In recent days the US Secretary of State has called the US president a “f**king moron”. The President retorted that he believes he has the higher IQ score. But both are hiding behind faulty intelligence measures instead of saying how they really feel.
Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images
First, a not-so-fun fact about morons: this term, along with idiot and imbecile, was once a technical term for people with cognitive disabilities. In the early 1900s, anybody with an IQ under 30, for example, was labelled an idiot.
If you had Down’s syndrome, you were (I am not making this up) a “Mongolian idiot.” Psychologist Henry Goddard coined the term moron to be more specific about people in what you might think of as Forrest Gump’s IQ range.
These words are all obsolete as medical terms today, and they should probably be retired as insults too.
But what if we just stick with IQ scores? Is it fair to prove your intelligence by dueling with pencils and paper?
Yes, if you only care about intelligence in its definition as “what intelligence tests measure”. But even though these tests are supposed to capture some kind of innate smartness, they don’t reveal an absolute truth about your inner self. “Your” IQ can change over time and with education.
IQ tests can also carry racial and class biases that mean some test-takers score lower than others because the test was written with a certain type of person in mind. Intelligence test makers are constantly trying to make their tests better and more fair, but there’s a major problem: no matter how the test works, it’s trying to boil down all of “intelligence” to a single number.
A high IQ doesn’t mean you’ll make better decisions, or learn things faster, or be more successful in school or in life. So in that sense it doesn’t matter what your IQ “really” is.
Well, sometimes it does. Here’s one chilling explanation I found on Quora, from psychologist Julie Gurner:
As someone who has given [intelligence tests], they are not (as you say) “bullshit.” Here’s why:
1. They often determine when a child/adult is eligible to receive disability benefits or assistance. (down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities)
2. They can determine learning disorders to help children/adults get the assistance they need to function more effectively.
3. They determine who is able to be executed (in America)
4. They are able to help individuals after brain injuries to determine where their areas of weakness are and what has been affected – particularly if we have a baseline…so it can help determine specific areas of rehab.
But, I am talking about real Wechsler IQ tests…not the crap you find on the internet.
Those are some very real results based on how we interpret the arguably fake quality of IQ. Here’s another take from psychologist W. Joel Schneider, who told Scientific American:
IQ is an imperfect predictor of many outcomes. A person who scores very low on a competently administered IQ test is likely to struggle in many domains. However, an IQ score will miss the mark in many individuals, in both directions.
Should we be angry at the IQ test when it misses the mark? No. All psychological measures are rubber rulers. It is in their nature to miss the mark from time to time. If the score was wrong because of incompetence, we should be angry at incompetent test administrators. We should be angry at institutions that use IQ tests to justify oppression.
However, if the grossly incorrect test score was obtained by a competent, caring, and conscientious clinician, we have to accept that there are limits to what can be known. Competent, caring, and conscientious clinicians understand these limits and factor their uncertainty into their interpretations and into any decisions based on these interpretations.
If an institution uses test scores to make high-stakes decisions, the institution should have mechanisms in place to identify its mistakes (e.g., occasional re-evaluations).
Hear that? Maybe we shouldn’t put blind trust into IQ scores for high-stakes decisions. Like, perhaps, deciding who is the best person to negotiate us out of a nuclear war.