Table of Contents
2. The Beginnings of Mental Measurement
3. The Recent (Mis)use of IQ Tests
The search for a generally accepted definition of intelligence has been dividing the academic world for a long time (Legg & Hutter 2007: 1), but this tension has not stopped scholars from various attempts to measure intelligence. This paper focuses principally on the most widely accepted test: that which measures the intelligence quotient, or IQ.
Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve : Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, published in 1994, attracted a lot of public attention. In response to this research, many people drew the conclusion that the measurement of IQ is a highly accurate method. In addition, it was thought that IQ is to a great extent hereditary and therefore little affected by environmental elements, and that racial differences in IQ can also be explained with genetics (Nisbett 2013: 10). Hence, the book was responsible for a heated debate, as it creates a scenario in which 'belonging' to a socio-economic class is an innate attribute.
To begin with, this paper examines the beginnings of mental measurement. This part portrays the development from the primary intention to the actual usage of the tests. As a second step I will portray the danger of misinterpreting the results of IQ tests using the relatively recent example of The Bell Curve. This part presents and also challenges the many rushed conclusions of the controversial book. Lastly the paper ends with an assessment of whether IQ tests have been used reasonably or improperly throughout history.
2. The Beginnings of Mental Measurement
As mentioned, the definition of intelligence has been and still is a divisive question among academics. There are rather general and also very specific explanations for this term and even though the attempts to explain intelligence overlap in many ways, no standard definition has been reached (Legg & Hutter 2007: 1). The comparison of various explanations reveals that intelligence is often seen as an ability or a composite of several abilities that are responsible for the process of learning, understanding, thinking, adapting to an environment and advancing within a particular culture (Legg & Hutter 2007: 8). Especially the last aspect reveals that, depending on cultural setting, the understanding of intelligence might tremendously differ. Apart from that, some researchers take the position that there are various kinds of intelligence. The most popular example is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, such as musical, visual, or interpersonal (Nisbett 2013: 11). However, IQ tests also examine two different types of intelligence, namely: crystallized and fluid. Whereas “[c]rystallized intelligence refers to the individual’s store of knowledge about the nature of the world” (Nisbett 2013: 11), “[f]luid intelligence consists of the ability to solve novel problems that depend relatively little on stored knowledge” (Nisbett 2013: 12).
For centuries people have believed that innate physical differences were responsible for the differences in abilities among human beings. In the ancient world the idea came into existence that rulers descended from a superior race. In European folk-tales, blood was considered to be the reason for differences in character. The revolutions in France and America were supposed to fight the social inequalities and promoted equality for all men (Schiff & Lewontin 1986: 3). Nonetheless, social inequality persists until today and there are two very different attempts to explain this condition. One argumentation blames a disadvantageous environment for the situation, such as poor access to education, prejudices or bad luck. Moreover, this condition is thought to be self-perpetuating within families and can thus be regarded as a vicious circle. According to this approach, the origin of social inequality comes from the fact that our society does not actually promote equality among every person. The opposite explanation is convinced that the current society is devoted to equality and that differing levels of power and wealth are due to internal differences. This theory claims that inborn differences do not only appear among individuals, but also among entire classes, races and sexes. Back in the nineteenth century this position was widely accepted in science and as the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994 illustrates, this mindset is not extinct (Schiff & Lewontin 1986: 4-5).
Despite the incapability of defining intelligence, researchers developed numerous methods in order to measure IQ. It stands to reason that supporters of the latter theory have tried to prove their position by means of these tests. However, the history of mental assessment started with a completely different intention. In the early years of the twentieth century Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon tested children with regard to their mental performance. They were hoping to recognize the weaker pupils, so that teachers could focus on them and bring them on the same level as their classmates. Only a few years later these tests were applied for the first time in the USA, but this time their use no longer intended to spot and support those pupils. Instead, they became a device in order to tag weak learners as people that could not be taught, as their brains were supposedly of lower quality. Shortly after, mental testing established itself as a mass practice in America, as it was applied to a multitude of men in the context of male conscription and to millions of immigrants that entered the United States (Schiff & Lewontin 1986: 8-9). The amount of data that was collected during this mental testing movement was sufficient in order to be representative and thus, the analysis of this data gained increasing attention from the academic world. Soon after, the results were used as a proof for the inferiority of certain ethnic groups to others. For example, most of the immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe and generally they were poor and illiterate in English. These people were considered mentally inferior and the test results quickly served as a strong argument for the truth of this prejudice. Opponents of this position pointed out that the tests did not consider linguistic skills and culture, and that the results were markedly improved amongst those who had lived longer in the U.S, due to acculturation and English literacy. However, these arguments received relatively little attention and could not stop the expanding misuse of mental assessment. Even policymakers were strongly influenced by these findings and immediately limited the number of immigrants (Schiff & Lewontin 1986: 9).