Friday, September 16, 2011


Phyllis May Ellis-Jones (1922-1981)
to whom this post is dedicated in loving memory

I don’t know what my IQ is these days, and I don’t really care. I am sure it has gone down over the years [see note 1 below], but, as I say, I don’t really care.

Here's a secret. I don’t care who knows this. Back in 1964, when I was in the fourth grade at Gordon West Public School the then headmaster of that school, Mr Kenneth MacKinnon – who is deceased so I can’t legally defame him (sorry, sir) – told my mother [pictured above] (so she told me, some 8 years later) that, based on the results of one or more IQ tests which I had sat that past year or so, I was not ‘high school material.’ Here’s a school photo from that year. I’m in the second front row, fifth from the left, looking very awkward (which I was).

I 'm so glad my mother didn't tell me what the headmaster had said, because I'm sure that if I had known that supposedly I was not ‘high school material’ it would have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I do remember that my mother bought some books written by that controversial man Hans Eysenck (pictured left) which contained several IQ tests and for a couple of years at least my mother made me do IQ tests at home with a view to ‘improving’ (that is, elevating) my IQ. Not surprisingly, my score did go ‘up,’ even if it was artificially inflated. Fortunately, even my mother soon realized that all this ‘IQ stuff’ was not that important after all. Bless you, Mum.

At the end of 1972 I was Dux (in Humanities) of Knox Grammar School. After I had been told by the then headmaster of Knox, Dr Ian Paterson AM, that I was Dux, it was then that my mother told me about the 1964 ‘prophecy.’ On that very same day, we just happened to bump into the wife of the (now former) Gordon West headmaster at the local shops. My mother could not help herself. Embarrassingly (for me), she insisted on telling the headmaster’s wife of my recent success, and advised the poor woman to tell her husband not to say ‘that sort of thing’ to others. The headmaster’s wife simply said, ‘IQ tests are generally right.’ (Really? I am not at all certain that's the case, and I wasn't then, even in 1972, when there was already a strong backlash against IQ testing.)

What can I tell you about my mother? Shortly after her death in November 1981, I wrote these words:

'She was a very loving woman – vivacious, outgoing, friendly, sometimes outspoken but always caring. She watched over me with unflagging devotion. Over-protective, perhaps, but I didn’t care; as a boy and young man she was the one big love of my life. She thought only of what was best for my father and me. The sacrifices she made were enormous. She died too soon.'

In 1973 I started Arts-Law at the University of Sydney and in the years that followed I was awarded two bachelor degrees, a masters and a doctorate as well as some diplomas, certificates and other miscellaneous ‘pieces of paper.’ None of that is important. None of that means I am intelligent. I simply mention it in light of what Mr MacKinnon had told my mother way back in 1964.

Now, back to this business of IQ tests. Most people know that a polygraph (so-called 'lie detector') does not really measure whether a person is lying. It simply measures and records various physiological responses from or on the basis of which an inference – safe or unsafe – can be drawn as to the presence or otherwise of lying or deception. (I'm appalled at the wide use of polygraphs in the United States, and I am grateful that they are banned in Australian courts of law. For that and other reasons I think we have a much better system of law and justice in this country, even though it is by no means perfect.)

Well, measuring so-called intelligence is not at all dissimilar to measuring so-called lying or deception. There is now a considerable body of scholarly material attesting to the fact that IQ tests – in particular, the long-venerated and seemingly respectable Stanford-Binet tests – do not measure 'intelligence' as such. IQ tests are supposed to measure, yes, intelligence but, at the risk of stating the obvious, before you can measure something you must first know what exactly you are measuring. The problem with IQ tests---well, one of many problems with them---is that the term intelligence has never been defined adequately, with the result that no one knows exactly what an IQ test is actually measuring. To put it bluntly, perhaps too bluntly, IQ tests measure one’s ability to do ... IQ tests. Yes, IQ tests. In the very early days of IQ testing, the American writer, reporter and political commentator Walter Lippmann said it all when he wrote, 'We cannot measure intelligence when we have not defined it.'

Perhaps more fairly, IQ tests, at their best, measure a certain kind of knowledge (yes, knowledge, of the kind learnt in school) and what is known as abstract problem-solving ability, that is,  the ability to solve problems that are context free (i.e. not verbal or numerical in nature). That’s about the extent of it, despite apologists for IQ asserting that standard tests (eg Stanford-Binet) measure such skills as verbal reasoning, abstract/visual, quantitative, and short-term memory, which to  a limited extent they do, but almost entirely under the umbrella of an all-too-often culture-bound learned (as opposed to intuitive) knowledge.

However, the question of intelligence is even more complicated than that. We now know that there are multiple types of intelligence. IQ tests are misleading because they do not accurately reflect intelligence. In fact, a minimum of three different exams are now said to be needed to measure someone's overall intelligence because there are at least three components that affect overall performance (viz short-term memory, reasoning and verbal recall). In that regard, we now know that different circuits within the brain are used for different thought processes. 

Lifestyle factors are also very important. For example, gamers -- or people who play a lot of computer games -- score higher on tests of reasoning and short-term memory. Smokers do poorly on tests assessing short-term memory and vocabulary, while test takers who have anxiety don't do as well on short-term memory tests.

What it all gets down to is this – IQ tests assume that intelligence is the ability to comprehend quickly, but is such ability the measure and determinant of intelligence or simply the result or by-product of intelligence? In any event, why should the ability to comprehend quickly be determinative of the matter? I know of no cosmic law to that effect.

Erstwhile friend Allan B, eat your heart out. Despite your assertions to the contrary, there is now a considerable body of peer-reviewed, statistical longitudinal material which debunks the old assertion that there was supposedly a direct and causal correlation between high IQ and career and socio-economic success. Clearly, IQ---whatever it is or isn't a measurement of---is not totally unimportant, but it is only one factor ... and not one of the more important ones at that. So, as Richard Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear. The studies on IQ simply do not demonstrate unequivocally that what is being measured by the tests is the reason---that is, the cause---for the apparent greater success in the workplace and job market of higher-IQ children. Correlation does not imply causation.

We all know that there are a number of different ‘kinds’ of intelligence including emotional intelligence and social intelligence. IQ tests do not measure those kinds of intelligence, and it is those sorts of intelligence which are perhaps the most important. Another thing IQ tests cannot and do not measure is ... effort. 'Effort quotient' (EQ) is perhaps more important than so-called intelligence quotient (IQ).

For those who are interested in the many shortcomings of IQ tests, Stephen Murdoch has written a wonderful book entitled IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea.

True intelligence, as that great spiritual figure J. Krishnamurti often pointed out, is not the same thing as intellect. Intelligence means living naturally and spontaneously. In the words of K, ‘To be integrally intelligent means to be without the self.’ He would also say, ‘The moment you come to a conclusion as to what intelligence is, you cease to be intelligent.’ I like that. It’s delightfully iconoclastic and, as K would also say, ‘an intelligent mind is a mind which is not satisfied with explanations, with conclusions; nor is it a mind that believes, because belief is again another form of conclusion. An intelligent mind is an inquiring mind, a mind that is watching, learning, studying.’
Intelligence may be elusive and even indefinable but it is possible to say what it is not. For example, intelligence is not book knowledge, and sadly traditional IQ tests do test to a considerable degree the type of knowledge gained as a result of school tuition. True intelligence is not the product of thought, for as K would say, if that were the case then intelligence would be entirely ‘mechanical’.
To those who have been told they are not intelligent or will not succeed, never despair. Refuse to accept any intimations to that effect. Understand yourself. Then you will understand others better. Live mindfully, one day at a time, and from one moment to the next. Live in choiceless awareness of what is. Live, so far as is possible, in harmony with others ... and forget about acquiring ‘intelligence.’ Forget about IQ and pay absolutely no attention to anyone who tells you IQ is important. If you can do what I have just said, you will be – indeed you are – an intelligent and successful human being ... regardless of whether you’re a lawyer, a plumber, a prostitute or simply unemployed.
Here's some more wisdom from Krishnamurti:

‘So intelligence comes into being with the understanding of yourself; and you can understand yourself only in relation to the world of people, things and ideas. Intelligence is not something that you can acquire, like learning; it arises with great revolt, that is, when there is no fear - which means, really, when there is a sense of love. For when there is no fear, there is love.’

Intelligence and love connected? Yes. If you are in any doubt about that, please read The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence by German neurobiologist and brain researcher Gerald Hüther which points to laboratory research as providing support for the view that love, compassion and empathy actually make us 'smarter.'

Ha! There's no need to 'improve' one's IQ scores ... as if I didn't already know.

Note 1.

Fluid intelligence (the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge) tends to decrease with time, starting in either one's 20s or 30s whereas crystallized intelligence (the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience) is fairly stable over time. There is, however, disagreement over when the decline begins, however. Some researchers have found that certain aspects of intelligence start declining in one’s mid-teens while others start to decline in one’s 20s even though some measures like working memory can still improve in one's 20s. However, there seems to be a general consensus that it's pretty much downhill from one’s 30s. Great news.

Note 2. Since I first wrote this post I have become aware of research---the largest single study into human cognition to date---that confirms that IQ tests are fundamentally flawed, as is the notion that human intelligence can be measured by IQ tests alone. 


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