Every so often some neophyte, convinced that intelligence is undefinable, attempts to debunk the validity of IQ tests. The subject is ripe for upstart freelance journalists who believe the concept is a sham.
A case in point is Stephen Murdoch's IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea. The gist of Murdoch's book is that IQ tests are unreliable measures of mental ability. He challenges the accuracy of their utility as a tool for educational advancement or employment selection. Publishers Weekly describes Murdoch's book as "fast-paced storytelling."
If one knew nothing about the subject and relied on Murdoch's warped tale, the uninformed reader would get the impression that IQ tests were devised to sterilize the inferior, suppress illiterates, stem the flow of nonwhite immigrants, and sort the mentally defective for the Third Reich's Erwachseneneuthanasie [adult euthanasia]program.
Murdoch's position at best is rather equivocal. He says on the one hand "it is untrue… that the IQ test is a measure of innate intelligence." Yet three paragraphs down he claims, "The argument here is not that IQ tests are never useful…. IQ tests can predict, with varying and debated degrees, that higher scorers on average will perform better than low ones in certain settings."
If IQ tests cannot measure "innate" intelligence and are unreliable, how can these tests therefore be useful (even on a limited basis) with predictable results (in certain settings)? An unresolved problem for the author is whether or not IQ tests are really useful regardless of their so-called limited applicability.
Murdoch's thesis rests on common fallacies often attributed to IQ testing and the broader history of psychometrics as a subfield of psychology. For example, using questionable historical inferences, the author makes unreasonable claims about the contemporary state of IQ research based on generalizations from the earliest era of IQ testing. This is comparable to using the standards of a Model-T Ford to evaluate the performance of a Corvette.
The claim that IQ tests were instrumental in restricting immigration and played a major role in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 was refuted by Mark Snyderman and Richard Herrnstein in the American Psychologist. [Intelligence tests and the Immigration Act of 1924, American Psychologist 38 (1983): 986-995.] In their informative book The IQ Controversy, Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman point out, "An examination of the relevant legislative history reveals that the Act would have been passed had the testing data never existed."
Critiques of IQ testing are nothing new. They have been around since the early 1900s during the pioneering period of intelligence testing. However, the flippant nature of more recent criticism in the post-Bell Curve era reveals the ideological fanaticism behind these egalitarian critics. Murdoch dwells on irrelevant straw-man fallacies and yet skillfully avoids any sustained analysis of valid contemporary findings from recent trends in IQ research. The field of psychometrics has moved way beyond Goddard's assessment of "feeblemindedness" from the early 1900s.
Murdoch's book reveals a great deal about not only the mindset of freelance journalists but also about the influential reporters and editors of the Fourth Estate. Much is made of the liberal tilt of the media elite, but the underlying nature of this well-documented bias is an entrenched radical egalitarianism among the upper echelons of broadcast and print media. Aggregated test scores over several decades indicate that average group differences (race, social class, or sex) are not superficial constructs of the tests; rather, they reflect latent differences in mental ability.
Radical egalitarians find these results disturbing because, in their view, something other than discrimination plausibly accounts for racial inequalities. The persistence of racial disparities across a vast array of socioeconomic indicators is usually blamed on discrimination, society-at-large, or the lingering aspects of slavery.
In a review of the late Stephen Jay Gould's revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man, Frank L. Schmidt, an award-winning psychologist and one of the foremost authorities on the utility of IQ tests in personnel selection, dismissed Gould's book as "not really a serious book" and described it as "merely a [Marxist] polemic."
Schmidt then pondered the question why, after so many qualified experts discovered "so many errors in excruciating detail," Gould's book was taken seriously by so many people and sold so well. His answer:
"I think the reason is that it panders to what people want to believe. No one wants to believe that there are real important individual and group differences in general intelligence. That makes people uncomfortable…. It is threatening to our hopes and beliefs. This same process explains the popular appeal of Howard Gardner's theory of 'multiple intelligences' and Dan Goleman's concept of "emotional intelligence." We want to believe that there is no one single intelligence; we want to believe there are many different kinds of intelligence. Unfortunately this is just not true."
Similarly, Murdoch and other egalitarian polemicists want to believe there is no one single intelligence, that mental ability does not vary between individuals and groups, that intelligence cannot be measured, and that assessing differences in intelligence is a frivolous exercise. After dissecting the hollow rhetoric, slipshod analysis, flawed anecdotes, and falsehoods presented as fact, such a case has yet to be made by Murdoch or anyone else.
What is truly scandalous about Murdoch's book is that the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., in the mid-1990s rejected the manuscript of Arthur R. Jensen's landmark study, The g Factor (arguably the most exhaustive analysis of general mental ability published to date), over the recommendation of their book editor who reviewed Jensen's manuscript.
Wiley's Manager of Corporate Communications Susan Spilka disclosed in an interview with the author that Wiley's "rejection of Professor Jensen's book was a 'very deliberate decision' since Wiley does 'not want to publish in this field.'"
It appears that the publisher has reversed course and is perfectly willing to publish a nonscientific, polemical diatribe in the pseudoscientific field of IQ criticism.
Copyright (c) The Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.
Kevin Lamb (email him) is a former library assistant for Newsweek and managing editor of Human Events. He was also assistant editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, which involved no contact with Novak.