What People Get Wrong About IQ

We Need to Stop Letting the Far-Left and Right Control the Conversation.

In recent years, debate over the issue of IQ (intelligence quotient) — its validity, ethics and politics — has been rekindled. As is often the case, the conversation has been hijacked and driven by the most obnoxious voices on the extremes of the political spectrum. On the far-right: alt-rightists, racists, and white-identitarians use IQ as a way to argue for the supremacy of white people over other races, pointing to average IQ scores by race. On the far-left: ardent progressives and the social justice activists regard IQ as a pseudoscientific concept whose purpose is to foster essentialism, social Darwinism, white supremacy, and systems of oppression — and that anyone researching or discussing the subject other than to disparage it must be a bigot themselves. It is important to note that neither of these positions represents public opinion, and yet as the loudest voices in the room, they have been the most influential in shaping the conversation. To restore some sense of sanity to this discourse, there are a number of nuanced clarifications that need to be made. I intend to do that in this essay.

The first point to notice is that the far-left rejection and far-right embrace of IQ is 100 percent politically motivated. It has nothing to do with the science whatsoever. These groups both have narratives they want to push, and through confirmation bias, will celebrate anything that confirms it and reject anything that disconfirms it, regardless of merit or evidence. In an alternate universe where IQ test results were inverted and whites scored more poorly than most groups on average, far-left objections to IQ would be non-existent, and the far-right would reject it as pseudoscience. Indeed, we can see a similar corollary with the discovery that humans and Neanderthals interbred, and that Neanderthal DNA still exists among certain humans. In a happy accident, it turns out that Neanderthal DNA is present in every ethnic population on earth outside of African blacks. In other words, black people are the only group that can be said to be fully human, the rest are part "caveman." Imagine if these findings were reversed — if it had been found that only black people had Neanderthal DNA. Instead of being a fun little news item soon forgotten, it would be an explosive controversy. Accusations of racism and pseudoscience would be thrown around carelessly. Programs would be shut down and research funding rescinded — people would be fired or made pariahs, and the acceptance or rejection of this data would be used as a litmus test of one's political tribe. (In time, it was discovered that African blacks do indeed have Neanderthal DNA along with everyone else, but the reaction to the initial reporting demonstrates the point all the same.) We must acknowledge this at the outset: both of the extremes driving the conversation are acting in politically-motivated bad faith.

Defining Terms

It will be useful to define some basic terms that are often used interchangeably even though they describe different things.

  • IQ (intelligence quotient) - The numerical score representing an estimate of one's analytical cognitive abilities such as reasoning, logic, problem solving, verbal skills, etc., as measured by IQ tests.

  • Intelligence (everyday colloquial use) - How smart or bright someone is as vaguely determined by people's subjective impressions rather than any methodology, and therefore is not the same as IQ.

  • Knowledge - How much one knows. Separate from IQ. For example, a child might have an extraordinary IQ, but possess relatively little knowledge. And an older adult might score low in IQ, but possess great knowledge. IQ is ability, knowledge is data.

  • Education - To be formally educated is to have spent some portion of time at an educational institution being taught courses in various subjects by credentialed instructors, and passing the requisite number of classes (through the completion of course work and passing exams) to obtain a degree, diploma, or certificate of some kind. One can also spend time learning, reading, and educating themselves, disconnected from any institution. This is known as self-education. But neither of these is the same as IQ, nor should be conflated with it. IQ is ability, education is a process and/or achievement. It is possible to be well-educated but not have a high IQ, and vice versa.

IQ is Not Bullshit

Intelligence quotient tests (and test data) are used by psychologists and other social scientists in researching and studying mental disabilities, mental health, education, childhood development, and interconnected societal variables such as poverty, nutrition, environmental contamination, and so forth. IQ is regarded as a valid concept in the scientific community, and professionally administered IQ test results are considered statistically reliable. IQ scores have been found to correlate with morbiditymortalityparental IQ, and income, among other outcomes. Some will be quick to point out that correlation doesn’t equal causation, which is perfectly true, though in fairness, the same can be said of the vast majority of scientific and social scientific research on nearly every other subject (virtually none of which gets disputed on those grounds). Causation is extraordinarily difficult to establish in any field of scientific research (e.g. smoking cigarettes is only correlated with lung cancer — does that fact cause even an instant of doubt to any reasonable person not employed by Big Tobacco?).

Online IQ tests are another matter. Most online IQ quizzes are generally not recognized by the scientific community as measuring much of value.

Dishonest Arguments and Unfair Comparisons

Some on the political left, informed by their passion for Anti-Racism, argue that IQ is a pseudoscientific concept altogether, often going a step further and labeling it outright racist. One of the works most often cited by such people is the 1981 book by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, "The Mismeasure of Man." In 2013, a few years before the IQ debate reignited, I read the book out of pure curiosity. In fact, I went into it with the preconceived notion that IQ was largely bogus — measuring only one's test-taking ability and nothing more — and looked forward to having Gould provide the desired confirmatory evidence. Instead, I got a textbook-like history lesson on all of the pseudoscientific ways people used to measure intelligence decades or centuries in the past. Things like measuring heads, skull volume, or the bumps on people's heads (known as phrenology) — along with the ridiculous ways these mismeasures were twisted to arrive at desired results, and the racist claims these nonsensical findings were used to justify. He hardly spent any time debunking IQ as a concept. It was brushed over at the very end, dismissed out of hand with no evidence. In the epilogue to the updated addition (1996), Gould takes a bit of time to lay into the 1994 book "The Bell Curve" (in much the overtly politically-motivated way he accused its authors of writing it), but again, he does not refute the concept of IQ except to assert its uselessness.

Gould's "Mismeasure" is worth bringing up here because when the armies of "IQ is valid" and "IQ is bogus" line up on the battlefield of ideas and send forth their champions to face off, Gould is one of the champions the "IQ is bogus" camp produces. This, despite his manifest inability to do anything other than engage in what amounts to political activism on the subject. And Gould's many epigones emulate his style of argumentation down to a T. There are very few substantive, data-driven arguments from the "IQ is bogus" tribe — rather, they point to history, past scientific errors, human bias, and the legacy of racism. And all of these things are perfectly factual. Measuring head size or skull volume, for example, is obviously, laughably, pseudoscientific, and formulating the results in service of racism is plainly bad. In earlier, less enlightened times, attitudes and views we now see as flagrantly racist were commonplace, and the scientists of those eras were for the most part products of their times.

But this line of reasoning requires leaps of logic. The implicit argument being made is this: the measurement of intelligence was pseudoscientific and racist in the past, therefore, it must be so today. This is the same kind of move that climate deniers make when they point to the 1970's, when scientists erroneously believed the planet was going through a period of global cooling. They were wrong before, they must be wrong now too. Except technology improves, understanding advances, bad ideas get weeded out (by science itself!), good ideas get refined, and ethical and professional norms progress. Science is a cumulative process. That doesn't mean science can't be wrong today, of course it can, but it means that each generation of scientists begin from a higher foundation of solid understanding, standing on the shoulders of taller and taller giants. The forerunners of chemists were alchemists who believed they could transmute base metals into gold, or discover the elixir of life. The forerunners of astronomers believed the Earth was the center of the universe. The forerunners of medical doctors believed disease could be cured with leeching or bloodletting. And yes, the forerunners of scientists who research and analyze human intelligence were both incorrect in their measurements, and bigoted in their application of the "data." To use past error as the primary evidence that an area of modern science must also be bunk is quintessential science-denier logic. We see it with flat-earthers, creationists, anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, and yes, IQ deniers. Drawing links between modern IQ science and phrenology or eugenics as though that were some kind of checkmate is not an intellectually honest move you can make. As a commenter to my original review of Gould's book aptly put it: "Anyone can easily make ancient flawed science into a convenient whipping boy to push their ideological agenda without engaging with the current science."

Standardized Testing in Education

There is some confusion between IQ testing and standardized testing in education. Standardized tests such as the SAT's are not IQ tests. They overlap in many ways, but remain different. I took the SAT's in the first half of my junior year in high school and scored average. Then I bought an SAT test-prep book that taught me how to game the architecture of the tests: how to be a better multiple choice guesser, how questions and answers are commonly structured, how to identify the likelihood of a correct answer simply by how it's written, and other probabilistic tips. When I took the test again, I scored 160 points better. A test you can game like that with tricks found in a $20 book from Barnes and Noble is not measuring enough of genuine value to validate the importance we place on it.

Just because IQ is a valid concept and can be accurately tested doesn't make standardized testing in schools a good idea. There are compelling reasons why we should de-emphasize their importance for college admissions. As noted, the tests can be gamed, diminishing their usefulness, but beyond that they create needless stress and pressure on young people who are still developing, and they gin up a false sense of urgency and permanence on the scores. This ties into the feedback loop of hyper-competitiveness in college admissions, which ultimately serves no purpose other than driving up tuition costs and lining the pockets of university administrators. The artificial scarcity of elite university slots due to institutions refusing to meaningfully expand lest they dampen their mystique and prestige (all the while greedily sucking up endowments by the billions) is part of a broken educational culture that has to change. But this is a different subject for a different essay.

Standardized testing is useful for research purposes, and should continue on those grounds, but the scores should be made inaccessible to universities, and should not be the sort of thing students are made to worry about or prepare for. In a rapidly-changing world where one can reasonably expect to live well into their 80's or beyond, there is nothing one should be able to do at age 17, short of having a child or committing a high crime, that should dictate the entire course of the their life. And any impression to the contrary that we (society) impress upon young people is a greater disservice to them — and ultimately to all of us — than we realize.

Group Differences

We find differences in virtually every measurable attribute in humans between groups; we should not be surprised that we find them here. It's true that differentiated by racial/ethnic group, there are differences in average IQ scores. This is also true if people are differentiated by height, national origin, and a host of other arbitrary metrics by which humans can be separated into different groups. And while there are racial/ethnic group differences in IQ, greater differences remain within any one group than between groups. The politics of these differences (namely that white people, on average, score higher than black people) has led some to conclude that IQ tests must be racist in their construction and/or administering. I have not seen any evidence to substantiate this claim. More sober liberal commentators argue instead that socioeconomics must account for the entirety of the difference. It's certainly true that socioeconomics play a role, and when corrected for, the gap does indeed shrink, but it doesn't disappear. There are dozens of moving parts that contribute to these differences, and quantifying the percentage of contribution of any one factor is too complex an undertaking to be presently determined. Environmental exposures (e.g. lead) and nutrition (especially in fetal development and early childhood), culture, socioeconomics, and yes, genetics, are widely agreed to contribute to one's IQ score among scientists in relevant fields.

Whereas the constructivist intuitions of the political left are to discount genetic differences in IQ altogether, the essentialist intuitions of the far-right latch onto genetics and heritability as the only relevant factor, bolstering claims of white supremacy. No scientist taken seriously within their community believes genes to be only factor, or even the main one. Scientists, true to their cautious nature, are the first to acknowledge when we just don't know enough yet. But even if what the far-right believes turns out to be correct, it doesn't prove what they think it does, because the top of the IQ hierarchy isn't white people, but East Asians. For the most far-right-friendly explanation of racial/ethnic group differences in IQ to be confirmed would prove that East Asians are "superior" to whites. So, well played there. It is also ironically the case that there are IQ differences between political affiliations. Would you like to guess how hard-right social conservatives stack up against liberals? This brings us to a larger point.

IQ Doesn't Measure Human Value

All of the hysteria over IQ stems from a single, profoundly wrong assumption: that intelligence has anything to do with human value. It doesn't, and our own lives, communities, societies, laws, and social/cultural norms fully attest to this. Human value is intrinsic, and the inherence of that value is the very basis for human rights. We don't view children, people with special needs, people who have suffered brain injuries, or the very elderly as being any less human, any less deserving of life, dignity, and protection under the law simply because their raw brain power may be lower in certain ways than the average person.

IQ measures a somewhat narrow range of cognitive abilities such as short-term memory capacity, processing speed, verbal skills, reasoning, and analytical problem solving. What it doesn't measure is kindness, generosity, compassion, interpersonal skills, cooperation and teamwork, discipline, emotional intelligence, outside-the-box thinking, empathy, creativity, curiosity, humor, patience, ingenuity, honesty, and wisdom. In the age of automation and artificial intelligence, traditional "intelligence" as measured by IQ will become largely subsumed by machines. No human, however intelligent, will be able to keep up with computers, software, machines, and robots. The jobs, communal roles, and endeavors of the future will increasingly rely on interpersonal, emotional, nurturing, care-giving, and creative abilities above all else, as those are among the skills least likely to be automated or replicated by AI.

Projecting Your Politics Onto Science is a Dangerous Game

Demonizing or embracing scientific findings primarily because they affirm or refute one's preexisting notions politicizes science, and thus erodes trust in it as an institution. What's more, projecting your own subjective opinions onto scientific data contributes to the destruction of objective data as a concept, and accelerates us further down the road of post-truth relativism and information silos that cater to invested ideological tribes. There is only one way for science to be: the apolitical, dispassionate pursuit of truth through a rigorous, demonstrable methodology using reason and evidence. For science to cease being apolitical is for science to cease to be.

When some communities denigrate scientific data — and anyone who contributes to or accepts it — as bad or dangerous because it clashes with a strongly held political belief or moral value, they poison the very pursuit of knowledge. It creates a little voice in the back of scientists’ (and their bankrollers’) minds when evaluating whether to undertake or finance a research project: "will this create a backlash?" And as a result, there is undoubtedly scientific research that is not currently taking place. Now this un-pursued research might not have had any tangible benefit (though there is much to be said for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake), or it might have uncovered or led to important insights or breakthroughs.

And when other communities champion scientific data, willfully misapplying and misinterpreting it to confirm political and ideological narratives they want to push, especially hateful ones, they create a similar chilling effect from the opposite direction. Nobody wants to produce research that hate groups and bad actors will parade around while ignoring the nuances and complexities, and will think twice before embarking on certain projects because of it. By imposing politics onto science, we impose pressures onto science that makes it less free — and that, in the long run, hurts everyone.

The unpredictable ways in which knowledge leads to more knowledge makes all knowledge precious, because we cannot tell what else it might lead to. Do we leave these possibilities off the table because we fear they may lead to something bad? This is the age-old moral dilemma of the knowledge-seeker: are we "ready" for certain information? Physicist David Deutsch has a useful insight: the harm that can result from any knowledge, so long as it does not destroy the growth of knowledge itself, is finite, while the potential for good can be infinite. Immeasurably more harm has occurred throughout history due to lack of knowledge than due to knowledge that turned out to be harmful.

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