"Admit it! Intelligence does not exist!"
Brooklyn, New York (Oct. 2009): Recently, at a back-yard curmudgeon-klatch that had been over-sold to me as a "party," I was waylaid by a cult of I.Q. deniers. I was caught unawares by the ferocity and coordination of the attack. Soon I realized that I had stumbled onto I.Q.-denier-controlled territory, and had foolishly broached the wrong topic. From three sides I was subjected to a steady stream of withering verbal scorn. Eventually I was made to understand that I was guilty of introducing the concept of "intelligence" into the discussion, which my interlocutors firmly and communally rejected as faux-pas.
The word "intelligence," was out-of-date, preposterous and no longer to be used in polite company. By implication, smart people were no longer smart and dumb people no longer dumb (an enormous relief to the latter, no doubt). The whole concept of intelligence was now taboo, beyond the pale, absurd, self-contradictory, and racist to boot.
I demurred, suggesting that intelligence remained quite relevant in a number of contexts (I hesitated to point out the ironic un-intelligence of the argument -- sometimes irony can be too pointed).
Intelligence did not exist, the deniers insisted -- vehemently. The Fort Greene Chapter of the Brooklyn Politburo of Political Correctness reiterated their point of view relentlessly (if illogically and tautaulogously) as follows:
1. No one can say what intelligence is;
2. No one can say what it is because you can't measure it;
3. That which you are measuring must not really be intelligence, because no one can say what intelligence is;
4. The correlations between that which you are measuring (which is not intelligence, anyway) and life success are racist and therefore invalid;
5. Since we cannot measure what cannot be defined, and since we cannot define what cannot be measured, intelligence does not exist, and it would be racist and illogical to assert that it does.
6. Any of the above sentences combined and re-stated three times.
Although not an expert in the field, I was pretty sure my interlocutors were wrong on all counts, but I made no headway in convincing them with logical assertions. That only seemed to disturb them further.
I therefore fled their grim, zombie-like assembly and went straight to seek solace on the Internet, which provided me with a number of recent and classic articles summarizing the scientific consensus on intelligence. On the way I also pulled out a couple of college textbooks on psychology. Within about 15 minutes I was reassured that the current scientific orthodoxy (and for the past 20 years) has been that: 1) intelligence exists and is a valid concept; 2) it is a useful concept; 3) it is measurable and its measurement is statistically valid.
Where do these mis-undertandings arise? How is it that I was suddenly confronted by a unified front of radical I.Q. skeptics?
A lot of the trouble can be traced to a single book: Stephen Jay Gould's well-intentioned but essentially mis-guided critique of psychometrics, "The Mis-measure of Man." Gould's radical socio-political perspective on intelligence testing was typical of one side of a much broader social debate. Essentially, Gould saw modern I.Q. testing as representing merely the latest step in a flawed process that stretched back through a number of crackpot theories all the way to phrenology. Gould correctly pointed out that a number of early I.Q. tests were subject to statistical and logical critiques. He correctly pointed out that a number of modern researchers have discovered evidence for a human cognitive infrastructure composed of several possible intelligences, including a creative intelligence, an interpersonal intelligence, a physical and athletic intelligence, a musical intelligence, etc. But then Gould went too far. He concluded that in light of the historical record of flaws in intelligence testing one could assume that all current and future intelligence testing would be equally flawed. However, that is not a logical inference. There were many inaccurate theories concerning the circulation of the blood before Harvey hit upon the right one.
Moreover, those who rely on the evidence for multiple intelligences as proof of the invalidity of I.Q. are also committing a logical error, what might be called the fallacy of de-composition. The color green can be broken down into the constituent primary colors of blue and yellow, but that does not mean that green does not exist. Similary, the bundle of cognitive abilities we refer to as "intelligence" may indeed be composed of a number of sub-skills, but that does not mean that we do not recognize the whole range of skills as belonging to the same cognitive family. When we say that someone is "smart" or "clever" we may mean that they are verbally gifted, mathematically gifted, crafty, sociable, intuitive or creative. All of those behavioral displays are rightly grouped under the rubric of "smart" behavior. When someone tells us that someone else is smart, we know more or less what they mean. We don't know exactly, but that would also be the case if the person were referred to as "beautiful." Beauty, too, is hard to define and quantify, but it is absurd to assert that it doesn't exist.
Gould's book launched a cadre of gullible, socially-minded journalists and educators in renewed attacks on I.Q. (or, to use the term of art preferred by academics, "general intelligence" or "g"). Gould's attack created some annoyance amongst academic psychologists who had spent their entire professional careers dealing in great depth and subtlety with the issue of human intelligence. They decided to set the record clear. Gould was, after all, a paleontologist. Psychology, in general, and psychometrics in particular, were simply not his fields.
In 1995, the American Psychological Association created a special task force of top experts in intelligence from around the country to write a consensus report on our modern scientific understanding of intelligence (link here).
The task force concluded that: 1) intelligence exists, 2) it is measurable, and 3) its measurement is useful. The conclusions of the task force were unanimous. Gould's argument had been thoughtfully evaluated, and just as thoroughly rejected. Skeptics will claim professional bias. When there are enough of them, they will form the consensus. But they are very far from it today. Professional psychologists who don't believe in intelligence are a small, fringe group.
So it seems (if we are to believe the recognized experts) that there are smart people and dumb people, after all.
Why were my Brooklyn cultists so thoroughly convinced otherwise?
I take it as a classic example of political irrationality in operation. The essence of political irrationality is that we believe that which our group demands that we believe. We are willing to suspend our usual scrutiny of reality when it comes to those facts which we are "supposed" to believe.
American liberals very much want to believe that I.Q. doesn't exist, or doesn't matter. Why? First of all, this argument will be especially well-received by liberals who harbor lingering doubts about their own intelligence or academic credentials, or about the putative superiority of others (some people never get over being turned down by Yale).
Another reason is that I.Q. deniers get to feel proud and noble in their skepticism, because they see it as a way of expressing support for those who are less cognitively privileged than they are. "Some of my best friends are dumb people!"
Inconveniently, one of the results of I.Q. testing is that African-Americans score lower on average as a group than do Whites or Asians (with Latinos somewhere in between). Since the I.Q. tests can be used to support racist conclusions, the cultists claim, I.Q. tests must be invalid. Logically, however, that is putting the political cart before the scientific horse (something which is not smart).
None of the above is meant to deny that intelligence is a complex and subtle concept which will be the subject of continuing inquiry and debate. The measurement of intelligence is fraught with a potential for peril, inaccuracy and irrelevance (the peril being that of encouraging racism). However, that does not refute the essential fact that intelligence is generally agreed to be well-represented by an individual's capacity to solve verbal, mathematical and spatial problems in a given time frame, and that measurements of such a capacity -- whether we call it intelligence or of "g" -- show a better predictive correlation with educational outcomes than any other metric known to exist. We know a lot from an I.Q. test. For example, an I.Q. test can help us distinguish a child with high-performing Aspergers from one with pervasive developmental disorder.
Although our everyday, common-sense notion of intelligence does correspond with an empirically-verifiable cognitive attribute, not all common-sense notions of intelligence are correct. For example, it has often been mistakenly assumed (most famously by that early proselytizer for I.Q. tests, Lewis Terman), that super-high I.Q.'s will correspond with super-high academic and professional achievement. That hasn't been the case. Instead, it seems that there is a threshold minimum I.Q. commonly associated with professional or academic success, but this threshold is suprisingly low, perhaps as low as 110. The super-high I.Q.s have not turned out to be unusually successful. It turns out there's a lot more to personal success than just having a high I.Q.. But that doesn't mean it hurts.
These results should not be surprising for those with a background in psychology and cultural anthropology, who have come to conceptualize the individual as existing against an n-dimensional matrix of human variation, with n being a fairly high number, and intelligence being just one of the more important factors of variation. Thus, for example, a high I.Q. is less likely to lead to success if combined with socially-disfavored characteristics (e.g., short physical stature, ill health, obesity, a high neuroticism quotient, and/or low socioeconomic and academic standing) than if it were combined with more socially-favored characteristics. I.Q. will help a person succeed socially, provided the person has other material to work with. I.Q. alone won't turn a convalescing and indigent neurotic nut-case into a socially-productive genius. Thus it is certainly true that I.Q. is not everything; but then, obviously, neither is it unimportant.
Underlying this entire discussion is the ethical assumption that all human beings should be equally-valued and equally-treated by society. However, that does not prevent us from noting that some people are taller or shorter, heavier or lighter, richer or poorer, and that these differences correlate with a number of social factors and outcomes. The same is true for intelligence.
Our society practices a profound and unjustifiable discrimination against its cognitive underclass. At the same time, we allow a cognitive elite to skim the cream of our economy. All of this is terribly unfair. Speaking openly about this injustice will allow us to combat our unfortunate social prejudice.
Deriding the very concept of intelligence,however, accomplishes the opposite (and is hilariously self-indicting).
The Brooklyn cultists are therefore not only wrong, they get in the way of making things better. We can't fight intelligence-based discrimination if we won't admit that intelligence exists.
I would love to read an intelligent critique of the scientific consensus on intelligence, but I can't say I expect one to be forthcoming from people who don't believe in intelligence.