Why are IQ tests controversial?

Schools, employers and others have carried out IQ tests for many years, on and off. The old Eleven Plus exams included them. This has always been controversial, especially when people have tried to compare the results of different races or classes. This is because some people have used them to justify discrimination – or worse.  Most recently, a briefly-appointed special adviser to the government had to resign because he had apparently asserted that white people had higher IQ’s than black people.

IQ test results may be unwelcome, but aren’t they scientific?

How scientific are they? Are they really as objective and reliable as people claim? I remember practicing IQ tests before my eleven plus. That is because people knew that you get better with practice. Therefore, such tests cannot be objective measures of your innate intelligence, but some people say that some children did better in them than others right from the start. However, some children might be better at doing tests than others. Is there a specific ability for that?

What do IQ tests measure?

A measure measures what it measures. The real issue is how to decide what you want to measure. There are different elements to intelligence. That is why IQ tests consist of several sections. They try to find your average over several different aspects of intelligence. How do you decide which elements matter most? Are there other sorts of intelligence they don’t include in the tests?

Graphs and magnifying glass - studying IQ?

Graphs and magnifying glass – studying IQ?

What is intelligence?

There are plenty of things you can read on this subject and they don’t all agree. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Logical reasoning
  • Arithmetic
  • Verbal ability
  • Memory
  • Problem-solving – thinking outside the box
  • Creativity
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Manual dexterity

People seem to define intelligence to major on the elements they personally favour. Employers and others need people with the abilities for the job. But that depends on the job. Increasingly, people are looking for creativity and emotional intelligence. I am not surprised that different cultures and subcultures tend to encourage the development of certain abilities more than others. For instance, some cultures value getting something 100% right over 90% but doing it faster. If it works for them, it is hard to say they are wrong. It depends on the situation.

Cartoon man with question mark - pondering IQ?

Cartoon man with question mark – pondering IQ?

What about animal IQ?

When people have tried to measure animal intelligence, they have usually defined it in a way similar to human intelligence. Thus, the animals nearest to us, the apes, have done best. However, when it comes to natural selection, it is the ones most fitted to survival that survive. Intelligence is not the only factor. All the ape species are endangered. They have failed to meet the challenges of the modern World. Rats, on the other hand, need no help from us to survive. Are they more intelligent than chimps?

Am I devaluing IQ?

Not really. I am just saying that we need to be aware of the risk of overvaluing one measure, or group of measures, and ignoring other aspects of intelligence or ability. We need to ask what it is that we need and then how to measure it. Understanding your personal strengths and weaknesses is often helpful, but not if it makes you feel overall superior or inferior to others. I also want us to be careful about making potentially misleading comparisons, especially if based on limited information or dubious assumptions. You may find some help in understanding statistics useful. Try my book How To Avoid Being Misled By Statistics: Don’t Be One Of The 60% Who Are Below Average

How To Avoid Being Misled By Statistics: Don't Be One Of The 60% Who Are Below Average