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Today we have no big, UN-sanctioned observances. While there have been a few notable births on this day, none of it really caught my fancy. So instead, let’s commemorate the work of Alfred Binet, who died on this day in 1911.

Alfred who?  Well, Alfred Binet was the guy who, together with psychologists Victor Henri and Théodore Simon, developed the Binet-Simon Test – a test for verbal abilities in children. The test was later adapted by Lewis Terman at Stanford University, resulting in the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, published in 1916, which was the most popular intelligence test for decades in the US, and formed the basis of IQ testing over the past century.

Yes, Alfred Binet is the father of the IQ test.

For the past century, IQ testing has been used as a measure of future educational achievement, special needs, job performance and income.
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Mention the concept IQ testing, and you are very likely to get some really strong opinions. Some people (especially those treated favourably by the IQ scale, I guess) probably consider it a pretty accurate measure of their mental superiority. Many, however, seriously question its validity as an absolute measure of intelligence. Even Binet himself felt strongly that his tests had significant limitations, stressing that he saw extreme diversity in intelligence, and felt the result of the tests only had qualitative value, and should not be used as a quantitative measure.

It is exactly this diversity of intelligence that forms the basis of much of the criticism against IQ testing, with detractors insisting that it fails to accurately measure intelligence in its broader sense, pointing to the fact that it is not an adequate measure of creativity and emotional intelligence. It does not even come close to testing physical intelligence (hand-eye coordination, ‘ball sense’, etc).

Some critics go further, not only critisizing the scope of IQ testing, but disputing its validity entirely. Paleantologist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, in his book The Mismeasure of Man (1996), equated the tests to scientific racism, saying “…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.”

The above criticism rings quite true when you read about the early days of intelligence testing at the start of the 20th century. To quote wikipedia, “The eugenics movement in the USA seized on it as a means to give them credibility in diagnosing mental retardation, and thousands of American women, most of them poor African Americans, were forcibly sterilized based on their scores on IQ tests, often without their consent or knowledge.”

Given that, despite the criticisms of IQ testing, these tests have been performed extensively around the world for the past century, there’s obviously a lot of IQ data out there, which has been the source of some very interesting analyses and practices. Here’s some of my favourites:

  • Musical training in childhood has been found to correlate with higher than average IQ. As has listening to classical music (but you have to do your listening directly before the test – apparently it only serves as a 10-15 minute mental boost!). So I guess my years of listening to rock, folk and blues wouldn’t have helped much.
  • IQ has been used quite extensively in human resource evaluations, when hiring new employees etc. What’s interesting is that it’s not only a too low IQ that can count against you. Apparently some US police departments have set a maximum score for new recruits (example: New London, CT has set an upper limit of 125), the argument being that those with higher IQs will become bored to soon, resulting in a too high job turnover.
  • In terms of income, it seems that there is a general correlation between IQ and income up to a certain level of IQ, but there’s no correlation between very high IQ and very high income. Top incomes are dependent on so many factors that IQ doesn’t really feature at all.
  • As far as criminal tendencies are concerned, being very clever or very stupid (in IQ terms) generally speaking seem to keep you from pursuing a life of crime. Most criminals fall in the 70-90 IQ range (i.e slightly below average), with the peak being between 80 and 90. There is, of course, the argument that only the dumb ones get caught, so maybe criminals are much smarter than the statistics suggest.
  • Politically, studies in the UK and USA have found that young adults who classify themselves as very liberal have a higher than average IQ, while those who consider themselves very conservative tends to have slightly below average IQ scores.

There are many more interesting correlations, but let’s leave it there for now. What do you think – do you believe in IQ tests, or do you think its a load of hogwash?

I personally think that the best comment on intelligence comes from Albert Einstein (he really did leave us with the greatest quotes, didn’t he?), when he said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”