though I'd bet my bottom dollar that any use of the word "intelligence" in connection with something that could be quantitatively measured would evoke cries of protest from the anti-testers.

The anti-testers are determined to destroy that definition. So they point to the indisputable fact that some persons -- a relative minority -- perform variably on these tests. They point to the difficulties test designers had during the Sixties and Seventies, when large numbers of persons for whom English was a second or third language were being tested, in accounting for that shortcoming. They completely efface the tests' reliability as predictors of the very things they were designed to predict! And Searls, with his nonsense about intelligence being "complicated, conditional and hard to measure," has fallen in with them.

In point of fact -- and when pressed, many anti-test zealots will admit it -- those who oppose intelligence testing do so largely because it does successfully predict one's later success in abstraction-laden fields. Owing to the nature of modern society, those fields are substantially more remunerative than others, so testable intelligence correlates well with material prosperity -- and that's what frosts their buns.

Sadly, employers don't have much reason to pay large salaries to persons with high "emotional intelligence," empathy, compassion, or any of the other cant phrases and terms the anti-testers have used in their campaign to becloud the matter. And to their great chagrin, so it is likely to remain.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at 11:26 AM on 7 May 2005

So the real issue is that we've unnecessarily broadened the popular definition of "intelligence," to the extent that it's become essentially meaningless?

Admittedly, I have my own axe to grind here, mainly because the scores I received back in the day were so wildly variable. I am not, however, inclined to cite this particular phenomenon as a cause of my occasional penury, not when there are so many other, so much more obvious, explanations.

And where I find myself agreeing with Searls is in the notion that we've created an artificial elite by our obsession with this number. My own tendencies being strongly meritocratic (despite my own occasional lack of merit), I tend to oppose such things reflexively.

Aside: I can assure you, "emotional intelligence," empathy and compassion are worth nothing where I work, and if they were, not a single extra dime would likely accrue to my accounts. :)

Posted by: CGHill at 11:47 AM on 7 May 2005

I wasn't joking.

Whether it only measures an ability to manipulate acontextual abstractions or performance on a glorified crossword puzzle, IQ tests have long had the unintended but very real consequence of reducing the most unique and immeasurable of human attributes to a relative number: one that says, no matter how much we try to rationalize and deny it, how much, to a point, somebody's mind is worth.

If I tell you Fred's IQ is 134, will you be able to forget that number? Will you be able to factor out the likelihood that Joe has had any number of other IQ scores in his life? No. That number means something to you. It means something to all of us. We can't help it. The notion of "having an IQ" has become normative. And, to the degree we define humanity as intelligence, and we define intelligence on a single linear scale, we use IQ to weigh what a human being is worth.

It's a long leap from "IQ score" -- one's graded answer to a series of puzzle questions -- to IQ: a statement of one's value as a human being. And yet that's a leap we make. All the time.

And if I've fallen in with "the antitesters," whoever they are, so the fuck what? I *celebrate anybody* who does *anything* to free human beings, especially children, from having their unique geniius supplanted by a numberr.

As for what good IQ scores do, good Lord. So what if IQ scores are good predictors of future performance in school and work? That's like saying square pegs test best for square holes.

You want to experience an interesting hell? Try being a kid who knows he's smart but flunks IQ tests. Believe me, I've been there. I thank my parents every day for saving me from a school system that would have otherwise flushed me into the failure pool.

And, for what it's worth, my buns are not frosted in the least because material prosperity correlates with test scores, grades, graduate degrees, and tastes for fine wine and fast automobiles. In fact, I love living in a country (and, increasingly, a world), where the opportunity for anybody to learn, achieve, prove themselves, get wealthy as hell, and otherwise prove their smarts, gets wider every day.

And I don't give a shit if emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion are worth nothing where anybody works. I'm just glad most of us don't have to work there.

For most of the Industrial Age, most of us didn't have much choice. Now we do. There are many more meritocracies now than there have ever been before. Lots of us can go out and make some meritocracies of our own, too. That's what thrills me endlessly, here in my late 50s. It's cool'z'shit to live in a world that isn't like the one I grew up in.

What frosts my buns is that we're still trying to "save" schools by making them into worse testing mills than they've already been for way too long. But that's yet another rant, so I'll stop here and go back to making money.

Thanks!

Posted by: Doc Searls at 7:04 PM on 7 May 2005

Hey, you know what? Among the many things I don't know is what my IQ is. Either I have never taken an IQ test, or what is more likely I have and didn't care to find out the results. (When I was a kid tests were something to be gotten through as quickly as possible, and then forgotten. By the way, the only thing that dragged my grade point average down were my many C-/D grades in Phys Ed. I only graduated high school with a 3.24. That's what I get for being a lazy tart, but for god's sakes they put me in gymnastics! What were they thinking!)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 11:22 AM on 8 May 2005