IQ testing is everywhere today - in schools, in job testing, even for fun. The idea that intelligence is quantifiable and can be calculated to a few 'points' has become completely accepted in the western world. But the history of the IQ test is a dubious one at best - full of misconceptions, innaccuracies and rife with political belief. Is it possible that such an accepted test could just be wrong? And more importantly, is it possible that it's not equally wrong for all?
It all started with the best of motives. The man credited with creating modern intelligence testing, Alfred Binet, developed his scale for the identification of children with special needs - not for the categorization and standardization of 'normal' children. But the man who developed Binet's scale further - American scientist H H Goddard - had a completely different agenda. It was his belief that those below a certain standard of mental ability should be prevented from breeding. In his mind this was social advancement. Today we call it eugenics.
But his reasons for developing the test needn't impact on the integrity of the theory itself, surely? After all, many important breakthroughs have been inspired by less than pure motives. So why is it that white western middle class people consistently score higher than those of other ethnic origins? Is science telling us that even in our new multiculural kingdoms, the white westerner is king?
The wrong test
Let's disregard the possible polical and racial motivations behind the theory for a moment and go back to first principles - the flawed idea of 'intelligence'. First things first - remembering facts and trivia is a test of memory, not intellect. Literacy can't be a judge of intelligence either, for this is a skill and not an 'innate' element, which these theories assume that intelligence is. In fact 'intelligence' is notoriously difficult to define - although one could argue that it consists of two major interacting facets - the ability to understand new concepts and the ability to link these concepts into the pre-existing mesh of older ones.
Another word for the first of these facets might be 'understanding'. Memory need not play a part here. One can imagine a person with brain damage, or some mental defect who unable to remember anything beyond the short term. If such a person can pick up a book, look through it and understand it, this surely this is evidence of intelligence, even if the concepts contained are forgotten in a matter of moments. It is the ease of understanding that shows the level of intellect.
The second facet must be examined with slightly more caution. Placing new concepts into the mesh of older ones can mean discarding inaccuracies of the old, and altering the mesh to accommodate new information. This might be considered an act of intelligence - particularly if the ability to 'evaluate' information is included as part of the process. A 'less intelligent' position might be to disregard new ideas because they do not fit with the existing framework.
Of course, even these ideas are based around the assumtion that the intellect is describable and measurable at all, which may be a decidedly questionable statement to make, even though we all 'instinctively' make these judgements every day.
Nonetheless, when IQ tests were first formulated, none of these elements were considered. The test was much more of a test of trivia - a measure of the understanding of the western world of that era. This doesn't necessarily make it bad science of course. If the criteria of the tests is clear, if they are performed in a scientific way and are repeatable, then the process at least is scientific. Or at least that's true if people do not misunderstand what it is that the test is actually measuring in the first place. And these misunderstandings were made, and have been maintained over many decades. Why? Politics.
Science as a puppet of politics
Many scientists have considerable trouble believing that apparently scientific results are based not on 'how things are' but on prejudices, assumptions and political pressures. It is commonly thought in the scientific community that a scientific result is the same no matter what political system is currently in power, or what community generates the data. And in their own way, they are correct. "1+1=2" is true under capitalism, communism, anarchism or dictatorships. It is true in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, America or Europe. It's true on the moon.
But it is only true if all parties agree on the concepts of '1' and '2'. And unlike numbers, words and linguistic concepts can carry very different associations and resonances in different cultures - associations and resonances that inevitably carry some kind of political charge. And in terms of the IQ test there were even many overt political pressures to consider. Together these pressures led to definitions of intelligence that were geared toward white male westerners. It's not a coincindence that Terman and Yerkes gained considerable political funding when they applied the test to army recruits as America entered the first world war... Instead these tests defined the very criteria of intelligence in the western world - criteria that we still live with today.
Break the monoculture
There's another important angle to consider here. If we accept that our judgements of intelligence have been heavily influenced by the criteria we use to evaluate them, then we can see why the use of western criteria might result in skewed results for other cultures - a form of scientific racism.
We are now entering a time where these evaluations are going to become even more significant than they have before. Genetic research may suggest that there are genetic predispositions in certain races to different skills and abilities - literacy, for example. Does this give this race the right to feel, act and be treated as superior? Simple answer; of course not. To start off with, different cultures focus the intellect and abilities on different aspects of their lives. A genotype shown to have a predisposition toward a certain skill will only have an advantage in a society, which values that skill. It takes no great leaps in evolutionary logic to realise that each race will have created a society and culture built on their dispositions. Our ideas of 'intelligence' may simply not translate to the nuanced skills - the different priorities and strengths - of the children of another culture.
And if we are not aware of our skewed conceptions of 'intelligence', we could be a culture that once again tries to use genetics to find the biological 'cause' of one race's "inferiority" - to prove them to be less than fully 'human'. We need a culture that celebrates diversity, maintains cultural difference - and respect for cultural difference - to avoid such a world. And it may already be too late. The cultural spread of western values may already be tacitly exterminating other talents along with their cultures - as other ways of being are systematically ignored and degraded.
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