The Intellectual Poverty of IQ
Otherwise known as the stupidest way to think of intelligence
Yes, you have figured me out — I don’t like the whole IQ thing very much. You must be a genius! For this reason, I have never really taken a serious IQ test in my life even though I always was considered a star pupil and am being called genius every once in while. When I tried some less serious versions, the result usually was upwards of 140, but, and I cannot stress this enough:
IQ doesn’t matter.
I know there are people who really believe it does, often neuroscientists, people in a position of authority within the academia or within broader educational systems, or, as Jessica WildFire notes, rich parents. I have had heated debates with such people. Not that it helped change their minds, but I believe there may be some value in sharing all the reasons why they’re objectively, provably wrong with the rest of the good people of the webz.
The Burden of the Gifted
Let’s start with my personal account from when I was growing up. In the Czech Republic, our version of gifted programs is actually a whole special kind of school called “gymnázium”. It’s still a public school, so it’s no more expensive to attend, which is a good thing, and these schools are still open to a fairly large amount of people, as there’s at least one in every town of at least a few thousand people. Privileged upbringing still matters, though.
Fortunately for me, by the time this kind of school starts (around 12 years of age at the earliest), I had already gone through having my ego popped. When I was little, the teachers at my elementary school kept telling me how smart I am until I was the kind of asshole who would smirk at others when they got our equivalent of B. I was pissing my classmates off so much by my aura of superiority that they tried to mock me when I got even an A-.
When I was about 8, I had an epiphany, realizing that I am the asshole, and ever since, I have striven to not ascribe any value whatsoever to the fact that I’m good at learning stuff. I have also watched other “gifted” students go through life without ever having a similar epiphany and the needed character course correction. In fact, I feel lucky, since getting over one’s intellectual ego seems to be harder the longer it is allowed to balloon up.
If for no other reason, the cult of high IQ would already be toxic because of this, making young people who are good at learning confuse being a good student (a feat of narrow-minded, incurious obedience, bordering on intellectual servility) with actually being intelligent in an independent, healthy fashion that grows spontaneously from one’s own curiosity. Not to mention how infantile it is in principle to try to reduce intelligence to comparing how long one’s intelligence dick is. What can go wrong?
Beyond the Asshole
I would apologize for using more French than usual in this article, but I really believe that stronger language is entirely appropriate when this much emphasis is needed. IQ is too ingrained in our academic culture, too uncritically accepted, for what a crime it is against that which it purports to be the best or the only measure of. In a way that’s not only insulting, but actively dangerous and harmful. Just consider the genetic implications.
Not only is a concept like IQ something that fuels intellectual narcissism, it gives educational systems license to mistreat already unprivileged students by judging them as genetically inferior. Especially today, when “race science” is making a comeback, IQ is just as abusable by eugenicists as it always has been. And it’s no accident, it’s because of the very concept at the core of IQ — the attempt to measure inborn intelligence objectively.
While it is a fact that different individual brains are differently good at different tasks between people who aren’t clones, even after having discussions with neuroscientists specializing in intelligence measurement, I haven’t been convinced by their evidence that any general concept of intelligence says anything more substantial than “try to avoid having a shovel lodged in your cerebellum”. Having a healthy brain seems enough.
Beyond that, most research strongly indicates that environment plays a decisive role in how “smart” anyone becomes, and in my personal experience, the second place would still belong to agency long before genetics. Not to mention that there seem to be many different kinds of intelligence one can acquire that cannot be crammed into a single linear scale. Which brings me to a key question — what are IQ tests even testing?
When I took a test devised by the American Mensa for example, there was a whole section about American history and geography. I guess that means that all non-Americans are stupid by default. It may sound amusing to you, but this very trick has always been used to marginalize minorities, painting them as genetically unintelligent only because they didn’t know things that only rich white people would know. But there’s more (problems)!
Usually, IQ tests measure a highly abstract mathematical version of intelligence, often focusing also on specific types of memory or pattern recognition. This of course ignores many aesthetic or physical forms of intelligence, not to mention that intelligence as an ability to imagine or learn how to solve problems means that a smart person will be good at solving particular types of problems. What if it’s mazes, or riddles?
The main indicator that IQ tests are indeed not genetic, but in fact represent sets of problems that are perfectly teachable like anything else, is the so called Flynn effect. In case you’ve never heard of it, you must be stupid! No, I’m kidding, of course. It’s a “substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day”.
Either everyone on Earth is rapidly evolving higher genetic intelligence, or, and maybe I’m the crazy one here, people are getting gradually more familiar with the abstract classes of problems that are common in tests because tests are so often mandatory at school or if one wants to get any kind of career. So, IQ tests are a flawed measure of something else than what they’re supposed to be the measure of, and they’re used to judge the poor as genetically inferior, further giving more privilege to the privileged.
There Can Be Only One!
On the off chance that narcissism and racism enabled by IQ tests aren’t enough for you to condemn them, consider for a moment how hard it is to objectively define intelligence to begin with. This matters. Especially if what you claim is that there’s only one, singular measure of intelligence, your definition of intelligence better be absolutely bulletproof. If it’s not, then you can only use IQ tests as a measure of stupidity of those who use them.
And that’s not even a joke — basing a whole education system and by extension society on a fundamentally flawed measure of intelligence is one of the most objectively stupid things one can do. So, what is this “general intelligence” you speak of? Turns out that even the model used for most IQ tests since the second half of the 20th century, the Cattell–Horn–Carroll theory, lists a number of different components of intelligence:
Fluid intelligence — this is the core idea behind what most people due to their experience with testing consider to be general intelligence, the “broad ability to reason, form concepts, and solve problems using unfamiliar information or novel procedures”. Of course, since it is so “broad”, this definition is meaningless unless you specify what the terms “reasoning”, “concept”, “solution”, and “problem” mean. Naturally, these tend to get specified as whatever the creator of the test prefers, which makes most tests like this really only tests of how the creator of the test wants people to think. While this is a practical intellectual skill, being able to divine arbitrary rules is by no means a good universal measure of general intelligence.
Crystallized intelligence — in contrast to “fluid” intelligence, this is the “breadth and depth of a person’s acquired knowledge, the ability to communicate one’s knowledge, and the ability to reason using previously learned experiences or procedures”. Or, in other words, exactly that which education is all about. If you’re going to just equate education with intelligence, you might as well stop using different words for things altogether. Just smurf everything smurf.
Quantitative reasoning — this may sound like a general form of intelligence, until you realize that the ability to solve particular kinds of numerical problems in tests is dependent on one’s understanding of mathematical conventions that need to be taught. You could devise a test semantically alien to everyone, but then luck will play a major role in who chances upon a solution or not anyway. In case it’s not clear, how to solve math problems is a completely teachable skill in which intuition or ability to do quick calculus in one’s head only gives one an initial advantage. A pretty pointless advantage in the world chock-full of computers and advancing AI.
Reading and writing ability — otherwise known as literacy, which is completely teachable and culture-specific. Talent can again give one a head start, but that’s it. Next.
Short-term memory — what does this matter to any practical conception of intelligence beyond having a brain that works? Also, mnemotechnics or various technological devices can be used in real life to offset any natural shortcomings in this area.
Long-term storage and retrieval — again, what does this matter beyond showing off at parties or in game shows? Current technology makes this faculty completely irrelevant, not to mention that people with healthy brains have a long-term memory that’s good enough for all practical purposes.
Visual processing — so, are blind people necessarily idiots? It is a problem-solving skill, sure, but clearly not essential to general intelligence.
Auditory processing — again, are deaf people necessarily idiots? Ditto as for the visual processing.
Processing speed — what does it matter if one can arrive at a correct solution in a matter of seconds, or minutes? Or even if it takes hours or days? Is faster thinking more intelligent thinking, or is it just faster? If you’re very intelligent only when you’re not under pressure, are you therefore stupid?
Decision/reaction time/speed — similar to processing speed, only purely about speed. If you had, say, an architect that can draw up a design in a day, and another architect that needs a whole week to accomplish the same task equally well, is the latter architect therefore not an architect?
Rest assured that these objections are not just theoretical. For example, I actually happen to be a person who is a fast thinker, but not the fastest. But in real life, it turned out that my genius friends who are faster thinkers than I am, and therefore have always scored better in tests, generally lack the perseverance to stick with an educational program, or any problem, until the end. In this case, the new IQ-based admission tests for Czech unis exacerbated precisely that which the unis were thusly seeking to avoid.
As for the architect example, it was a point of contention that I argued constantly with my math teacher in high school. We were supposed to do math problems alone under time pressure without access to any electronic devices and solve them in only a single exactly predetermined fashion. Or in other words, exactly in a way in which a professional, like, say, an architect, wouldn’t. In real life, one can think things through and choose an approach, while cooperation with other people and the use of any technologies (“cheating”) is what smart people do. Once, she relented and allowed ten more minutes for the test, changing my grade from F to A.
But even if we fully accept this narrowed down conception of intelligence, shouldn’t we rather focus on who will produce the best original solution in the end (fast enough), rather than on who can come up with the largest number of preconceived correct answers the fastest? If we care about results so much, shouldn’t we also care about what motivations drive the intelligent person, or about their emotional maturity and social skills? Just because someone is a quick study doesn’t mean they will be productive.
And what about all the “non-academic”, but essential practical faculties? It’s still the brain that’s responsible for superior dexterity, martial prowess, or any kind of physical craft. Are star athletes necessarily idiots only because they can’t do differential calculus in their heads or because they’re not well spoken? One can object that this is just an attempt to give everyone a prize for finishing last, if one is an intellectual douche, but if intelligence is problem-solving, what does it matter what the problem is?
Solving the Problem of Having to Solve Problems
And we’re still not questioning the underlying assumption that intelligence is all about problem-solving. What does it even mean to “solve” a “problem”? What about a muse, a Watson to a Sherlock — a person who inspires a traditionally brilliant problem-solver? What about artists who explore the world irrationally and then produce something wonderful, though wonderfully useless, through complete serendipity? A very orderly rational mind specifically cannot achieve certain “results” by its nature.
I much prefer the definition of genius by Immanuel Kant:
“Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other.”
Arguably, the most brilliant people in any field are brilliant specifically because their way of producing results has not been previously considered and escapes precise definition that could be worked into any curriculum or intelligence test. On the level of a fundamental logical principle, one cannot test for the capacity for advanced original thought or simply being a walking, talking catalyst for innovative problem-solving and beyond — problem reframing, new problem discovery, and problem annihilation.
Anybody can decide to be smart and focus on mastering calculus, or they can decide to be even smarter and create a device that will make the ability to perform calculus entirely irrelevant for the whole rest of the future of mankind. True intelligence is rule-breaking, game-changing, revolutionary. Following the rules and meeting expectations always requires less intelligence, and certainly not genius. IQ is the principal enemy of genius.
Speaking of genius, quick question — what is Einstein’s IQ? 160? 162? Actually, it’s a trick question. Einstein never took an IQ test, so there is no answer, despite a thousand bajillion internet articles that authoritatively declare one number or another. More importantly, Einstein never took an IQ test because he didn’t want to. They tried to make him take one, but he repeatedly refused and kept saying that imagination and creativity are more important than anything else. And his IQ is 160, so he must be right.
Seriously though, what is left? IQ tests stimulate intellectual narcissism, are very closely tied to the history of racism and related discrimination of the poor, involve some at best highly questionable science, ignore and marginalize many forms of traditionally non-academic excellence, don’t reflect motivation or ethics necessary for academic success, and were looked down upon even by the principal genius of the modern era (if you’re the kind of person who believes things because celebrities do).
The original intent of the first proto-IQ tests was benevolent — to identify kids that need help in particular areas. And even that ended up as a way of identifying little morons who don’t deserve having our resources wasted on them. If you happen to have any arguments in support of IQ tests that aren’t some kind of economic or political bullshit like that, if there are some actual scientific or philosophical reasons why they deserve to have such a prominent place in educational systems, please, I’m all ears. But after looking into this issue for years, I genuinely don’t believe there are any.
If you want to support me, join me on Patreon:
Hello there, I’m Martin. Nice to meet you.WHO AM I? Oh boy, more like who aren’t I. Don’t worry, this is not an…