Army Alpha, Army Beta: Inherently Racist

In a society that values intelligence — that places intellectual excellence on a pedestal — it is easy to question “Who is intelligent, and why?”

Intelligence is a construct highly dependent on the culture it examines. For example, a highly intelligent person in the Western world has exemplary problem solving and math skills, can think through problems easily and pragmatically, and demonstrates an act for reconstructing the details in 3-D mind maps. However, in a developing country, an intelligent person would be one who has mastered his resources, finding new and innovative ways to collect and purify water, build homes that survive monsoons and other natural storms, or even develop a “sixth sense” when it comes to hunting and providing food for the group. It is said that as early humans’ heads expanded, allowing for the cortical areas of the brain to expand, humans developed markedly advanced intelligence over surrounding species. Humans learned how to use fire to cook, to transform sedentary immovable objects into moving machines, etc.

And while we acknowledge humans’ unique ability, we understand there is a spectrum. We also forget that the psychological tests we turn to to measure intelligence are humanly flawed.

In his 1982 article A Nation of Morons, Gould illuminated cultural biases related to the Army Alpha and Beta tests, which were used as the gold standard for determining intelligence. Create by Robert Yerkes, an American psychologist, the Army Alpha and Beta tests were used as a screening tool for military recruits during the World War I before being implemented on a larger scale. By 1917, Yerkes Alpha test, the written form for literate recruits, composed of 8 parts, including analogies, sentence unscrambling, and other higher order testing. The Army Beta test, for illiterate recruits, was pictorial. The men who failed the Alpha due to illiteracy were directed to take the Beta, which without words was equally confusing.

For example, the Army Alpha test often involved critical cultural knowledge, such as in the questions recreated below:
Crisco is a: patent medicine, disinfectant, toothpaste, food product
Washington is to Adams as first is to . . .
Christy Mathewson is famous as a: writer, artist, baseball player, comedian.

Therefore, “intelligence” became a political construct, not biological.

Before I turn this into a history lesson on race purification…

The Army Alpha and Beta tests became a tool for subjugating classes of people — immigrants, blacks, etc. — in the name of eugenics, of purifying the race, of advancing the platform of genetics. Immigrants and blacks were automatically classified as illiterate and administered the Army Beta test, which included many culturally-specific items to identify that people of low socioeconomic status may not have been exposed to — i.e., light bulbs and phonographs. And while the Beta test did not require reading, it did require using a pencil — circling, filling in bubbles, etc. — which could prove difficult for individuals who had never once held a pencil.

Picture Completion Task from Army Beta Intelligence Test

As Edwin Black expertly explains in his book, War Against the Weak, the intelligence tests were biased against even Americans, labeling the culturally-unread as “morons”:

The Alpha test’s multiple choice questions could certainly be answered by sophisticated urbanites familiar with the country’s latest consumer products, popular art and entertainment. Yet most of America’s draftees hailed from an unsophisticated, rural society. Large numbers of them had ‘never been off the farm.’ Many came from insular religious families, which disdained theater, slick magazines and smoking. No matter, the mental capacity of everyone who could read and write was measured by the same pop culture yardstick.
Question: “Five hundred is played with…” Possible answers: rackets, pins, cards, dice. Correct response: cards.
Question: “Becky Sharp appears in…” Possible answers: Vanity Fair, Romola, The Christmas Carol, Henry IV. Correct response: Vanity Fair.
Question: “The Pierce Arrow car is made in…” Possible answers: Buffalo, Detroit, Toledo, Flint. Correct response: Buffalo.
Question: “Marguerite Clark is known as a…” Possible answers: suffragist, singer, movie actress, writer. Correct response: movie actress.
Question: “Velvet Joe appears in advertisements for…” Possible answers: tooth powder, dry goods, tobacco, soap.Correct response: tobacco.
Question: “‘Hasn’t scratched yet’ is used in advertising a…”Possible answers: drink, revolver, flour, cleanser. Correct response: cleanser.

By these standards, you and I would rate extremely low on the intelligence scale for not knowing the answers to these context-specific questions.

Unless you know who Velvet Joe is…I bet most millienials wouldn’t.

All of this begs the question: How can men who deem themselves intelligent based on shared “superior” traits decide what is intelligent?

Can we really ever measure the intelligence of other societies or populations without comparing them to our own?

What makes a piece of information culturally-significant enough as to become a marker for intelligence?

And if all intelligence hinges on one’s ability to navigate modern society as consumers, as producers, and as observers, what is intelligence? How do we quantify it?

Are savants therefore unintelligent, despite their often superhuman ability in a particular skill set? What about children with autism that grow up to become mind-blowing software engineers and coders?

Whatever the answer is, it is hard to ignore that humankind is obsessed with measuring this flexible concept.