December 30, 1994


There is nobody so irritating as somebody with less intelligence and more sense than we have.

Don Herold

Obviously some people are smarter than others. Smarts range from someone who can barely tie his shoelaces to people whose minds can store, retrieve and integrate vast amounts of information; people who are able to solve complex problems that no one has ever solved before. This range of mental abilities goes by the name of intelligence.

One challenge to psychologists is how do you measure intelligence? The most obvious and valid measure is accomplishment. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Albert Einstein was extremely intelligent. Not only did he make important scientific discoveries, but he was a fairly good violin player, and in a general way, a fine person.

I do not consider the accumulation of wealth as a measure of intelligence although many wealthy people are also highly intelligent. Wealth can also be a consequence of inheritance, luck and/or larceny.

What psychologists have wanted to do is to measure this intelligence before a person accomplished much. It would be a useful thing to be able to predict who is likely to accomplish a great deal before he actually does it. We wouldn't want to waste a lot of time, money and effort educating someone who is not likely to be able to profit from it -or would we? During the draft that accompanied W.W.II the military wanted some means of deciding who to give what kind of training to. They wanted the most intelligent to be the officers and skilled technicians, and the rest to be infantrymen or manual laborers. Psychologists devised a variety of tests for problem solving ability, mechanical aptitudes, ability to do a number of specialized tasks such as those related to learning how to flying an airplane. They were able to guide the military in choosing people in a better manner than picking the names out of a hat. It was actually much better than random, but if you look at the outcome, it was far from perfect.

One result of this search for a way to measure intelligence is the intelligence test, which measured certain kinds of ability such as the ability to solve mathematical and other types of problems. A person's score on this test was termed the "Intelligence Quotient" or IQ. This test is a pretty good predictor of a person's future success in a university -but that is about all that it is a good predictor of. It is not a predictor of success or accomplishment. It does not measure complex social skills, nor does it measure special aptitudes such as those for music or art. There are tests that are useful in predicting other abilities. No test ever devised is infallible. In other words, while the tests are often right, they are also sometimes wrong. It is their failures that clearly shows that we should not put over much reliance on them. That is why medical schools and graduate schools use interviews, past performance and recommendations as well as tests in deciding whom to admit to their schools.

Intelligence tests are highly dependent on background. Someone who is not fluent in English is not likely to do well in a test that is given in English; nor is someone likely to do well in problem solving if he has never dealt with such problems before. In other words, what you are testing is not smarts itself, but smarts combined with past learning and experience.

A range of abilities, from idiot to genius, exists in all cultures. Even in the most primitive societies, there are people who do things in a range from poor to superb. The person who invented the bow and arrow was a genius. Obviously, a person who is at the top of the heap in a culture based on hunting skills is not going to do well on a test designed to measure people in a verbal culture. A genius reared in a primitive culture is not going to do as well on an IQ test as an average person reared in the culture of the test.

Because it is named an "intelligence test" many people really believe that it measures intelligence -which it doesn't. Some people see an IQ score as a badge of superiority and have formed a society of superior people called Mensa, where they get together and tell each other how superior they are. Others have used it as a badge of superiority in order to relegate other people to positions of inferiority, usually on the basis of the melanin content of their skin. Melanin content has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence although it is very important in a person's ability to resist the harmful effects of sunlight. People who use IQ tests in this manner may not be stupid, but they are fools -yes, you can be both intelligent and a fool at the same time. I have known a number of fools with doctorates, and a number of highly intelligent people who not only didn't have doctorates, but had never seen the inside of a school.

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