The Pseudoscience of “Intelligence” Testing

It seems that the theme of intellectual inferiority along racial lines has gained renewed public attention in the past month with the Watson debacle and then, as if in his defense, the online magazine Slate’s 3-part series “Created Equal” by William Saletan appeared shortly afterward. I won’t revisit Saletan’s argument in detail here, but will point you in the direction of Daniel Koffler’s excellent vivisection of the piece. A key point of Koffler’s is this:

the principal study on which Saletan rests his case is a two-year old paper by J. Phillippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen.

To put this as fairly as it can be put: Rushton and Jensen are anything but a new wave of scholars come to shed light on a heretofore intractable problem, as Saletan presents them. On the contrary, they have spent nearly a century combined harping on the same theme again and again, in paper after paper, and that theme is black racial inferiority. (Care for a taste of just how old-fashioned they are? They group human beings into a tripartite classificatory scheme of “Caucasoids,” “Mongoloids,” and “Negroids.” It’s in the 2005 paper, and it’s roughly as credible as the Shem/Ham/Japheth theory of race.)

Koffler is correct in his assessment of this literature, and the theme of racial intellectual inferiority is one that goes back decades in the United States. Earlier in the twentieth century, this theme was applied (by white analysts from northern Europe) to white immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who were considered to be very inferior in intelligence to native-born Americans of northern European descent. However, in the past few decades the focus has been on black Americans and other Americans of color. For example, Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrnstein, along with a handful of other white social scientists, have alleged that differences in “intelligence test” (IQ) scores are not determined primarily by environmental factors such as education, socialization, racial discrimination, and socioeconomic circumstances, but reflect genetic differences between black and white groups. These arguments will not die, because of the great white interest in perpetuating them. Such “scientists” argue that differences in “intelligence” can be reliably and accurately measured by relatively brief paper-and-pencil and object (or symbol) manipulation tests that are inaccurately labeled “IQ tests.” Groups with low social status or income are argued to be, on the average, intellectually and genetically inferior to groups with greater status and income levels simply because the former average lower scores on these relatively brief tests. These academics and associated conservative writers argue that poor and rich Americans, or black and white Americans, have such different types of intelligence that they require different educational techniques. They also express concern about high black birthrates, which they believe lower the national intelligence. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s best-selling book The Bell Curve, published in 1994, argued for the discredited theory that there are significant genetically determined differences in intelligence between black Americans and white Americans. (They also explicitly discard the idea of democracy in the process of their argument, revealing their true biases. They fear ordinary people, especially those of color.)

Although the reactionary views of Jensen, Herrnstein, and Murray have been successfully refuted by many social scientists—especially their denial of environmental effects on test results—their notions about intelligence have spread to analysts and politicians around the globe. In 1971, Patrick Buchanan, then an adviser to president Richard Nixon who later became a Republican presidential candidate and television talk show pundit, picked up on Herrnstein’s arguments. In a memo to Nixon, Buchanan alleged that “every study” showed black groups had lower IQs than white groups and that Herrnstein’s views about race and IQ provided “an intellectual basis” for considering cuts in certain government programs.

In the 1930s a number of social psychologists began seriously questioning whether IQ test results could be used as evidence of genetically determined differentials. They showed how white–black differences in IQ test scores reflected major differences in education, income, and other living conditions. Numerous studies showed that test scores of black children improved with better economic and educational environments. Results from large-scale IQ testing revealed that black children and adults in some northern states scored higher than whites in some southern states. Using the logic of Jensen, Herrnstein, and Murray, one would be forced to conclude that white southerners were mentally and “racially” inferior to black Northerners. (See data gathered by Otto Klinberg as cited in I. A. Newby, Challenge to the Court (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), p. 74. See also Thomas F. Pettigrew, A Profile of the Negro American(Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1964), pp. 123-126.). Most such white analysts would doubtless avoid this interpretation; obviously they, as defenders of a theory of black IQ inferiority, do not wish to argue that data on IQ might actually show black intellectual superiority. Rather, they would accept an environmental explanation for uncomplimentary regional IQ-score differentials for whites. Not surprisingly, thus, testing differentials favoring whites are also most reasonably interpreted as reflecting environmental conditions such as family income and quality of schooling, not genetic factors.

Some analysts have focused on the cultural bias—specifically, the white middle-class bias—inherent in traditional achievement and other psychometric tests (including IQ, SAT, and GRE tests), which measure only certain types of learned skills and certain acquired knowledge—skills and knowledge that are not equally available to all racial and ethnic groups because of centuries of discrimination and, thus, of low family incomes and lesser quality educational facilities. Social scientists have also found that advanced skills in achievement-test taking itself are skills that white middle-class children are more likely to possess because they and their parents have access to more substantial learning resources and are typically more familiar and experienced with such paper-and-pencil testing.

The most fundamental problem for those who insist on racial differences is the equation of these relatively brief tests’ results with general intelligence. From the beginning, the so-called intelligence (IQ) tests have been intentionally misnamed. These tests measure only selected verbal, mathematical, or manipulative skills. Clearly, they do not measure well many aspects of human abilities, such as much human creativity and imagination. They do not measure musical, artistic, farming, fishing, and many other skills that reflect human intelligence. They penalize those who do not spend their lives enmeshed in the culture of the test makers. Intelligence is much broader than what relatively short paper-and-pencil or symbol-manipulation tests can measure. Intelligence is more accurately defined as a complex ability to deal creatively with one’s environment, whatever that environment may be. At best, only a very small portion of human intellectual ability can be revealed on any short test. Given this problem of what social scientists call the “validity” of a measure, the modest and brief “intelligence” tests by no means reveal what the defenders of racial inequality claim that they do.


  1. James T. Smith

    No one claims IQ tests measures every aspect of human ability, and while you may wish to redefine the meaning of the word intelligence to mean skill at fishing, that isn’t what normal people think of when they think of intelligence. And if you really want to use this broad definition, stop complaining about the lack of women and certain minorities in fields dependent on the narrower definition of intelligence.

  2. Joe Author

    Smith makes several problematical claims here.

    I document my main claims in my Racial and Ethnic textbook (Feagin and Feagin) pages from which this comment was adapted. Check it out.

    So-called “IQ” tests are actually “skills” tests, that is easy to demonstrate. It was a clever slight of hand when advocates shifted the term from skills tests (like tests of vocabulary and middle class life, key features of “IQ” tests ) to so-called “IQ” tests in order to make, historically, their classist and racist arguments.

    And who are “normal” people? Do you mean those who cannot see the difference between word (etc) skills tests and “IQ” tests?

    And who was it that decided that brief tests of only certain human skills can measure something as broad as human intelligence? Actually, elite white men did …… And we white men make up only about 10 percent of the folks on planet earth. Who gave us that right to decide?

  3. James T. Smith

    IQ tests aren’t “actually skills tests”. Why are you discussing this subject if you don’t even know that?

    The normal people are the vast majority of people who don’t have trouble understanding the common usage of words like “normal” and “intelligent”. Normal people don’t say “she’s really intelligent” when they mean “she’s really good at fishing.”

  4. Will

    Smith, you still did not address the claim of racism, classism against the revered IQ test or why it is that white people got to create the test to begin with. I would worry more about these questions and reevaluate fishing at a later date.

  5. JM

    Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” is a must read on this topic . . . he traces the history of so-called IQ testing, starting at the beginning – with craniometry. His point is despite our beliefs that hard science is an objective endeavor, it is ALWAYS a social product, even when we make our best attempts to control for our own influence. His research is unbelieveably documented, and traces the entire creation of “IQ-testing” is to uphold racism and other forms of structural inequality.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    Smith, you should try to catch a wild salmon sometime–on your own, with out consulting locals (many or most of whom have no college education) during any season–take your pick… 🙂

  7. James T. Smith

    Joe, I did not address your points about “racism” and “classism” because it’s futile. You think IQ tests are biased because they were invented by white men. Fine. So was math, and just like IQ there is a black-white gap in math performance. So should we reject the usefulness and validity of math?

    JM, while Mismeasure of Man (unsurprisingly) recevied glowing reviews in the popular press, reviews in academic journals were severely critical. In the journal Nature, for example, Steven Blinkhom of the Neuropsychology Laboratory at Stanford University observed, “the substantive discussion of the theory of intelligence stops at the stage it was in more than a quarter of a century ago” and that Gould “has nothing to say which is both accurate and at issue when it comes to substantive or methodological points.”

    I have no idea what Seattle in Texas point is, but as a child I was an able fisherman, or as Joe would put it “a boy genius”.

  8. P6

    Standardized tests, like IQ tests, judge conformance with some standard. That’s a
    general rule with universal application. The standard here is white
    men. And the standard will change as it becomes necessary.

    Why must IQ tests be routinely restandardized?

    Because populations experience IQ gains over time, IQ tests must be constantly restandardized so that subjects are not scored against inaccurate norms. Using obsolete IQ norms can cause problems especially when comparing scores between different groups and populations. Flynn documents an example where scores from a group of Chinese Americans were being compared to an earlier generation of white Americans. This simple mistake caused the researchers to believe that they were working with “an elite IQ group” when in actuality they were working with a group of high achievers with comparable IQs to their peers (Flynn, 1991).

    In another case documented by Flynn, IQ scores were compared against obsolete norms to incorrectly show large increases in IQ between children adopted into “good” homes and their biological mothers (Flynn, 1984).

    A widely held hypothesis is that people lose fluid intelligence as they age. This phenomena is caused by comparing the IQ tests of elderly people with today’s young people. However, when compared to the IQ scores of youth in their own era (a half a century before) the IQ losses with age are minimal (Raven, 1992, pp. G22-G26). In a final example, Flynn explains that the WISC, an intelligence test used widely in the United States, was not restandardized for 25 years between 1947 and 1972. This comparison of IQ scores to obsolete norms caused the number of children who were officially classified as mentally retarded to drop from 8.8 million in 1947 to 2.6 million in 1972 (Flynn, 1985).

    Anote of caution: The Flynn Effect illustrates the difficulty of comparing test results over time, but it says little about the validity of the tests within a given time period (Flynn talks about the validity “within generations”).

    What this means is I.Q. tests are testing something different now than when they were originally implemented. The confusion is because we are calling it the same thing. And because it is restandardized against the skills the mainstream finds valuable (and which receive short shrift in minority school districts) Black folks will ALWAYS come up short on standardized tests.

    This is why I could care less about “the I.Q. gap.” Give me the knowledge, that’s all.

  9. Will

    First of all you never said anything about the major contributors being white, and that site says nothing regarding who “invented” math. You always looked at math from a academic perspective, seeing as the university system is a European creation which is racist. Also there is no mention of who created the list or what their background is. While “math” as you describe is not inherently racist I cannot say with any degree of certainty that the list you provided is not.

  10. P6

    If you look at the history of mathematics it’s major contributors have been white:

    Because minorities have always been excluded from the institutions and support systems that allow such cloistered activities. Or do you really think Albert Einstein could have developed the Theory of General Relativity if he was a refused entry to college and worked as a janitor?

  11. JM

    The fact of the matter is that IQ, like any other trait, varies as much within a group (e.g., looking at a single “race” – “whites” for examples) as it does between races (e.g., when we compare “whites” and “blacks”). So while we might debate that people are born with an “innate” (and as a sociologist I hesitate to use this word) range of intelligence (or any other trait), our social context will do much to influence where we will “end up” on this range. To note just one, but highly significant issue, the resource disparities in many inner city and rural schools are severe – this is a well-documented fact – and it is insincere, at best, to act as if this doesn’t make a difference in the outcomes we see on measures like math gaps, IQ gaps, you name it. Why, for example, in charter schools designed to reinforce, rather than attack, the sense of self of students of color, along with giving them the great education that all young people deserve, do we see such markedly higher achievement? The truth is many poor people and people of color are severely undereducated in “book” smarts – sadly, whites are undereducated in the truth of systemic racial inequality, ideology and hegemony. Sadly for the rest of the world, and to the advantage of whites, they rarely pay a “cost” for this kind of “undereducation.”

  12. P6

    Einstein developed the theory of relativity while working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office.

    I know. Did he have a college degree? Had he any formal mathematical training? Could he have done so without the formal training?

    Make you uncomfortable?

    Then how about Mayan mathematics? A system as powerful as any Europe developed on the back of Egypt, developed in isolation from Europe. If the society hadn’t been wiped out by the illnesses European invaders brought with them, who knows how far it would have reached?

    Only the most provincial of people would claim white people invented mathematics.

  13. James T. Smith

    “Make you uncomfortable?”

    No, why would it?

    “A system as powerful as any Europe developed on the back of Egypt”

    Are you saying Mayan mathematics was based on Egyptian mathematics?

    “If the society hadn’t been wiped out by the illnesses European invaders brought with them, who knows how far it would have reached?”

    The Mayans peaked and were on the decline well before the Spaniards arrived to brutalize them. Look up “Maya collapse”.

  14. James T. Smith

    I can read, the problem is your writing. You said: “Then how about Mayan mathematics? A system as powerful as any Europe developed on the back of Egypt”

    I don’t know what that is supposed to mean.

    “even Einstein couldn’t have done his work under the conditions Black people endured”

    What conditions? Blacks had access to higher education during the time Einstein was working as a patent clerk.

  15. Will

    I gotta say I’m with P6 on this one. Einstein did most of his work during the first half of the 20th century. There were very few black academics at the time and those that were around had to learn to think white in order to get through (I know there were exceptions and some great ones). With that said Einstein was able to complete his work because his racial and class background allowed him the training and time necessary to complete suck work.

  16. Jz123

    There is no set definition to intelligence. Europeans have monopolized the concept of IQ. The high IQ elite have no good reason to refute it’s validity (they get through the system with it). Yes, there are other protocols that can be designed to measure intelligence, but it would mean that more whites would give up their intellectual status to foreigners. ‘Real world’ problem solving ability correlates vaugley with IQ (especially up to early adulthood). Creativity, correlates vaguely with IQ. These are two things that intuitively SHOULD correlate with high intelligence (but no body cares – everyone just wants to be smart). IQ tests are not only biased, they are dangerous tools. Psycho-warfare is used to supress intellectual efforts motivated, deep, cultured, emotionally stable, and domain gifted individuals of lower IQ. IQ is Barbaric tool of Western civilization.

  17. Jz123

    Here is something to think about

    An absolute, universal, definition of intelligence does not, and CAN NOT, exist: I recall that there was some controvesy a while back over who deserves the title of “the world’s fastest man”. It was interesting because some felt that the 1 mile champion should deserve it, while others thought the title should be reserved for the 100m dash athletes. Similarly, with regards to intelligence, what protocol should we used? If it’s problem solving were interested in measuring, should ‘intelligence’ be defined as the sum of problems capable of being solved right now, should it be the rarity of being able to solve X amount of problems, right now that Y percentage of the population can solve (Was Albert Einstein the smartest man in the world, not because his IQ was highest, but because he could derive solutions to a relative handful of problems that NOBODY in the world, at that time, could do?) Maybe it should be the sum of problems solved for a person’s age. Maybe it should be the hardest problems solved through a lifetime. Should problem solving be defined as discovering algorthims to problems without known solutions, or just regurgitating pre-existing methods on demand. Should we count enviornmental effects, or should we just disregard it. Is chance important (Was Isaac Newton’s ‘high intelligence’ largely due the fact that he just happened to be hit by a falling apple while resting under a tree?)


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