IQ and Caste

Smart people SLEEP LATE yells the headline of this opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press. It begins,

Sleep is a fundamental component of animal biology. New evidence confirms that, in humans, its timing reflects intelligence. People with higher IQs (intelligence quotients) tend to be more active nocturnally, going to bed later, whereas those with lower IQs usually retire to bed sooner after nightfall.

Let’s stop right there and ask a few questions:

  • Does each of us actually have a “quotient” — a sum — of intelligence?
  • Is intelligence actually measurable as a sum?
  • Do you believe you have an IQ? Do you know what it is?
  • Would you be willing to share your IQ scores? Why? Or why not?

I took many IQ tests during my years in school. And since my mother taught in the public school I attended through the 9th grade, she had access to all my records. Between those and others I’ve seen, my known IQ scores have an eighty point range: from quite smart to quite dumb. Those scores are among the many facts that convinced me long ago that IQ testing is meant mostly for one thing: ranking people. It’s made to privilege some, to keep privileges from others, and to move the rest as a herd through school or some other system. It legitimizes the arbitrary sorting of human beings into castes based on poor measures of one quality that makes each of us very human, and therefore also very different from every other human being. In a cruel way, it seeks to measure the immeasurable, and to sort us out accordingly.

IQ testing became popular in an age when eugenics was still taken seriously: when it was assumed by privileged populations that races and ethnic groups differed by intelligence and other measures. Today we go out of our way to avoid that kind of thinking, at the official level. But the proclivity persists. Assuming that people have an IQ — intelligence measured as if by a thermometer — is still more than common, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. That’s what we see in reports like the quoted one above.

So here’s my advice to anybody writing about the topic: recognize that IQ is a one-time score on a test, not a true measure of the very human and highly arcane personal quality we call intelligence. Don’t say “Those with higher IQs.” Say “Those with higher IQ scores.” The difference is between humanity and that which seeks to replace it with a number. It should help to think about the harms caused by the latter.

11 comments

  1. Don Marti’s avatar

    I’m a capital-P Pragmatist and proud, so if believing in IQ is bad for you (required reading: How Not to Talk to Your Kids) then IQ is bogus.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Don. Good link, too.

    My own bonus link comes from the great teacher John Taylor Gatto, and his Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher essay (actually a speech he gave):

    The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem. If you’ve ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parents have convinced him to believe they’ll love him in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform. Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly down to a single percentage point how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of good schooling depends upon perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much as commercial economy depends on the same fertilizer. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical records, the cumulative weight of the objective-seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.

    Self-evaluation, the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet, is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but need to rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

    Strong shit.

  3. Tom’s avatar

    Think of it (IQ) as the rate at which one fills a pail with blackberries not the capacity of the pail. Beyond the speed of light or absolute zero on the Kelvin scale, most measurement is relative and dependent on perspective, which experience suggests is as variable as it is relative.

  4. Karl’s avatar

    Ha ha ha…. Doc, you crack me up. This is the crap upon which our entire society is built, but you decide to bitch about IQ scores? Why no mention about how we disallow people access to resources based upon their DOLLAR scores? Or about how we let some people decide if your children will go to war based upon their VOTE scores?

    But come now, let us not dwell on such trivial matters. The important thing to note here is that I *do* have a high IQ, and I *do* get up late.

  5. Andy’s avatar

    I never thought those IQ tests my mother sent me through were meant to rank me into or out of some privileged class.
    She was an LD teacher for decades, but later explained to me that teachers will request these tests when they suspect the child isn’t being intellectually challenged enough. If that’s the case, then the school enrolls the child in curricula that’s less structured, but graded on a much stricter scale.

    It hardly felt like privilege, since the work was tougher, but the notation that “this child has a higher IQ than average” never got me on any short lists for secondary education. The college boards were looking at the OTHER numbers designed to classify me into simple compartments – my SAT scores.

  6. Junice’s avatar

    Humans always like to quantify everything…. Success, Happiness Index, GDP etc. So no matter how we disregard someone with IQ, subconsciously, we will still label someone with “Those with higher IQ scores.”

    Unless we ban this test, I think it’s almost impossible to ignore this quotient. :)

  7. Kevin B. O'Brien’s avatar

    I believe it was Richard Feynman who said “It’s no use being precise if you don’t know what the hell you are talking about.” I think it is the perfect commentary on IQ “measurement”.

  8. Chip’s avatar

    I only know that there appear to be some folks who are Demonstrably Dumb

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Ah, Chip, but we don’t need a test for that, do we? :-)

  10. David Kearns’s avatar

    A quotient isn’t a sum, Doc – it’s the result of a division. Not knowing that would probably lower your IQ…

    :) ave

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