Sci­ence doesn’t share your DUMB OB­SES­SION with IQ tests

The Nation - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

ost sci­en­tists feel a cer­tain ner­vous­ness when the topic they re­search ap­pears in the news. Over­state­ment is par for the course, mis­un­der­stand­ing a near-in­evitabil­ity. But what could be more cringe-wor­thy than the pres­i­dent of the United States en­gag­ing in a ma­cho con­test with his sec­re­tary of state over the area you re­search?

I am, of course, talk­ing about IQ test­ing: After Rex Tiller­son al­legedly called him a “mo­ron”, Don­ald Trump this week sug­gested that he and Tiller­son “com­pare IQ tests”. Nat­u­rally, Trump could “tell you who is go­ing to win.” This isn’t the first time that the pres­i­dent has spo­ken – and tweeted – about his ap­par­ently sky-high IQ.

It’s hard to deny the grim en­ter­tain­ment value of the lat­est Trump spat. But the idea that an IQ score is just a brag­ging aid for ego­tis­ti­cal politi­cians threat­ens to triv­i­alise a gen­uine field of re­search. It doesn’t help, of course, that

MIQ tests hardly have a good rep­u­ta­tion to be­gin with. Steeped in con­tro­versy, by far the most com­mon re­ac­tion when­ever the topic arises is the oh-so­droll re­frain: “IQ tests only tell you how good you are at do­ing IQ tests!”

Use­ful tool in the right hands

In fact, IQ tests tell us much more than that, as a moun­tain of ev­i­dence from the fields of psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, neu­ro­science, ge­net­ics and epi­demi­ol­ogy at­tests. For in­stance, we know that peo­ple who do bet­ter at IQ tests tend to do bet­ter at school, in work and in terms of their phys­i­cal and men­tal health. On av­er­age, they even live longer – and this doesn’t seem purely due to ed­u­ca­tion or so­cial class. Stud­ies con­tin­u­ally ap­pear in top neu­ro­science jour­nals link­ing MRI mea­sures (such as the over­all vol­ume of the brain) to IQ scores, and some of the first IQ-re­lated ge­netic vari­ants are now be­ing un­cov­ered.

Yet con­tro­versy around IQ tests and scor­ing re­mains. Some of it is due to the fear of im­mutabil­ity, or the worry that a low IQ score is set in stone, doom­ing a per­son to a life of fail­ure and em­bar­rass­ment. But this is mis­placed. First, IQ is only one of a whole con­stel­la­tion of rea­sons, in­clud­ing hard work and sheer chance, why peo­ple get to where they end up in life. And as the writer Scott Alexan­der has re­cently noted, the find­ings dis­cussed above are all av­er­ages and ten­den­cies and trends at the group level: they ab­so­lutely don’t ap­ply to every in­di­vid­ual per­son who gets a par­tic­u­lar score on the test.

Sec­ond, no­body would ar­gue that IQ is strictly bi­o­log­i­cally de­ter­mined: The en­vi­ron­ment still has a cru­cial in­flu­ence. In­deed, sci­en­tists don’t all share the fa­tal­is­tic view of many IQ crit­ics; rather, a great deal of IQ re­search is fo­cused on how we might boost peo­ple’s abil­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, we know that fac­tors like io­dine de­fi­ciency are linked to lower IQ scores (a bril­liant char­ity, the Io­dine Global Net­work, is ded­i­cated to do­ing some­thing about this) and grow­ing ev­i­dence ap­pears to show pos­i­tive ef­fects of ed­u­ca­tion on IQ. Re­search con­tin­ues on whether im­proved phys­i­cal fit­ness, among other in­flu­ences, might help older adults stave off the de­cline of their men­tal abil­i­ties as they age.

An­other rea­son psy­chol­o­gists wince at self-sat­is­fied crow­ing about IQ is that the tests can – in the right hands, and de­spite the im­moral ways they have of­ten been used in the past – serve a use­ful so­cial pur­pose. After all, they were first in­vented to iden­tify chil­dren in need of ex­tra ed­u­ca­tional at­ten­tion, and they can still serve that pur­pose. A ter­rific study from last year also il­lus­trated how IQ tests can level the so­cial play­ing field, find­ing that the use of ob­jec­tive cog­ni­tive tests – as op­posed to re­fer­rals from par­ents and teach­ers, who aren’t al­ways re­li­able at spot­ting tal­ent in cer­tain groups – im­proves rep­re­sen­ta­tion of poor and mi­nor­ity chil­dren in gifted ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes. (The study is “Univer­sal screening in­creases the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of low-in­come and mi­nor­ity stu­dents in gifted ed­u­ca­tion”, by David Carda and Laura Gi­u­liano.)

De­struc­tive point-scor­ing

Treat­ing IQ as a friv­o­lous, pointscor­ing game makes it eas­ier to write off per­fectly se­ri­ous re­search and ig­nore the use­ful information we can get from cog­ni­tive tests. It con­trib­utes to the mis­taken no­tion that, with IQ tests, psy­chol­o­gists are try­ing to sum up the worth of a per­son, rather than de­velop use­ful tools to un­der­stand the mind and iden­tify dif­fer­ent lev­els of abil­ity. Most im­por­tantly, it fails to recog­nise what many sci­en­tists in this field al­ready do: that the mere pos­ses­sion of a high IQ score isn’t what mat­ters.

We don’t ad­mire his­tory’s great sci­en­tists, math­e­ma­ti­cians, com­posers and artists be­cause they were in­tel­li­gent per se; we do so be­cause they used their in­tel­li­gence to pro­duce some­thing worth­while in the world. Those who would bandy around their high IQ as if it in it­self en­ti­tled them to re­spect should take note. –

Spe­cial­toTheWash­ing­tonPost STUARTRITCHIEis­apost­doc­toral fel­lowintheDepart­mentof Psy­chol­o­gy­attheUniver­sity ofEd­in­burgh.

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