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.